Black history, books, People of Color, poetry, Reading

The soul-shaking poetry of Danez Smith’s “Don’t Call Us Dead” and Clint Smith’s “Counting Descent”

Every February I find myself somehow taken by surprise by my overwhelm. Winter’s endless dark, life’s continuous pressures, the world’s relentless disasters, racism’s shameless presence. These forces are predictable, intractable, and irrepressible, as is, it seems, the anxiety that ratchets up to a dangerous hum every February and dares me at every turn to stay the course. And so, it has been a month without writing, but not one without reflection. Many of the volumes I’ve read this month, though, demand attention, and so I wade back into the writing waters, starting first with two absolute treasures.

These two collections of poetry – slim volumes that will crack you wide open – fit perfectly my mood and my focus. Danez Smith and Clint Smith (no relation) are both relatively young black men whose voices are unflinching, unwavering, and irresistible. Both collections feature poems that are alternately personal and political, some which are the length of a breath and others which traverse numerous pages. I feel unequal to offer either much critique other than to say that both poets seem fueled by a mystical well of eloquent rage and soul-shaking composition. Below are a few selections chosen to represent these astounding collections.

Selections from “Don’t Call Us Dead” by Danez Smith IMG-0210

excerpt from summer, somewhere

somewhere, a sun. below, boys brown
as rye play the dozens & ball, jump

in the air & stay there. boys become new
moons, gum-dark on all sides, beg bruise

-blue water to fly, at least tide, at least
spit back a father or two. i won’t get started.

history is what it is. it knows what it did.
bad dog. bad blood. bad day to be a boy

color 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.

we say our own names when we pray.
we go out for sweets & come back.

paradise is a world where everything
is sanctuary & nothing is a gun.

dear white america

i’ve left Earth in search of darker planets, a solar system revolving too near a black hole. i’ve left in search of a new God. i do not trust the God you have given us. my grandmother’s hallelujah is only outdone by the fear she nurses every time the blood-fat summer swallows another child who used to sing in the choir. take your God back. though his songs are beautiful, his miracles are inconsistent. i want the fate of Lazarus for Renisha, want Chucky, Bo, Meech, Trayvon, Sean & Jonylah risen three days after their entombing, their ghost re-gifted flesh & blood, their flesh & blood re-gifted their children. i’ve left Earth, i am equal parts sick of your go back to Africai just don’t see race. neither did the poplar tree. we did not build your boats (though we did leave a trail of kin to guide us home). we did not build your prisons (though we did & we will fill them too). we did not ask to part of your America (though are we not America? her joints brittle & dragging a ripped gown through Oakland?). i can’t stand your ground. i’m sick of calling your recklessness the law. each night, i count my brothers. & in the morning, when some do not survive to be counted, i count the holes they leave. i reach for black folks & touch only air. your master magic trick, America. now he’s breathing, now he don’t. abra-cadaver white bread voodoo. sorcery you claim not to practice, hand my cousin a pistol to do your work. i tried, white people. i tried to love you, but you spent my brother’s funeral making plans for brunch, talking too loud next to his bones. you took one look at the river, plump with the body of boy after girl after sweet boi & ask why does it always have to be about race? because you made it that way! because you put an asterisk on my sister’s gorgeous face! call her pretty (for a black girl)! because black girls go missing without so much as a whisper of where?! because there are no amber alerts for amber-skinned girls! because Jordan boomed. because Emmett whistled. because Huey P. spoke. because Martin preached. because black boys can always be too loud to live. because it’s taken my papa’s & my grandma’s time, my father’s time, my mother’s time, my aunt’s time, my uncle’s time, my brother’s & my sister’s time . . . how much time do you want for your progress? i’ve left Earth to find a place where my kin can be safe, where black people ain’t but people the same color as the good, wet earth, until that means something, until then i bid you well, i bid you war, i bid you our lives to gamble with no more. i’ve left Earth & i am touching everything you beg your telescopes to show you. i’m giving the stars their right names. & this life, this new story & history you cannot steal or sell or cast overboard or hang or beat or drown or own or redline or shackle or silence or cheat or choke or cover up or jail or shoot or jail or shoot or jail or shoot or ruin

this, if only this one, is ours.

Selections from “Counting Descent” by Clint Smith

IMG-0211excerpt from Counting Descent

Mom said that my
head was big because I needed enough
room to read all the books in the library,
which seemed like infinity, even though

I didn’t really know what infinity meant,
but I had heard my teacher say it once
when she talked about the universe
& books felt like the universe to me.

