In [insert] Boy, Danez Smith wrestles with having a (black, gay) body that the (white, straight) world wants to annihilate. In his poems, black boys are aware that they “came out the womb obituary scribed on the backside of [their] birth certificate.” The never-ending list of police shootings and the history of lynching hum in the background of poems like “Alternate Names for Black Boys,” in which the suggestions include “guilty until proven dead” and “what once passed for kindling.” But the book considers other types of violence as well: the violence demanded of men, the violence men do to each other, and what violence wreaks on those who practice it. “Faggot or When the Front Goes Up,” begins with a boy with “feathers for muscles” who by the bottom of the page has “turned action figure” after being repeatedly shamed by his grandfather. The boy has to hurt others to save himself from the violence directed toward male bodies that challenge gender norms. He survives as “a boy who swung to keep from singing.”
[insert] Boy is Smith’s first full-length collection. The poems run the gambit from prose poems, free verse, and his own invented forms. One poem is a series of letters to the wife of the speaker’s white john. Towards the end of the book, a modified sestina form that stretches over eight parts. Firmly rooted in the body, many poems mix sexuality, violence, and religious language. Smith builds intensity through rhythm and repetition, as in “Craigslist Hook-Ups,” which begins “forgive me father, for I have called another man daddy.” Another poem, “Genesissy,” begins with the story of “the first snap, the hand’s humble attempt at thunder” and ends with the funeral of a genderqueer child told in a series of “begats”: “his aunt’s disgusted head shake/begat the world that killed/the not a boy-child.” “Genesissy” transforms from a prose poem to free verse that bursts across the page, to the block of the final six lines that tell us the annihilation of the child defies even God.
Some of the most disturbing poems are those in which white men buy sex from black men, and intertwine racial and sexual violence in the interaction. Smith dwells in the mouth in these poems, “ a wet shelter, a soft temple,” that takes in what the men are “glad to rid.” Writing about these deep wounds, Smith is both explicit and lyric, as though by saying the worst of it, he can rescue the body from what it has suffered. In “The Business of Shadows,” he reclaims the narrative and the ability to name, putting his own experience front and center: “I keep lists, but nothing like: James, Donovan, Michael. / more like: salt, unripe limes, nickel, mustard, nothing.”
Towards the end of the book Smith turns his attention toward transformative love between black men, which is always precarious given the line they inhabit between life and death. The narrator tells the beloved “Thank you for not fading to ash & memory.” The reprieve comes late and feels tenuous. Perhaps this is why in an interview Smith worried that he had “written about blackness too sadly.” There is a way in which writing about pain is actually celebrating its opposite, and Smith certainly pushes that line.
In the same interview, Smith said “being black and gay is a gospel, an armor that I love dearly.” [insert] Boy feels like that gospel, an act of rescue in a world of violence and annihilation.