Winner of the Forward Prize for Best Collection
“[Smith's] poems are enriched to the point of volatility, but they pay out, often, in sudden joy.”—The New Yorker
Award-winning poet Danez Smith is a groundbreaking force, celebrated for deft lyrics, urgent subjects, and performative power. Don’t Call Us Dead opens with a heartrending sequence that imagines an afterlife for black men shot by police, a place where suspicion, violence, and grief are forgotten and replaced with the safety, love, and longevity they deserved here on earth. Smith turns then to desire, mortality—the dangers experienced in skin and body and blood—and a diagnosis of HIV positive. “Some of us are killed / in pieces,” Smith writes, “some of us all at once.” Don’t Call Us Dead is an astonishing and ambitious collection, one that confronts, praises, and rebukes America—“Dear White America”—where every day is too often a funeral and not often enough a miracle.
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somewhere, a sun. below, boys brown as rye play the dozens & ball, jump
in the air & stay there. boys become new moons, gum-dark on all sides, beg bruise
-blue water to fly, at least tide, at least spit back a father or two. i won't get started.
history is what it is. it knows what it did.
color of a July well spent. but here, not earth not heaven, we can't recall our white shirts
turned ruby gowns. here, there's no language for officer or law, no color to call white.
if snow fell, it'd fall black. please, don't call us dead, call us alive someplace better.
we say our own names when we pray.
• * *
this is how we are born: come morning after we cypher/feast/hoop, we dig
a new one from the ground, take him out his treebox, shake worms
from his braids. sometimes they'll sing a trapgod hymn (what a first breath!)
sometimes it's they eyes who lead scanning for bonefleshed men in blue.
we say congrats, you're a boy again!
we send him off to wander for a day or ever, let him pick his new name.
that boy was Trayvon, now called RainKing.
O, the imagination of a new reborn boy but most of us settle on alive.
• * *
sometimes a boy is born right out the sky, dropped from
a bridge between starshine & clay.
a truck, a parade for himself
we plucked brothers from branches peeled their naps from bark.
sometimes a boy walks into his room then walks out into his new world
still clutching wicked metals. some boys waded here through their own blood.
does it matter how he got here if we're all here to dance? grab a boy! spin him around!
if he asks for a kiss, kiss him.
• * *
dear air where you used to be, dear empty Chucks by front door, dear whatever you are now, dear son
they buried you all business, no ceremony.
then you were just dead. some nights i want to dig you up, bury you right.
scrape dirt until my hands are raw
i want to dig you up, let it rain twice before our next good-bye.
dear sprinkler dancer, i can't tell if I'm crying or i'm the sky, but praise your sweet rot
unstitching under soil, praise dandelions draining water from your greening, precious flesh.
i'll plant a garden on top where your hurt stopped.
• * *
just this morning the sun laid a yellow not-palm on my face & i woke knowing your hands
were once the only place in the world.
& remembered unparticular Tuesdays my head in your lap, scalp covered in grease
& your hands, your hands, those hands my binary gods. Those milk hands, bread hands
hands in the air in church hands, cut-up fish hands for my own good hands, back talk backhands, hurt more
than me hands, ain't asking no mo' hands everything i need come from those hands
tired & still grabbing grease, hum while she makes her son royal onyx hands.
mama, how far am i gone from home?
• * *
do you know what it's like to live on land who loves you back?
no need for geography now, we safe everywhere.
point to whatever you please
paradise is a world where everything is sanctuary & nothing is a gun.
here, if it grows it knows its place in history. yesterday, a poplar
told me of old forest heavy with fruits i'd call uncle
bursting red pulp & set afire harvest of dark wind chimes.
after i fell from its limb it bandaged me in sap.
• * *
i loved a boy once & once he made me a red dirge, skin casket, no burial.
left me to become a hum in a choir of bug mouths. he was my pastor
in violet velvet, my night nurse my tumor, my sick heart, my bad blood
all over his Tims. he needed me so much he had to end me.
i was his fag sucked into ash his lungs my final resting place.
my baby turned me to smoke choked on my name 'til it was gone.
i was his secret until i wasn't alive until not. outside our closet
i found a garden. he would love it here. he could love me here.
