19 pages 38 minutes read

Danez Smith

It won’t be a bullet

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 2017

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Shades of Mortality

The speaker of the poem “it won’t be a bullet” poses two kinds of death, one from a bullet and one from a more predictable wasting away. It is likely Smith is referring to their own HIV diagnosis, which often causes people to lose weight and become “thinner & thinner & thinner” (Line 8); however, the speaker never states this directly. They may have made this choice because talking about the disease is still taboo and difficult to discuss openly. This tactic subtly hints at the ongoing stigmatization of STDs that devastated the gay community in the 1980s.

It is also possible that the speaker leaves the cause of death ambiguous in order to make the poem more relatable to those who will die from cancer or old age. People can die in many ways that a “doctor [can] explain” (Line 2) in advance and that a person would be able to “practice” (Line 3). By leaving the precise cause of death unspecified, Smith allows readers to imagine multiple scenarios and relate this poem to their own lives. All people must face their mortality in one way or another. Smith allows the poem to also be about mortality more generally.