This collection, and Smith’s poetry in general, were put on my radar by @booksteahenny. I don’t read a lot of poetry, as you know, so I added this to the list for the next time I was in the mood for it. And then, after a suggestion from @lifeofgabriellejane after I posted about the last collection I read (Citizen) and struggled with comprehending, a bit (if I’m honest), I grabbed both the physical and audiobook and holy hell was the ever the right call for this collection! So thanks and shoutout to both those readers/reviewers.
This is likely to be a short review, overall, but don’t let that fool you. Smith’s poetry is spectacular. From the very first poem, and consistently throughout the rest of the book, they write with an intensity that just blew me away. There’s a movement, a motion, in the words, both visually on the page and in the flow of the writing, that sweeps the reader with it in a way that’s impossible to resist (not that you’ll want to). It’s enhanced even more by the audiobook, if you go that route. Smith reads it themselves and makes it truly something special – their intonation and tone and rhythm and emphasis, the feeling imbued into the words, and just the general vibe from their voice is mesmerizing.
Back to the writing itself, for just one more moment…it is, like I said, spectacular. The wordplay (the freaking wordplay!) is simply on another level, so intricate and complex, and it was both fascinating and a joy to read it. If you love language, then this is definitely a collection for you. And at the same time, it is so approachable. I am a poetry novice-ish and I felt like I both understood and could follow Smith’s messages and emotions and was therefore able to sink into them, be enveloped by them, and really experience them. The intermingling of the word play and formatting with the sense of culture and identity and people was a combination that was steeped together to perfection. So much emotion comes through in these poems, grief and sorrow and fear and regret, and it’s delivered with all the strength and anger that it deserves. You can feel it in the words. It’s a very visceral reading experience, especially considering the topics range from (a content warning note here) violence and gun violence to racism (interpersonal and systemic and historical) to mental health and suicide to grief to LGBTQ+ experiences (including being HIV+) and pride and phobias and more. But there is also so much about belonging and family (blood and found) and friends and faith and love and connection, with people and culture.
I don’t know if this is a thing that makes sense to do, or not, but there are a few full poems that were really standouts for me and I guess I just want to recognize them. And if you’ve read this collection and had any of the same favorites – let me know! There was something about jumped!, the sort of prayerful, painful need and belonging in it that was so affecting. Oh my goodness fall poem was…whoa; perfectly angrily tragic. There was some deep introspection and personal emotions in sometimes i wish i felt the side effects – emotion that I don’t really think I can put into words but could feel within them, an almost wistful regret that held such depth. shout out to my n***** in Mexico – the recognition and representation here thrummed with life. C.R.E.A.M. hit the reader hard with reality. I cried a little reading waiting on you to die so I can be myself – and honestly, the title says why better than I ever could. The message in my poems about the way we all talk about the power of words and yet, are Smith’s words really having the intended effects, the way they would have if, instead of the titular poems in the situations listed in the poem, they used actual weapons? Who knows…
Overall, this collection was straight dynamite. There is so much life in these poems that they’re almost vibrating with it. I recommend it hardcore.
Here are a few lines that really grabbed/stood out for me. But also, take these few with a giant grain of salt because there were so freakin many lines that I was blown away by, but since they built so much on previous lines/wordplay, they wouldn’t make sense pulled out on their own, I’d have to transcribe the whole poem for the impact to remain. So basically, what I’m saying is to go read this, or listen (of course), because it is well worth the hour or so that it will take you.
“i did not come to preach of peace / for that’s not the hunted’s duty” (from say it with your whole black mouth)
“& i’m sorry the world is so good at making / us feel like we have to fight for space / to fight for our lives” (from what was said at the bus stop)
“what do you do when a boy lynches himself / when the mob isn’t after his skin / but under it, when anything that can hold / his weight becomes a tree” (from for Andrew)
“you made coming out coming in from the storm” (from acknowledgements)