• * *
dear brother from another time, today some stars gave in
to the black around them
my ace, my g, my fellow kingdomless king
they've made you a boy i don't know
replaced my friend with a hashtag.
wish i could tell you his hands are draped
from my neck, but his shield is shaped like
a badge. i leave revenge hopelessly to God.
• * *
last night's dream was a red June filled with our mouths sticky
with sugar, we tiny teethed brown beasts of corner stores, fingers always
dusted cheeto gold. do you remember those yellow months? our calves burned
all day biking each other around on pegs taking turns being steed & warrior
at the park we stormed like distant shores our little ashy wars, shoes lit with blue sparks
those summers we chased anybody who would say our names, jumped fences
just to prove we could jump, fingers stained piff green with stank, riding around
barely old enough to ride around, dreaming a world to conquer? i wish you ended me, Sweet Cain.
• * *
if we dream the old world we wake up hands up.
sometimes we unfuneral a boy who shot another boy to here
& who was once a reaper we make a brother, a crush, a husband, a duet
of sweet remission. say the word i can make any black boy a savior
make him a flock of ravens his body burst into ebon seraphs.
this, our handcrafted religion.
we dance until guilt turns to sweat.
don't fret, we don't die. they can't kill the boy on your shirt again.
• * *
the forest is a flock of boys who never got to grow up
blooming into forever afros like maple crowns
reaching sap-slow toward sky. watch Forest run in the rain, branches
melting into paper-soft curls, duck under the mountain for shelter. watch
the mountain reveal itself a boy.
in the rain, watch the rain melt everything into a boy with brown eyes & wet naps —
the lake turns into a boy in the rain the swamp — a boy in the rain
the fields of lavender — brothers dancing between the storm.
• * *
when i want to kiss you i kiss the ground.
i shout down sirens.
my king turned my ache my one turned into my nothing.
all last month was spent in bed with your long gone name.
what good is a name if no one answers back?
i know when the wind feels as if it's made of hands
& i feel like i'm made of water it's you trying to save me
from drowning in myself, but i can't wed wind. i'm not water.
• * *
when i dream of you i wake in a field so blue i drown.
if you were here, we could play Eden all day, but fruit here
grows strange, i know before me here lived something treacherous.
whose arms hold you now after my paradise grew from chaos?
whose name do you make thunder the room?
is he a good man?
does he look like me?
• * *
how old am i? today, i'm today.
some nights i'm new as the fire at my feet some nights i'm a star, glamorous, ancient
& already extinguished. we citizens of an unpopular heaven
& low-attended crucifixions. listen i've accepted what i was given
be it my name or be it my ender's verdict.
i spent my life arguing how i mattered until it didn't matter.
who knew my haven would be my coffin?
dead is the safest i've ever been.
• * *
if you press your ear to the dirt you can hear it hum, not like it's filled
with beetles & other low gods but like a tongue rot with gospel
& other glories. listen to the dirt crescendo a kid back.
come. celebrate. this is everyday. everyday
holy. everyday high holiday. everyday new
year. every year, days get longer.
O the boys. they still come in droves. the old world
keeps choking them. our new one can't stop spitting them out.
• * *
i was raised with a healthy fear of the dark.
being born, kept coming for me, kept being so dark, i got sca ... i was doing my job.
• * *
dear badge number
what did i do wrong?
• * *
ask the mountainboy to put you on his shoulders if you want to see
the old world, ask him for some lean
& walk around your block.
all the guns fire toward heaven.
fall back to the metal-less side of the mountainboy, cry if you need to.
that world of laws rendered us into dark matter. we asked for nothing but our names
in a mouth we've known for decades. some were blessed
to know the mouth.
• * *
there, i drowned, back before, once.
there, men stood by shore & watched me blue.
there, i had a face & then didn't.
but i wasn't there. i was here, by my own water, singing a song i learned somewhere
south of somewhere worse.
the center of everything. i must be the lord of something.
what was i before? a boy? a son?
now i'm the god of whistling.
