By THOMAS MOODY
Danez Smith’s 2017 collection Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press) opens with the sublime long poem “summer somewhere,” an elegy that imagines the victims of police shootings alive and safe in an afterworld free of the racism, intolerance and brutality of social injustices that led them there.
i’ve accepted what I was given
be it my name or be it my ender’s verdict.
when i was born, i was born a bull’s-eye.
i spent my life arguing how i mattered
until it didn’t matter.
who knew my haven
would be a coffin?
dead is the safest I’ve ever been.
i’ve never been so alive.
It is a devastating poem — full of beauty, melancholy and hope — whose imaginary force (both in language and subject) compels us to contend with the realities from which it attempts to break free; in doing so, it refashions our own reality.
“do you know what it is like to live / on land who loves you back?” the poem asks. Our answer will shape how we enter and leave Don’t Call Us Dead: If we answer “yes,” then prepare to be ushered to the other side of the street through the sheer empathy-generating power of Smith’s writing. (In another poem, titled “dear white america,” Smith is equally convincing through force of rage: “i am equal parts sick of your go back to Africa’ & ‘I just don’t see race”.) If our answer is “no,” the poem suggests that we needn’t worry: We are heading to a land where there is “no need for geography / now that we’re safe everywhere.”
The violence and hatred witnessed across the country and throughout the entire hemisphere over the past few weeks (as covered in these pages) has been shocking, even in this age of severe polarization. One of the questions that arise in such times of crisis is what the response of art should be — or if art is able to respond, or indeed should respond. Theodor Adorno’s famous and famously misquoted line that to write poetry after Auschwitz is “barbaric” implies that any devotion to beauty and art is a conscious disregard of the brutal reality of life.
Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “First Fight. Then Fiddle” (1949) concurs with Adorno’s statement:
A while from malice and from murdering
But first to arms, to armor. Carry hate
In front of you and harmony behind.
Be deaf to music and to beauty blind.
Win war. Rise bloody, maybe not too late
For having first to civilize a space
Wherein to play your violin with grace.
Aside from the irony inherent in Brooks’ poem (that is, a piece of art calling for the suspension of art), “First Fight. Then Fiddle” ignores what seems a fundamental truth about art: It is indivisible from life, in both its brutal and its beautiful actualities. Though art may comment on the past or speculate about the future, it is entwined in the moment; it cannot be cleaved from the very time (that is, the here-and-now) in which it is created. Even when art operates on the purely imaginative level and we find in it an escape from the real, we are acknowledging that there is something to escape from. The realities are present in their absence.
But to address these realities, as Smith does in Don’t Call Us Dead, is to ask: How can art transform the phenomena it underscores? A poem cannot write policy, indict a police officer, win an election. But it can introduce perspectives, ideas, interests to readers who would otherwise be unacquainted with them. Take Claudia Rankine’s Citizen with its ruthless exposition of the cumulative cruelties of microaggressions; or Robin Coste Lewis’ astonishing Voyage of the Sable Venus, in which she rearranges art-wall labels to highlight the casual and callous racism throughout the history of art; or Ocean Vuong’s debut book Night Sky with Exit Wounds, which carries with it the ghosts of fleeing war in Vietnam. Art may not give us any answers, but it certainly helps us see more clearly the questions that need to be asked.
Smith is a gender-queer African American who is HIV positive. In constructing an imaginary world in which these categorizations are safe, Smith highlights how fraught with danger they are in our present reality.
if we dream the old world
we wake up hands up.
sometimes we unfuneral a boy
who shot another boy to here
& who was once a reaper we make
a brother, a crush, a husband, a duet
of sweet remission. say the word
i can make any black boy a savior
make him a flock of ravens
his body burst into ebon seraphs.
this, our handcrafted religion.
we are small gods of redemption.
Don’t Call Us Dead is marked by a mournful lyricism (“when every day someone / who looks like everyone / i love is in a gun fight / armed with skin?”) that escalates to moments of ecstatic intimacy (“one day, the boy with a difficult name / laid with a boy who shall remain / nameless in the sun & they rolled around / waiting for something to burn”) and hope (“little black boy / on the bus with his toy dinosaur, his eyes wide & endless / his dreams possible pulsing & right there.”). It is a book that is rich in imagination, creating an alternative reality that does not devolve into escapism.
