REVIEW: HOMIE – DANEZ SMITH (GRAYWOLF PRESS)

i kiss him with the pill apart on my tongue.
i hope it’s enough to fill both of us out. we split it
like gas, like the brown blunt’s brown guts.

from “all the good dick lives in Brooklyn Park”

Apologies in advance for what will surely sound hyperbolic. It’s not. Danez Smith really is that good. So good I hollered in the middle of a professional development session. So good I passed the book around the table. So good the woman next to me hollered, too. All that before I had read even fifteen pages.

One can imagine the pressure and anxiety Smith must feel at this point. Homie comes with high expectations, and rightfully so. Their first collection won the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Their second collection won the Foreward Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Smith has, quite literally, never written a full-length collection that is not prize-winning. The immensity of that fact would haunt most any writer, but rest easy, readers. Homie does not just meet expectations. It shatters them.

Smith is at their absolute best, technically and narratively, throughout their third collection, experimenting with form and turning convention on its head. The book is, most directly, about friendship. Like friendship, these poems are not always polished and well-spoken. Sometimes, they shout. Sometimes, they weep. Sometimes, they take us to task and demand better. Sometimes, they forgive us. Sometimes, they forgive themselves. These poems are beautiful and messy and surprising and honest; they are everything a storied friendship is.

Smith opens with “my president,” an invocation that contextualizes all that follows, declaring: “i sing your names/sing your names/your names//my mighty anthem.” Throughout the collection, numerous poems do just that, sing the various anthems of friendship. Smith routinely redefines, or expands, their definition of ‘homie’ to acknowledge the kinship created by shared experiences, both traumatic and joyful.

In “saw a video of a gang of bees swarming a hornet who killed their bee-homie so i called to say i love you,” Smith introduces the idea of instinctive kinship, grounding a discussion of racism and hate in animalistic vengeance. “love knows/the deepest/rivers & softest/earth love/murders first/justifies later,” Smith writes, noting that violence, too, can come from love. Most striking about the poem is Smith’s use of the phrase “we are in their love” to create a physical border around the poem, visually boxing in the poem and effectively communicating the restraint that so often surrounds conversations on race relations.

As with Don’t Call Us Dead, Smith makes clear early on that they do not want to write poems that center death and grief. “fall poem” engages readers explicitly and charges us for our part in perpetuating poems about trauma, noting “no one//wants to hear a poem about fall; much prefer the fallen/body, something easy to mourn, body cut out of the light/body lit up with bullets. see how easy it is to bring up bullets?” Though the speaker begins with, and strives for, a poem which celebrates the simple beauty of autumn, they cannot avoid death. Every image they turn to is infused with an inescapable history. The poem becomes less about the season and more an answer to the question, why is it always about race? Because it has to be. Because even when it is not supposed to be, it is.

For me, the most emotionally fraught and jarringly vulnerable moments in the collection are those when Smith drops their defenses, offering poems that harken the confessional mode and capture the most important, but also the most painful, part of friendship. We are, and must be, our whole selves with our dearest friends, and that often requires us to admit to the things that frighten or haunt us. In “sometimes i wish i felt the side effects,” Smith addresses the challenges of navigating an illness that is not always visible, while “waiting on you to die so i can be myself” laments the weight of open secrets and the pain of suppressing parts of ourselves for those we love dearly.

One of the most visceral themes in Homie is suicide. Even here, Smith operates with incredible grace and honesty. “…i was not ready to be your witness/i broke like champagne against your vessel./but to see your mother, to see her see you/settled into a jar? what’s it like to lose all that?” the speaker wonders in “for Andrew,” a long-form poem which gives voice to processing the death of a friend. Near the end of the collection, “notes” turns the lens onto the speaker, tracking various thoughts about suicide and ideation. Those who struggle, or have struggled, with ideation will appreciate the ebb and flow of the poem. Smith brilliantly captures the ever-present nag that ideation can become, even when we resolve ourselves to survival:

dear suicide, where are you?
come see me. some outside.
i am at your door, suicide.
i’ll wait. i’ve offed my earrings
& vaselined my face. i put on
my good sweats for this.
i brought no weapon but my fist.

The refusal to succumb is clear, and readers come away from this stanza poised for the fight. But mental health does not fight fair, and strength is sometimes fleeting. The very next stanza in the poem returns to ideation, or at least the acknowledgment that suicide remains a possibility for the speaker.

To speak on every poem, every moment of expert craft, would require a book of its own. Every page holds something worthy of celebration. I will limit my praise to this: I gasped out loud and read poems back to myself so often in the days leading up to this review that my students think I’m crazy. One said that it was “cute” to listen to me talk about the poems in the book, that I reminded her of a small child in a candy store. And that’s exactly how I feel. Homie is the sweetest gift.

Preorder your copy of Homie from Graywolf Press. On sale January 21, 2020.

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