• * *
you are not welcome here. trust the trip will kill you. go home.
we earned this paradise by a death we didn't deserve.
i'm sure there are other heres.
of somebody, a heaven of brown girls braiding on golden stoops
but here —
someone prayed we'd rest in peace
in peace whole all summer
dear white america
i've left Earth in search of darker planets, a solar system revolving too near a black hole. i've left in search of a new God. i do not trust the God you have given us. my grandmother's hallelujah is only outdone by the fear she nurses every time the bloodfat summer swallows another child who used to sing in the choir. take your God back. though his songs are beautiful, his miracles are inconsistent. i want the fate of Lazarus for Renisha, want Chucky, Bo, Meech, Trayvon, Sean & Jonylah risen three days after their entombing, their ghost re-gifted flesh & blood, their flesh & blood regifted their children. i've left Earth, i am equal parts sick of your go back to Africa & i just don't see race. neither did the poplar tree. we did not build your boats (though we did leave a trail of kin to guide us home). we did not build your prisons (though we did & we fill them too). we did not ask to be part of your America (though are we not America? her joints brittle & dragging a ripped gown through Oakland?). i can't stand your ground. i'm sick of calling your recklessness the law. each night, i count my brothers. & in the morning, when some do not survive to be counted, i count the holes they leave. i reach for black folks & touch only air. your master magic trick, America. now he's breathing, now he don't. abra-cadaver. white bread voodoo. sorcery you claim not to practice, hand my cousin a pistol to do your work. i tried, white people. i tried to love you, but you spent my brother's funeral making plans for brunch, talking too loud next to his bones. you took one look at the river, plump with the body of boy after girl after sweet boi & ask why does it always have to be about race? because you made it that way! because you put an asterisk on my sister's gorgeous face! call her pretty (for a black girl)! because black girls go missing without so much as a whisper of where?! because there are no amber alerts for amber-skinned girls! because Jordan boomed. because Emmett whistled. because Huey P. spoke. because Martin preached. because black boys can always be too loud to live. because it's taken my papa's & my grandma's time, my father's time, my mother's time, my aunt's time, my uncle's time, my brother's & my sister's time ... how much time do you want for your progress? i've left Earth to find a place where my kin can be safe, where black people ain't but people the same color as the good, wet earth, until that means something, until then i bid you well, i bid you war, i bid you our lives to gamble with no more. i've left Earth & i am touching everything you beg your telescopes to show you. i'm giving the stars their right names. & this life, this new story & history you cannot steal or sell or cast overboard or hang or beat or drown or own or redline or shackle or silence or cheat or choke or cover up or jail or shoot or jail or shoot or jail or shoot or ruin
this, if only this one, is ours.
dinosaurs in the hood
let's make a movie called Dinosaurs in the Hood.
don't let Tarantino direct this. in his version, the boy plays with a gun, the metaphor: black boys toy with their own lives the foreshadow to his end, the spitting image of his father.
where a cop car gets pooped on by a pterodactyl, a scene where the corner store turns into a battleground. don't let the Wayans brothers in this movie. i don't want any racist shit about Asian people or overused Latino stereotypes.
children of slaves & immigrants & addicts & exile — saving their town from real ass dinosaurs. i don't want some cheesy, yet progressive Hmong sexy hot dude hero with a funny, yet strong, commanding Black girl buddy-cop film. this is not a vehicle for Will Smith
with guns they hid in walls & under mattresses. i want those little spitty screamy dinosaurs. i want Cecily Tyson to make a speech, maybe two.
because of its cast or its audience. this movie can't be metaphor for black people & extinction. This movie can't be about race.
who can't say it to my face in public. no chicken jokes in this movie.
his dreams possible, pulsing, & right there.
it won't be a bullet
becoming a little moon — brightwarm in me one night.
in the catalogue of ways to kill a black boy, find me buried between the pages stuck together with red stick. ironic, predictable. look at me.
i'm not the kind of black man who dies on the news.
Excerpted from "Don't Call Us Dead"
Copyright © 2017 Danez Smith.
Excerpted by permission of GRAYWOLF PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Summer, somewhere 3
Dear white America 25
Dinosaurs in the hood 26
It won't be a bullet 28
Last summer of innocence 29
A note on Vaseline 31
A note on the phone app that tells me how far i am from other men's mouths 32
& even the black guy's profile reads sorry, no black guys 33
O nigga O 34
… nigga 35
Fear of needles 40
Elegy with pixels & cum 48
Litany with blood all over 49
It began right here 55
Blood hangover 60
1 in 2 61
Every day is a funeral & a miracle 64
Not an elegy 67
A note on the body 72
You're dead, America 75
Strange dowry 78
Tonight, in Oakland 79
Little prayer 81
Dream where every black person is standing by the ocean 82