Best Wellers Pick
Every other month the staff of Weller Book Works nominates and then votes on books we deem worthy of extra attention, our Best Weller's selection. We discount these books to you by 20% during the months for which they're chosen because we believe in them.
By Danez Smith
Review by Salem
Danez Smith's third poetry collection, Homie, is an intimate, tenderly written exploration of the necessity and beauty of community and friendship, delivered through an unapologetically Black, queer, Poz (HIV positive), and millennial lens. Each of these intersecting identities are absolutely integral to Smith's poetry, and their work most broadly explores how chosen family functions as a sanctuary away from all too common struggles with racist and queerphobic violence, mental illness, and poverty. Identity informs the communities we're granted access to, need, or simply want to belong to, and Homie examines both in-group and out-group experience with charisma, depth, and compassion.
One of the most striking analyses of Black disenfranchisement is “Fall Poem,” in part due to its unassuming title and how Smith eases the reader in with delicate, if cold imagery: “the leaves done done their annual shimmy. / now the streetlight with no soft green curtain / cuts a silver blade across my bed / & my body.” This cutting silver blade carries the tone as Smith quickly twists the poem into a critique of morbid, voyeuristic fascination with Black suffering: “no one / wants to hear a poem about fall; much prefer the fallen / body, something easy to mourn, body cut out of the light / body lit up with bullets, see how easy it is to bring up bullets?” Smith circles back to the fallen leaves they open with, but the image is now distorted with violence, almost like an invasive thought. There’s a sense of futility in avoiding the subject as they “[think] of the leaf-colored bodies, their weekly fall.” The final image they leave us with is one of a child sitting on a porch “watching other kids walk by, waiting for kids who don’t / pass anymore on the other side of summer, who maybe go / to a different school or moved out east or made like a tree / & now sleep in a box made from one.” The imagery Smith uses is evocative of “Strange Fruit,” and just as unflinching. It serves as a haunting reminder of the sheer magnitude of anti-Black violence, and a condemnation of outsiders who are only concerned with the spectacle.
“old confession & new” similarly examines popular fascination with collective trauma, in this context, the willingness and desire to pay for and profit from it. This poem is an irreverent look at Smith's HIV positive diagnosis that flippantly but deliberately asks what this can do for their career. They state, “that which hasn’t killed you yet can pay the rent,” and question if so many Black artists’ claim to fame is “gettin’ paid off the cruelty / of whites, why not make the blood / a business?” They close by saying, “my blood brings me closer to death / talking about it has bought me new boots / a summer’s worth of car notes, organic everything.” While the catharsis that can follow relaying trauma, especially in one’s own words, can and should be celebrated, the underlying question is why underserved communities in particular aren't afforded the same attention, respect, and resources before tragedy befalls them.
Though Smith refuses to sanitize their experience, and doesn’t shy away from exploring the pain of disenfranchisement, a balanced inclusion of Black joy and solidarity underpins this collection, with affectionate portraits painted of the loved ones that enrich any life. “how many of us have them” is an unabashed celebration of friendship, and practically bursts off the page with glee. In it, Smith is eager to let us know “i have just seen / two boys—yes, black—on bikes—also black… / friend-drunk, making their little loops, sun-lotioned / faces screwed up with that first & cleanest love / we forget to name as such.” They go on to affectionately tease one of the boys with one of my favorite similes in the collection: “in this golden hour / he kind of looked like Francine off Arthur… / tho in a beautiful way, the best beautiful, same as i know all of us have looked / when wasted off love.” Though this book specifically and intentionally speaks to Black diaspora, communities of color, and queerness, it also speaks to the fundamentally human experience of loving another person, and finding strength within that love. As one of the dedications at the beginning states, this book is, ultimately, “for you and your friends.”
The poems referenced in this review are just a small taste of what Homie has to offer, and every poem in this collection serves a unique purpose and is worthy of far deeper analysis than I’m able to provide here. Poems not mentioned here that deserve your attention include, “dogs!,” “say it with your whole black mouth,” “what was said at the bus stop,” and “my poems.”
FINALIST FOR THE 2020 NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD FOR POETRY
FINALIST FOR THE 2021 NAACP IMAGE AWARD FOR POETRY
Danez Smith is our president