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Reading Zadie Smith at Twenty-Four

by Dante Di Stefano

I spent that year on rooftops, in doorways
trying to dream myself into poems
that did not suit me and forcing myself
to barter love for love. Every moment
was happening twice, inside and outside,
splitting history in two as usual.
I was looking for anything fateful,
consequential, mysterious, and clear.
Full stories are as rare as honesty,
the wind said. I prayed to starlight and stains
left by a busted old radiator
that I might pick a single narrative
and stray there until a radiance lit
the tongue of fire crayoned over my head.

I often write poems about the lives and works—of artists, musicians, and writers—fountaining through my own. “Reading Zadie Smith at Twenty-Four” is one such poem. I wrote it when I was forty-four, looking back at an era of my life that seems almost completely alien to me today. When I read  White Teeth by Zadie Smith, I was overcome by the power of her prose and by her vision of a multicultural London teeming with possibility and tied to the traumas of the colonial past. The fact that Smith was twenty-five when the novel was published amazed and inspired me then, and still does today.

“Reading Zadie Smith at Twenty-Four" is a sonnet. As I write this, it occurs to me that every time you perform in a form you are inventing the form anew from the inside. Every sonnet I’ve ever written is the first sonnet ever written and it’s contradictorily, simultaneously, speaking to all the sonnets Big Banging themselves into being and rippling from volta to volta across the multiverse. At the end of Wanda Coleman’s “American Sonnet 88” from her book Mercurochrome (which I also read when I was twenty-four), the poet says: “bring me / to where / my blood runs.” My blood runs here—at twenty-four, at forty-four, (hopefully someday) at sixty-four and eighty-four—grateful for the lives I’ve lived and that have lived through me in the flesh and on the page.

Dante Di Stefano’s most recent work is the book-length poem Midwhistle (University of Wisconsin Press, 2023).