When an Angry Poet Prays Past Anger – The Bigness of Small Poems – #37 in a Series – Danez Smith


American poet Danez Smith wearing on his back a poem by Angel Naifs

little prayer

Let ruin end here

let him find honey
where there once was a slaughter

let him enter the lion's cage
& find a field of lilacs

and let this be the healing
& if not  let it be

Danez Smith from Don’t Call Us Dead, Graywolf Press, 2017

A searing new voice in American poetry, Danez Smith is one of a pack of young American poets riding in from the fringes, writing a poetry of resistance, celebration of difference and of horrifying lament. Lament that comes from lives born far from Western culture’s comfortable center.

Like smelling salts, this startling and disturbing poetry crys wake up, wake up. And his cries join others, those of Ocean Vuong, sam sax and Jamal May, to name a few.

Smith’s little poem from his latest collection, Don’t Call Us Dead, a finalist for the prestigious National Book Award in 2017, strikes me as an outlier. A poem different in tone and intensity from many in his book. It’s what made it standout for me. The tone, is it exhaustion I hear in the the poem’s opening plea: let ruin end here? The bigness of such a small word: ruin.

American poet Danez Smith reading Dear White America on U Tube

So much in this huge small poem. A biblical plea for the lion to lie down with the lamb. For places of conflict and war to become places of sweetness, beauty and healing.

But unlike some of the pleading voices in the bible and, in particular, in the Psalms, there is no querulous demanding tone. It’s a a quiet request and, for me, ends with shocking acceptance. and if not   let it be.

Part of me wants to yell back: are you kidding? Let it be: in Syria? Myanmar? Sudan? Eastern Congo? A school in Florida? A church in Florida? A mosque in Quebec? Are you kidding?

But no, he’s not kidding. He can’t change the world’s violence but he can try and change its impact on his heart. His response. He can want it. Work for it. And then accept what is.

This prayer does not have the tone nor the cry calling out a racist America in his poem, Dear White America. Nor the rage in the poem You’re Dead America. These acid cries:

tomorrow, i’ll have hope.

tomorrow i can shift the wreckage

& find a seed.

i don’t know what will grow

i’ve lost my faith in this garden

the bees are dying

the water poisons whole cities

but my honeyed kin

those brown folks who make

up the nation of my heart

only allegiance I stand for

realer than any god

for them i bury whatever

this country thought it was.

These his necessary outcries. There in its own way a prayer against God.But prayer,  this huge little prayer, so big in its quiet, seems to be a way of staying sane (let it be) when the horrors refuse to change. He asks it be his way. I ask let it be my way, too.

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