Ode to the Only Black Kid in the Class

You, it seems,
are the manifestation
of several lifetimes
of toil. Brown v. Board
in the flesh. Most days
the classroom feels
like an antechamber.
You are deemed expert
on all things Morrison,
King, Malcolm, Rosa.
Hell, weren’t you sitting
on that bus, too?
You are everybody’s
best friend
until you are not.
Hip-hop lyricologist.
Presumed athlete.
Free & Reduced sideshow.
Exception & caricature.
Too black & too white
all at once. If you are successful
it is because of affirmative action.
If you fail it is because
you were destined to.
You are invisible until
they turn on the Friday
night lights. Here you are-
star before they render
you asteroid. Before they
watch you turn to dust.

books, poetry, Reading, Short Stories, Works in Translation

“The World Goes On” by Laszlo Krasznahorkai (translated from the Hungarian by John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet, and Georges Szirtes

“because a life based on incomprehension and misinterpretation and erroneous ideas must end just as springtime must end, budding and greening must end, and everything will be just as incomprehensible as it has been since the beginning of time immemorial, with no help whatsoever along the way, and even this end brings no enlightenment, since the one who could have delivered it delivered it already, once upon a time, except that no one grasped what he had declared: away with reasoning and away with meaning, away with the thirst of desire and su ering; there was no one who truly grasped and embraced it” – from One Hundred People All Told

Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai writes in run on, hyper-punctuated but never-coming-to-a-34390242full-stop sentences, a style which connotes a franticness, a sense of anxiety and mania. Many stories in this new short story collection are one sentence; one five-page, frenetic sentence. I don’t want to belabor the point, but it seems essential to be able to prepare yourself mentally for this read. Sitting down to begin reading is akin to taking a deep breath and trying to swim the length of the pool underwater. This structure and style made this work slow reading for me, because I had to turn on my inner narrator, to read “aloud” in my head in order to follow the conversational, stream-of-consciousness pacing. It seems no wonder that translation took three sets of eyes, three brains to parse, punctuate, interpret.

In the titular story, The World Goes On, Krasznahorkai’s stumbling and Proustian language is fitting, communicating the stunned, visceral reaction many of us have to great tragedy.

“now feeling a long-absent sense of community with others, very obsolete, indeed speechless in the deepest possible sense of the word, because on September 11 I flashed on the fact, like a twinge of physical pain, that, good god, my language, the one I could use to speak out now, was so old, so godforsaken ancient, the way I strung it out, quibbling, twisting and turning, pushing and pulling it to move ahead, pestering it, advancing by stringing one ancient word after another, how useless, how helpless and crude this language is, this language of mine, and how splendid it had been formerly, how dazzling and supple and apt and deeply moving, but by now it has utterly lost all of its meaning, power, spaciousness, and precision, all gone, and then for days I pondered this, would I ever be able, would I ever be capable of suddenly learning some other language without which it would be completely hopeless; I knew at once, watching the flaming, tumbling Towers, and then envisioning them again and again, and I knew that without a brand-new language it was impossible to understand this brand-new era in which, along with everyone else, I suddenly found myself; I brooded and pondered, tormented myself for days on end, after which I had to admit that no, I had no chance of suddenly learning a new language, I was, along with the others, too much a prisoner of the old, and there was no recourse, I concluded, but to abandon all hope of ever understanding what was going on down here, so I sat in profound gloom, staring out the window, as again and again those giant Twin Towers kept falling and falling and falling, I sat there staring, and using these old words I began to describe what I saw, together with the others, in this new world, I began to write down what I felt, that I was unable to comprehend, and the old sun began to set in the old world, darkness began to fall in the old way in my old room as I sat by the window”

The story One Hundred People All Told (quoted in the opening of this review) was beautiful and heartbreaking. To me, it felt like a too-timely indictment of the abandonment of truth and fact, the full-bodied embrace of ignorance and fabrication, of full-throated lies.

I can see Krasznahorkai’s gift; he has a maniacal way with words, manipulating and entangling them in mesmerizing and sure-handed ways. Assuredly this book and this writing are “for” some readers, but I’m afraid “The World Goes On” as a whole is not for this reader. It was Joycean, Kafkaesque, inscrutable in a way that often felt more frustrating than transformative. I was more often lost by this book instead of in it. I am pleased that I stuck with it, despite urges to abandon throughout, and I think I can appreciate its essence, but I can’t say for sure that I was able to fully fathom it.

(in its entirety)

Memory is the art of forgetting. It doesn’t deal with reality, reality is not what engages it, it has no substantial relation whatsoever to that inexpressible, infinite

complexity that is reality itself, in the same way and to the same extent that we ourselves are unable to reach the point where we can catch even a glimpse of this indescribable, infinite complexity (for reality and glimpsing it are one and the same); so the rememberer covers the same distance to the past about to be evoked as that covered when this past had been present, thereby revealing that there had never been a connection to reality, and this connection had never been desired, since regardless of the horror or beauty that the memory evokes, the rememberer always works starting from the essence of the image about to be evoked, an essence that has no reality, and not even starting from a mistake, for he fails to recall reality not by making a mistake, but because he handles what is complex in the loosest and most arbitrary manner, by infinitely simplifying the infinitely complex to arrive at something relative to which he has a certain distance, and this is how memory is sweet, this is how memory is dazzling, and this is how memory comes to be heartrending and enchanting, for here you stand, in the midst of an in nite and inconceivable complexity, you stand here utterly dumbfounded, helpless, clueless, and lost, holding the infinite simplicity of the memory in your hand—plus of course the devastating tenderness of melancholy, for you sense, as you hold this memory, that its reality lies somewhere in the heartless, sober, ice-cold distance.

Thank you to New Directions for providing an Advance Reader’s Copy in exchange for a fair and honest review. “The World Goes On” was released in the United States on November 28, 2017.