In “Homie,” a soaring tribute to black and queer friendship, Danez Smith includes an internal title page with their third poetry collection’s “actual” title. This second title echoes that of what is considered to be the first novel by an African-American woman: Harriet Wilson’s 1859 “Our Nig.” Wilson’s novel is titled after the nickname the protagonist is called by her white employers. Under the guise of affection, they use the slur to assert ownership over a free woman.
With their second title, Smith, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, recognizes how marginalized communities have transformed slurs into signs of solidarity. Yet, in adding a note that they don’t want nonblack readers to say the second title out loud, Smith signals that a word reclaimed is never fully cleansed of its violent history.
Smith deftly uses the line break to dramatize other transformations that enable lives to remain livable even when marked by trauma: “the wind is tangled/ with the dust of the dead homies, carrying us over/ to them, giggling.”
With their signature braiding of rage and love, Smith celebrates the particularities of African-American friendship: communal language, unspoken rules and playful insults that leave us “friend-drunk.” Smith writes, “i got a crush on each one of your dumb faces/ smashing into my heart like idiot cardinals into the glass.”
Smith’s circle of friendship includes a transnational community of people of color: “i know i love & have cried for my friends/ their browns a different brown than mine.” This difference is not hierarchical: “your pain is not mine/ & is no less.”
While their poems are bursting with love, Smith is frank about their rage. Smith writes: “my poems are fed up & getting violent” before fantasizing about using poems as weapons on Nazis and racists. They bitterly remark, “if i went to jail i’d live rent free but there is no way to avoid making white people richer.” These bursts of anger allow Smith to celebrate the creativity of black friendships without mollifying narratives that the joy of solidarity undoes the trauma of racism.
Smith uses formal innovation to manage the complexity and scale of their subjects, as in a stunning crown of sonnets memorializing a friend who died by suicide. They write, “i call for God but out comes your name.” The wildness of grief lashes against the sonnet’s tight form.
Even if you are a reader who doesn’t get to use “Homie’s” second title, the book offers the opportunity to witness “the miracle of other people’s lives” and will challenge you to consider how and why that miracle is dismissed in countless daily acts of racial aggression.
Elizabeth Hoover is a Milwaukee-based poet and critic.
By: Danez Smith.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 84 pages, $16.
Event: Book launch, 7 p.m. Jan. 27, Moon Palace Books, 3032 Minnehaha Av. S., Mpls.