After he was a National Book Award finalist for his last collection, Don’t Call Us Dead, I was very excited to see what Danez Smith what produce next. I was surprised, even for the poetry world, how quietly his next book appeared. Even the title page, with its goofy balloon letters and no mention of the previous title and its success, caught me off guard.
Still, I was pretty excited. And then I found out – because it’s right there on a page called, ‘note on the title,” that Homie is not really the name of the collection. He explains that he didn’t put the real title on the cover because he didn’t want non-black people to say it. And because I am not black, I am not going to write it either. I definitely felt put on notice. Were these poems even intended for me?
The first, “my president,” is incredible, Whitmanesque and timely. It is an anthem for this age. Having heard Smith perform other poems, it was quite easy to hear them (Smith’s pronoun of choice) perform this one. It’s magnificent.
After that, though. One can’t approach Smith’s work with a squeamish sensibility. They are not shy and do not shy away from explicit treatment of explicit topics. For much of the work, I felt like the outsider that ‘note on the title’ announced. There were some other highlights – “say it with your whole black mouth” and “what was said at the bus stop” and one of the last poems, “notes,” in the form of short letters addressed, dear suicide, is guaranteed to bring you to tears.
Because they are not reluctant to take on challenging moments, it should not be surprising that their language, whether it’s seemingly simple (“a world with you is not a world”) or imagistic (“your name is honeydew glass”), it demands your immediate attention. And so even if I didn’t always understand them, I gave these poems my complete attention. They deserve yours too.
Charles Ellenbogen is the author of the teaching memoir, THIS ISN’T THE MOVIES: 25 YEARS IN THE CLASSROOM, and teaches high school English in Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio with Kirsten, his wife, Zoe, their daughter, Ezra, their son, Lincoln, their dog, and Chocolate Scales, their snake.