(i had originally published this Book Review in 2014, but before i went to jail i had deleted all of my posts from 2014. In celebration of #NationalPoetryDay i am re-uploading this review.-DW)
For much of my first time reading Danez Smith’s new collection of poetry, [insert] Boy, I was reading these poems sitting on the edge of my seat. That’s not a metaphor; I was literally sitting at the edge of my seat waiting and curious about what would come next. I didn’t do this mindfully; it just seems to be, upon reflection, the natural body language and posture with which to take in these riveting poems.
Early on, Smith apologizes, whether it be sincere or sarcastic I’ll leave up in the air, for the fact that he has no “happy” poems. We are introduced to one of the poet’s dilemmas that when he opens his mouth, “ghosts raid/my poor tongue demanding names.” I should mention that my personal taste for poetry usually has nothing to do with the ever subjective dichotomy of “happy” or “sad.” Being “happy” or labeling a poem as such is frankly not one of my priorities.
When I read poetry I want to be moved. I want to be shown something new. I want to be frightened, inspired, floored, angry, and prompted to question my assumptions. It is perhaps the latter expectation that Smith fulfilled as early as the second poem, aptly named “The Black Boy & The Bullet,” where I had to wonder whether the poet was talking about black boys or bullets with every line.
Another thing that impressed me upon my first read was the range and earnestness of the questions Smith offers, especially towards the end of the book in the section, “[AGAIN].” This is where perhaps some of the most important questions are offered: “Why don’t we just celebrate our birthdays every midnight?” And, “If I play dead will I be acting my age?” And, when speaking about some with “fuzzy braids getting down/to the crude beat box,” in a cipher, the poet asks, “Do they know their name is God?”
I also appreciated Danez Smith’s use of James Baldwin quotes. The opening quote speaks to the immense power of having your back against the wall and still retaining your humanity. As well, in the opening poem of [AGAIN], the poet cites a gripping quote where Baldwin asks, “How much time do you want for your progress?” And in the middle of the same poem, Smith nods to Baldwin when he admits, “I have no peace left, it’s been replaced by smoke/& I am sick of always running from the fire/this time.”
The thing I admire most about Danez Smith and [insert] Boy is the vast emotional worlds found in each poem. These poems are often gripping and challenging. It’s like the poet is taking the status quo and the ignorance of bliss by the collar and saying, “Enough. That is enough.” And i was often left guessing: What just happened? after each poem. Whether that’s explaining the details of his sexual encounters (as in The Business of Shadows), or when we find Smith keeping it 100 when he admits, "If I am to believe in what you call history/then I can't believe in what you call progress;" or when the poet admits that “more tomboy than boy…you were never your grandfather’s boy,” (as in Faggot or When the Front Goes Up).
I definitely prefer that to something intended to bring me the ever elusive happiness. The fierce immediacy and fire ignited with every glance at [insert] Boy, that. It grows stronger with every bit of attention paid to it. That will remain.
To order your copy of Danez Smith's [insert boy] via YesYes Books, click HERE.