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Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith review – hope in resistance and rebirth

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Anger, generosity and dark humour electrify a collection that confronts America racism and speaks urgently for change

In addressing US national identity and collectivism, Danez Smith (who goes by the gender-neutral pronoun “they”) echoes the plural, expanded lyric voices of poets such as Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka and Langston Hughes. Like Smith’s prize-winning debut collection, [insert] boy, their follow-up Don’t Call Us Dead excoriates America for its violence towards citizens outside a white heterosexual majority. But whereas Ginsberg resolved finally, if reluctantly, in his poem “America” to put his “queer shoulder to the wheel” of the American project, Smith declares it dead. In the apocalyptic age of Trump, a man who “has no words / & hair beyond simile”, Smith prophesies an end from which a new beginning might spring.

Throughout Don’t Call Us Dead, hope appears as a form of resistance and rebirth. The book opens with the poem “summer, somewhere”, which imagines a utopia where young black victims of police killings are resurrected in a parallel season: “history is what it is. it knows what it did./ bad dog. bad blood. bad day to be a boy // colour 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.”

Related: ‘Every poem is political’: Danez Smith, the YouTube star shaking up poetry

Smith’s looks death in the eye and seizes from it language that is fertile with myth, beauty and intellect

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