Counting Descent (2016), by Clint Smith
For anyone wanting a set of moving and insightful poems about the richness of the Black experience in America, I highly recommend this collection by the thoughtful, skillful, and award-winning writer Clint Smith. “Counting Descent” is a set of 56 powerful, short poems, awarded the Best Poetry Book by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. Smith writes largely in the first-person, giving the reader an immediacy and perhaps a sense of what it is to have lived his life. Some poems are from childhood, depicting the joys and the terrors of growing as a Black boy, some share the challenges and tenderness of being a Black man, and some reflect Smith’s deep appreciation of history in healing the present.
Each poem has movement, as between universals and specifics, and they unfold in a way that builds empathy and understanding. For example, I remember the feelings Smith described in “Ode to the End of Year 6th Grade Picnic” despite our differences in age, race, location, and upbringing. Smith’s poems exhibit a mastery of metaphor and surprise. For example, “Playground Elegy” somehow connects a playground slide with intellectual ability and the low life expectancy of Black boys and young men. In “Beyond This Place” a chain-link fence becomes a false deity. The humorous and sweet poems in the collection bring other insights. “My jump shot” is a clever and funny sequence of comparisons between his quirky basketball skills and many other, non-basketball parts of his life. “Each Morning is a Ritual Made Just for Us” is a tender and moving love poem.
Amongst all these favorites, the title poem, “Counting Descent”, stands above. A dizzying tour de force, this raging river of a poem goes so fast and so deep that by the end I was astonished by where we washed up on shore.