In reading Smith’s poetry, we must inhabit the words as our own. We form an intimate, emotional bond with the speaker by the very act of sounding their words in our minds. This opens the door to understanding and, if we are fortunate, empathy, something that seems to be in dangerously short supply at the moment. Empathy is a currency — one can be rich or poor in it — and like any currency it is cumulative: The more one has, the easier it is to come by.
The past few weeks have shown us that we are on the verge of bankruptcy. Don’t Call Us Dead is a good first investment to turn the market around, if not a full-fledged bailout.
The Other Side of the Wind and They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead now streaming on Netflix
Check any list of the greatest films of all time, and you will most likely find Citizen Kane hovering around the top. Orson Welles, the film’s writer, director and star, was a precocious 26 years of age when Kane was released in theaters in 1941. It established him as the golden boy of Hollywood and the filmmaker with the brightest future. But by the end of the 1950s, Welles had fallen out of favor with studio bosses and went into self-exile in Europe. There he would make two vastly underappreciated films, Chimes of Midnight and his adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial.
Upon his return to Hollywood, he set about trying to complete his long-term project The Other Side of the Wind, a film without a script about aging Hollywood director Jack Hannaford (played by the imperial John Huston), whose powers are diminishing and who is trying to generate financing to complete the film that will revive his career, also called The Other Side of the Wind.
Due to a raft of financing and production issues — and after year upon year of improvised shooting — Welles never finished The Other Side of the Wind, squandering his fortune in the process. The film has been locked away unseen in legal battles since his death in 1985. As such, The Other Side of the Wind has become the white whale among cinephiles, the great myth of American cinema, the never-before-seen masterpiece of America’s finest director.
Step forward Netflix, which along with funding the completion of The Other Side of the Wind has produced a wonderful documentary about the film’s making, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead. It is a must-watch, especially if you are not familiar with the legend of Welles or his unreleased masterpiece. Both were launched on the streaming service’s platform last weekend, and both are worth vastly more than the $10 monthly subscription.
ONLINE READ OF THE WEEK
“The Center Held Just Fine: Joan Didion, First Lady of Neoliberalism” at POPULA
I am always skeptical when ad hominem attacks are made against artists to challenge the merit of their work. In the main, I feel when writing a piece of criticism, the work I am speaking to, and the creator of that work, should be separated as far from one another as good sense allows.
The “New Journalism” of the 1960s — in which journalists inserted themselves into the story — makes this position a near impossible one to maintain. The writer has purposefully blurred the lines between reportage and personal essay for the piece’s gain, and so any critique of the reporting must at the same time involve a critique of the writer.
Among the most cherished of the New Journalists was Joan Didion, who is largely famous for her eviscerating assessment of hippie culture in 1968’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” A new essay posted on the independent news and culture online magazine Popula, written by the website’s editor and former staff writer for The New Yorker Maria Bustillos, is a good, old-fashioned takedown of Didion and her work, particularly her center-right politics and elitist social positions. The essay gives an excellent critical reading of the aforementioned piece and of another of Didion’s works of social-political journalism, “Trouble in Lakewood.”
“Didion’s work is an unrelenting exercise in class superiority, and it will soon be as unendurable as a minstrel show.” Bustillos writes. “It is the calf-bound, gilt-edged bible of neoliberal meritocracy.”
Bustillos then goes on to pose the question: If Didion and other writers during the 1960s had latched on to the serious political concerns of that decade’s counterculture, instead of the 5-year-old on acid she details in “Slouching,” would the egalitarianism of the ’60s have been extended?
“Didion and co. produced fake cultural leadership for the comfort and protection of the well-heeled and powerful. Better people, better writers, would have connected with the youth movement and the working class to protect and expand democracy — say, by putting their bodies upon the gears, and upon the wheels of the machine. Instead, they kept it running.”
It is a challenging but worthwhile read.