An Unlove: A review on [insert] boy by Danez Smith

black boy be

like ocean hid behind a grain of sand

like a village ablaze & dreaming of spit

like ashy hands bathed in blue flame

like a pillar of bones sealed by honey

like a mouthless prayer, a lost glory

like a gold watch slowed by blood

like blood all over everything: the reeboks,
the tube socks, the air & the mother’s hands

like a nothing at & ain’t that something?

ain’t that the world?

Danez Smith’s [insert] boy is thoroughly mouth dropping. Smith addresses many forms of violence; as in, homophobia, rape and sexual abuse, racial tensions and physicality, and the continual destruction of the black male body. In these poems, we are introduced to the complex lives of a gay black male; furthermore, we notice the complexity of intersectionality and how being gay and a black male can move the male body into unsafe spaces. Yet, he pushes us further and further into this notion of unlove versus love. Understanding the body versus abusing the body. While reading, we are charged with many questions about what to do, how to comprehend the body, and what to do with the body.

Already, Smith, opens the book introducing the reader to this abuse–this violence. There is a contrast between peace and disturbance in the way Smith pairs two things; “like a pillar of bones sealed by honey” or “like a gold watch slowed by blood.” He is handing us expectations: here’s what to expect while reading this book. Here’s the intersection. This poem finishes very sarcastic, and almost snappy; “ain’t that the world,” as if addressing the reader directly.

Smith has not remorse for the way he addresses racial abuse in contrast with homosexuality. In this first section, the black boy is continually attacked over and over and over. There isn’t a break for the black boy in this section, thus commenting the social normality of black boys in society. Smith uses names such as, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, and others to further push the reader into this realm where black boys are not safe in any way. In addition, this section introduces Christianity and the struggle the boy has with it. In the poem, “genesissy,” Smith chronicles what happens after god makes the 7th day–talks about the 8th day and so on. God, in this poem, is a gay man–telling Adam to “werk” or gossiping with the trees and landscape. Smith pushes this fantasy forward by then talking about the death of a black gay boy, and how the church’s negative attitude toward him displeases God.

The second section, “[pap’s lil’],” briefly touches on family abuse. There’s even a one line poem that can, more or less, sum up the entire section. In the next section, we are introduced to a number of poems titled, “healing: attempt.” In these “attempts” there are a bold theme of the body. The body being handled. The body submitting. The body searching. The body under pressure. Yet, there is also a great deal of risk in these poem. We see the body at stake–trying to push through a sexual abuse. A sexual understanding.

healing: attempt #1

it escape me like a plague of snakes            choke me           & my neck is a beggar
& his hands are a holiday & i hope the spirit hits him. I pray to be gifted no air,
for his hands to ribbon my throat, for the knot to pull tighter & tighter until his
palms touch & he wonders if I was even there. I get my wish, & my eyes flutter to
white, & my lungs are two beats skinned & decorating the fireplace, & my lungs
are boxes full of wet dust, & my lungs are empty as a cathedral on a Tuesday night,
& outside the window Panama is a girl dancing covered in church bells. the bells fill
the room, my spirit leaves me, the room goes black & I wake up soaked in myself
& he is crying too.

In the fourth section, “[rent],” we see the boy taken through a number of sexual situations. By this section, we understand the body a little more, and feel more invested into the boy, his life, and his growing relations to men and being black alike. This section is all about embrace; both self embrace and sexual embrace. From poems about craigslist hookups to poems about orgies. This section highlights what the black body can handle under sexual pressure. In addition, we see this boy who is constantly putting himself in environments that allows the body to undergo heavy abuse. Moreover, we are taken to places that appear unsafe, uncomfortable, and almost immoral for this boy. However, we are there and there is nothing we can do about it. Smith takes us along these journeys, giving us little to no time to react. In addition, he talks about these spaces very casually. There is an abundance of voices and vernacular language, that otherwise wouldn’t be seen. Using words like, “rentboy,” “fuck,” “dawg,” bitch,” all of which exhibit the amount of communal space Smith is allowing the reader to enter.

The poem, “poems in which one black man holds another,” in the fifth section, is a beautiful piece. Smith touches on the vulnerability of wanting versus the desire to be sexually active with another man. This balance is lovely. Whereas before, Smith was literally hammering us with unsafe places, and the body’s casual destruction, this section alleviates that pressure. We see the boy understanding love through his body, and how is body can truly appreciate love. There is a need to be love here. This need drives this section along, so by the time we get to this last poem, “poems in which one black man holds another,” we are completely in love with the idea of love. The lines, “I am learning to follow a man’s lead / & spin when he offers me wind,” and “I am learning what loving a man is / not, that we don’t have to end with blood,” are direct moments of what this section is committing itself to being–a section about love, both understanding it and receiving it.

I am learning what loving a man is

not, that we don’t have to end with blood.

The book ends with a much needed slowness. There is a rhythm in this section that gives the reader a time to rethink everything and reevaluate what has happened. And I believe Smith intended it to be just that, by titling this section, “[again].” A question poses while reading this section, “how does one live as a black gay man when being a black gay man is so tirelessly sought out to be made evil?” And in this section, the question isn’t truly answered.

However, there is an ominous look at this question–what to do with it, the black boy, and where to go from here? Although, there isn’t a definite answer, we are satisfied with what we are given. And what we are given is a call to action. Smith wants the reader to understand the strife of intersectionalism and how one goes about it in a world that is constantly attacking various parts of it. He wants us to love black men. And that’s what we are charged with finishing this beautiful collection. Here’s are the ways to love. Here.

Luther Hughes

**You can purchase [insert] boy here.**


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