Rarely, if ever, do those of us living with HIV encounter representations of how we manage the virus every day, let alone representations that do not reinforce shame and stigma. Homie (Graywolf Press), Danez Smith’s new book of poetry, illuminates some of the daily, often hidden realities of HIV, treating them with vulnerability, complexity, and finely honed craft. Smith, a Black, queer, HIV-positive poet who uses they/them pronouns, depicts deeply personal aspects of living with the virus while creatively situating those experiences in larger social and historical context.
The poems in Homie that explicitly deal with HIV—notably “sometimes i wish i felt the side effects,” “undetectable,” “old confession & new,” and “gay cancer”—offer glimpses into the interior life of someone living with the virus. They illustrate the act of taking medication to maintain viral suppression (and how the pill becomes “ritual and proof” of the virus), what it feels like to receive an HIV diagnosis, and the experience of having an illness that’s invisible.
The first poem in the collection to center on HIV, “sometimes i wish i felt the side effects,” communicates the conflicting feelings that an HIV diagnosis can evoke. Flowing in elegant couplets, the poem presents an introspective narrator as they express relief, regret, gratitude (“thank you, genvoya, my seafoam savior”), and a strong will to live (“i only knew how to live/when i knew how i’ll die.”) The poem characterizes HIV with ambivalence (“i’m not a mother, but I know what it is to nurse a thing you want to kill/& can’t. you learn to love it”) and brings together words commonly associated with the virus in the popular imagination with words we typically don’t find next to it: “my toxic angel, my wasted utopia.”
Homie also grants insight into what it’s like to carry an invisible and chronic condition. The title of “sometimes i wish i felt the side effects” leads into its first lines: “but there is no proof but proof/no mark but the good news.” “undetectable” captures the condition of viral suppression (“almost like gone but not gone”) and how it feels to inhabit such a condition (“it doesn’t cross my mind now that it whispers so soft it’s almost silence. but it’s not”).
Living with HIV can be isolating and shrouded in silence, and images that do reflect our experiences often draw on negative stereotypes. But in Smith’s skilled hands, a strikingly intimate and spare portrait of HIV emerges. Homie is a precious gift: In it, we encounter reflections on HIV that gracefully push against predominant, harmful narratives that surround the virus, while creating representations that are rich and full of humanity.
But the way HIV comes through in Homie is not only personal. Smith combines their meditations on the mundane aspects of the virus with its social and historical realities, and out of their poetic treatment emerges a profound sense of connection. In “gay cancer,” a tribute to those who have lost their lives to HIV/AIDS, the narrator reflects on how HIV connects them to a tradition, including Black queer poets Melvin Dixon and Essex Hemphill:
o mother o sweet unc
who we miss & never knew
is that you?
my wrist to my ear
Smith also points to lingering social inequities related to HIV today. In “all the good dick lives in Brooklyn Park,” the narrator says of a hookup, “he can’t afford the pills that keep me round & blood quiet.” And in “undetectable,” the depiction of viral suppression coexists with violence and death. Over the course of that poem, Smith juxtaposes the narrator’s understanding of their undetectable status with a scene depicting the death of an unnamed boy. In the poem’s final lines, the narrator identifies with him:
but one dead boy makes the whole forest
a grave. & he’s in there, in me, in the middle
of all that green.
These moments of connection—to a tradition, to fallen homies—link HIV to what might be the strongest theme holding Homie together: affinity. While they display a wide variety, the poems in Smith’s new book loosely center on the ties that develop through friendship (part of the dedication reads, “for you and your friends”), shared oppression, and similar cultures and histories. The poems feature different kinds of relationships: friends, family, bullies, lovers. Defiant love, joy, and affirmation abound in Homie and an impulse to gather resounds throughout its pages. The collection presents a sustained focus on the bonds we form with each other and an ambitious experiment in seeing how far those bonds can stretch. Smith folds HIV-positive individuals into the motley crew they collect throughout their book, from the queerly democratic “my presidents,” to the exuberant and inviting “shout out to my niggas in Mexico.” And in placing communion as a central concern, Smith surely joins some of the most iconic American writers.
HIV surfaces more frequently in Smith’s previous collection of poetry, Don’t Call Us Dead, and in that book the social problems related to HIV are even more explicit. In Don’t Call Us Dead, Smith vividly and forcefully underscores the way HIV disproportionately impacts Black gay and bisexual men (“1 in 2” begins by referencing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics). The poems interrogate the connections between HIV, police violence (in “every day is a funeral & a miracle” and “cops running inside my veins, hunting/white blood cells”), and incarceration, particularly in “recklessly,” which is dedicated to Michael Johnson, the Black gay athlete sentenced under HIV criminalization laws and released in July of last year: “i got the cell block blues … i got the cell count blues.” Smith’s rendering of HIV in Don’t Call Us Dead is loud and unrelenting in underscoring HIV as a structural issue intricately linked to anti-Black racism.
While still present, HIV as a social problem isn’t as prominent in Homie, and the way the virus appears is more subdued when compared to Smith’s earlier work. Of the 38 poems in the book—including “acknowledgements,” which appears as the last poem—just four focus specifically on HIV, and they are relatively short. But that’s not to say that the way Smith writes about HIV in Homie is any less poignant—quite the opposite. Although there aren’t as many lines devoted to HIV in Homie as there are in Don’t Call Us Dead, with their new book Smith offers a more pared-down representation, one less tied to metaphors, especially violent ones, and more attuned to lived experience. More often in Homie we come across direct reporting of what it is like to live with HIV. The portrayal is quieter, more delicate, and executed with a subtlety that we don’t see nearly enough.
The candidness and gentleness with which Homie approaches HIV is exactly what makes it so important. Smith delicately draws some of the most intimate elements of life with HIV out into the open, countering still-prevalent stigma by making them visible. If the lines that appear in its final pages can sum up Smith’s collection, “this ain’t about language/but who language holds”—then in laying bare our lives with such tenderness, Homie holds us.