This week in the PEN Poetry Series, guest editor TC Tolbert features five poems by Danez Smith. About Smith’s work, Tolbert writes: “Dr. Cornel West says: ‘I come from a tradition of a people who have been traumatized and terrorized and stigmatized for 400 years, probably the most hated people in the modern world. And what have we done? We have dished out the highest quality of human beings tied to love.’ I don’t know if Dr. West knows Danez Smith (surely he does!), but when I read his description of a ‘love warrior,’ I immediately think of Danez and their poems. In the midst of perpetual, systemic mass desecration of black bodies, how necessary – and how blessed we are to witness, to be invited into – this work.”


1 in 2*

*On February 23rd, 2016, the CDC released a study estimating 1 in 2 black men who have sex with men will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime. 

the cells of you heard a tune you could not hear. you memorized & masqueraded, karaoked without knowing. you went in for a routine test & they told you what you were made of:

-honey spoiled into mead
-lemon mold
-broken proofs
-traffic tickets
-unidentified shard
-a shy, red moon
-a book of antonyms
-the book of job
-a lost child unaware of its name

you knew it would come to this, but then it actually came. 


1 in 2

away to the red lake
to dance in the red waves

oh sugar boys, my
choir candy, wade slow

& forever, dip a toe
& red water will crawl

toward your neck
come on, dive in

or be swallowed
the water wants

to meet you, why
not on such a pretty

night, with the shore’s
burgundy foam

teething towards your feet
like wine out for blood

& the sky above
dark as a nigga

who once told you
you cute & don’t worry


1 in 2

he, who smelled coffee sweet & cigarillo blue,
entered me, who knew better but _____________.
he, who in his wake left shredded tarot,
threw back his head & spewed light from every opening
& in me, light fell on a door, & in the door
a me i didn’t know & knew, the now me
whose blood blacks & curls back like paper
near an open flame. I walked towards the door
as I walked away from the door. when i met me
in the middle, nothing grand happened.
a rumor made its way around my body. 


1 in 2

if you trace the word diagnosis back enough
you’ll find destiny

              trace it forwards, find diaspora


is there a word for the feeling prey
feel when the teeth finally sink
after years of waiting?



            plague & genocide meet on a line in my body



i cut open my leg & it screamed


this strange dowry

bloodwife they whisper when i raise my hand for another rum coke

          the ill savior of my veins proceeds me, my digital honesty about what

queer bacteria has dotted my blood with snake mist & shatter potions

          they stare at my body, off the app, unpixelated & poison pretty flesh

they leave me be, i dance with the ghost i came here with

          a boy with 3 piercings above his muddy eyes smiles then disappears into the strobes

the light spits him out near my ear, against my slow & practiced grind

          he could be my honey knight, the hand to break me apart like dry bread

there is a dream where we are horses that neither one of us has

          for fives songs my body years of dust fields, his body rain

in my ear he offers me his bed promise live stock meat salt lust brief marriage

          i tell him the thing i must tell him, of the boy & the blood & the magic trick

me too            his strange dowry         vein brother-wife        partner in death juke

          what a strange gift to need, the good news that the boy you like is dying too

we let the night blur into cum wonder & blood hallelujah

          in the morning, 7 emails come: meeting, junk, rejection, junk, blood work results

i put on a pot of coffee, the boy stirs from whatever he dreams

          & it’s like that for a while. me & that boy lived a good little life for a bit

in the mornings, we’d both take a pill, then thrash



Once a week, the PEN Poetry Series publishes work by emerging and established writers from coast to coast. Subscribe to the PEN Poetry Series mailing list and have poems delivered to your e-mail as soon as they are published (no spam, no news, just poems).