by Aziza Barnes
is it worth it to stop this history
if you ain’t you gonna eat?
– Danez Smith
Just as when I read Hands On Ya Knees, I read insert [boy], in one sitting on the A train from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Danez Smith is one of the few poets whose work calls me to refuse rest from it. His insistence, his code-switch, his ability to convey vernacular as intelligence as emotional as memory, is the work poets of our generation hunger for. insert [boy] is a triumph. Smith’s work opens permission for writers of our time to exist in the literary landscape, derailing questions and statements such as, but not limited to, “what’s Gangsta Rap? Who’s Audre? What’s ‘stepping?’” Smith writes it as commandment, stating that each cultural artifact has an intelligence of its own, one that he need not build a glossary for. In layman’s terms, you can look that shit up.
…It was so outrageous you couldn’t go any further & so you had to find a way to use it.
– James Baldwin.
To take from the opening epigraph of [insert] boy, Smith evokes, twerks and rearranges entirely the outrage Baldwin describes as being The Condition: poor, black, gay. And what’s more outrageous, I would argue, to be all these and alive, still. This work is not an erecting of tombstone, but a flag planted down in a country colonized an amount outrageous.
[insert] boy, is outrage: sensual, violent, fist curled command, wreckage celebration, orgy-ballad-shook, Chicago-step graceful, everybody-cousin-lip-smack chatter, knee-bent trap music, knee-bent prayer music (and ain’t they both a prayer?), Afro-Surrealist mammalian solidarity, haint conjure holler (to Lorde, to Baldwin), whiskey laden, weed smoke hanging, a bullet dirge, a ghost song. Smith encourages that our outrage, as well as our desire, as queer black kin should be so complex. We have a right to complexity, to nuance and engagement.
Smith’s poem OBEY, begins,
at the orgy I deem all the whisky & all the weed & all the coke mine mine mine & I dare a motherfucker to tell me different.
This loud declaration of want and presence (mine, mine, mine) does the work of eschewing shame from the conversation Smith wants to achieve. Bushing shame and fear to the side, we are meant to focus on where and by what means of demand the colloquial becomes animal, that “fuck him, dawg,” devolves into “fuck him, dog.” That shift, traversing time, ownership, kinship in one slip, not of the speaker’s tongue, but of the recipient’s ear. By the end of the poem, the speaker, having worn the body of black, of sexed, of dog, arises from the orgry as oracle, decreeing with a certain command, “everyone must know what I know.” That the perceived devolution into animal is not a regression; is instead, a superpower. A means by which to expel any external voice’s ability to degrade the black body; I obey when he calls me dog and through it, I exalt eternally myself. After reading this poem, all I could do on the A train was write quietly underneath it, “wow.”
These shifts, or transactions between histories, American currencies (paper money or black body as property), Smith subverts notions of power by an insistence on the speaker’s “I,” their agency. In MAIL, Smith writes,
Dear Mrs. Thompson, Your husband pays me fifty extra dollars when I bust on his face, twenty five more when I kiss him after…did I bitter the back of your tongue?
Following with an incorporation of religious gestures, “his cash: a tithe, his ass: a cheap offering.” Who in this equation can be deemed church? Who is altar? Only the I, the speaker. Debunking myths of sex work, Christianity and the act of “purchasing” a body, Smith erects a gospel from the shadows, of haints, alive and all knowing, who speak back with uncompromising reads, flex and shade, to a world that seeks to unmake them.
I throw up my hands in praise for Smith’s achievement at signaling the I’s desire for a specific kind of violence to be enacted upon them. Rihanna, in her most recent album, echoes Smith’s work in her song Yeah I Said It, as she sings, “yea yea// I ain’t tryna think about it// no// yea I said it boy get up inside it//I want you to homicide it//damn I think I kinda like ya//up against the wall//we don’t need a title.” Each artist unravels the the notion that pleasure and violence are disconnected. Rather, that they feed on each other. A body accustomed to violence they explicitly do not ask for (police, bullets, pedestrian moves to criminalize the black body), would want to conjure a violence of their own in the most intimate of spaces. It’s the reason I feel most unnerved in Smith’s 10 RENT BOY COMMANDMENTS, when Smith reveals the realest shit I’ve ever heard, or commandment #3, “(if you failed to discuss, you know anything goes).” Smith exemplifies the criticality of personal proclamations, constitutions and the consequence of leaving home without one, the silence that Audre Lorde warned would not save us.
Smith calls to the need to be choked as the speaker in the CRAIGSLIST HOOKUPS, the dull ache at being called a nigger in bed by a white lover (not the first time), to the ancestral post-traumatic that begs for a filmic gesture “cue Mississippi, dusk & moonshine breath, a white sheet on the bed, a white sheet on the floor,” which all culminates in a holler back, a resurrection of black queer desire as the loudest voice in the room, that it was “the first time he asked him to say it [nigger] again.” Smith details the call and response felt inside of one’s own body, being thrown against white desire, that the evening, irrespective of the year (2015, 1965, 1830), begins with “a man & his property enjoying a quiet evening,” that the black body, even in its own imagination, belongs to someone else.
To move from this poem into the section titled, LOVER, Danez takes back all of his real estate, despite being, “sick of the word all.” In POEM WHERE I BE A HOUSE, HENCE, YOU LIVE IN ME, Smith confesses to the beast/lover who dwells in himself/his house,
baby, everything in me needs to be wiped down, yet I refuse. leave your print everywhere, when I’m ready to be clean
I’ll burn down.
We are able to laugh, able to suck our teeth, say mhm, that wordless praise meaning, “we know,” at Danez’s chosen purification, his burning, his choice. An agency wrought from hustle magic, hunger and full bodied faith, void of pity, void of fear. By the time Smith arrives at POEMS IN WHICH ONE BLACK MAN HOLDS ANOTHER, I can barely hold the weight of it, of, “learning to touch a man’s back & not think saddle or conquer or burn // it’s in your body, how it doesn’t reduce mine to churned wet froth…I am learning what loving a man is not, that we don’t have to end with blood.” This moment in a kitchen, two black men stepping, hands on shoulders, spinning, while it speaks to the I’s understanding of another way to love, speaks to a larger ecology present in insert[boy]; the idea, the prayer, of a world in which black men can dance without dying.
Available from YesYes Books (2014): $16.00
Aziza Barnes is blk & alive. Born in Los Angeles, Aziza currently lives in Oxford, Mississippi. Her first chapbook, me Aunt Jemima and the nailgun, was the first winner of the Exploding Pinecone Prize and published from Button Poetry. Her first full length collection i be but i ain’t, is forthcoming from YesYes Books March 2016.