‘Homie’ Danez Smith
‘Homie’ focuses on friendship, finding inspiration in the loss of one of Danez Smith’s close friends. ‘Homie’ was not its original title but came about because the author didn’t want non-black people saying the book’s actual title and initial poems explore how language is used to include and exclude, ‘niggas!’ starts,
‘love them two g’s in the middle
hanging down like hands scooping
water from a river pinked by dusk, i love
how it starts in the nose (nig-) then
books it to the back of the mouth
& smacks the soft palate (-gas).
i love the smell of nigga on the tongue’
The last quoted phrase is a reference to the film ‘Apocalypse Now’ and Robert Duvall’s ad-libbed line. Despite this the poem is tender, rosy water is collected in hands. It’s a reclamation of a derogatory word. A term used to imply less than human is now re-framed as a term for kinship. The key theme at the core of the book is friendship, in ‘how many of us have them?’
‘just to make you laugh. Andrew used to say
friendship is so friendship & ain’t it?
even after Andrew gave it on over to whatever
he was still my nigga. when they turned his body
to dust he was still my dusty-ass boy.
don’t you hear it? the dust on the fan calls me
a bum, say my hairline looks like it’s thinking
about retirement. the dust in the car says i look
like a chubby slave, says i look too drunk, takes
my keys, drives me home. the wind is tangled
with the dust of dead homies’
Many of the poems circle back to friendship and the fall-out from the death of a close friend. ‘how many of us have them?’ is about how you still carry the memories and associations of a close friend even in their absence. The speaker’s still thinking about things Andrew would have said, although the car attributed as the speaker, the phrases are Andrew’s. Even in his absence he’s still part of the poet’s home circle.
There are lighter moments too and some acute observations in ‘self-portrait as ‘90s R&B video’ with images
‘lately i’ve been opening doors in slow motion
& find myself wearing loose white silks
in rooms packed with wind machines & dusk.
i have a tendency to be sad near windows’,
‘i sit on the couch with a wine glass full
of milk, cry in ways that frame me gorgeous’,
‘& spend some time studying the mirror
i’ll burn this whole shit down
like Left Eye would, like any good wife.
whatever survives will be my kingdom’
Left Eye is Lisa Lopes (1971-2002) of the group TLC. The images which seem to poke fun at a genre of music videos come back to a serious point. They’re remembered through someone else lost too soon (Lisa Lopes was fatally injured in a car crash). Another poem is a dig at whites who love the culture, ‘white niggas’,
‘you have murdered me for centuries & still i fix
my mouth to say love is possible. it is. it is? if you
come to my door thirsty, i’ll turn the faucet & fill
the glass. if I come to your stoop, don’t shoot.’
That last quoted image a chilling reminder of the dangers of being black in America. It’s not just the legacy of inequality, but that these white people who enjoy R&B culture don’t extend that apparent solidarity to neighbourly behaviour. A strange black person is far more likely to be shot than welcomed. Yet blacks are forced to accommodate whites because of the status afforded to whites in the justice system.
A long poem ‘for Andrew’ is dedicated to Danez Smith’s lost friend. Part ‘ii. ending with nothing’ starts with a struck out section that includes the lines ‘when the mob isn’t after his skin// but under it’ and continues,
‘ i counted the things
used to end a boy but forgot
the boy himself. how could i?
i considered it
the matter of you neither created
nor destroyed but something
we have no word for, only myth
& faith & doubt about the place
that lives – we hope lives – after body
spits out the soul like a seed.
we are left to harvest this black fruit –
your name perched in past tense’
‘Black fruit’ could be read as a reference to Billie’s Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ about lynch mobs. Andrew’s name is ‘perched in past tense’ because it doesn’t really belong there. The speaker is still adjusting to accepting his friend’s death.
The final poem is ‘acknowledgements’ a series of phrases in memory of a lost friend,
‘i ink your name into my arm to fasten what is already there
you made coming out coming in from the storm
i would love you even if you killed God’
‘Homie’ is dedicated to a lost friend and an exploration of friendship, it’s endurance even after a death and where to find love in a hostile country. There is joy to be found even in the darkest times. The collection starts with the exuberant ‘my president’ which names neighbours, relatives, friends, celebrities and also the unnamed: a nurse, a cab-driver, a braider, people who make daily life that little bit easier. It’s a fitting celebration of all that friendship means and continues to mean.
Emma Lee is the recipient of the 2019 and 2020 Best Reviewer Saboteur Award. Her publications include ‘The Significance of a Dress’ (Arachne, 2020) and ‘Ghosts in the Desert’ (IDP, 2015). She co-edited ‘Over Land, Over Sea’, (Five Leaves, 2015). As well as curating the Critical Nib, Emma reviews for a number of magazines.