A Fortune for Your Disaster by Hanif Abdurraqib
Reviewed by C. Bain
Forgive me, for I have been nurturing
my well-worn grudges against beauty.
I am hoping my neighbors will show some mercy
on me for backing my car
into the garden
& crushing what I will say are the peonies.
a flower with a short
season. born dying.
-from “How Can Black People Write About Flowers At A Time Like This”
Hanif’s fourth book, only his second collection of poetry, has been highly anticipated. He has published two books of essays since his last poetry collection, and his voice in these poems has the range and muscularity of someone who can write any genre he wants, and is turning to poetry for its wildness and craving.
Abdurraqib’s essays have reached a wide audience – in particular his music criticism has been used by Pitchfork and MTV. Like his interests as an essayist, music is central in this book of poems, as metaphor, character or backdrop depending on the moment. Music is not only music, either. Perhaps the most striking and important task in this book is how clearly the connection is made between “personal” narratives, issues of representation and cultural production, and then to overarching questions of racialized humanity, racialized violence. Early in the book, in a piece called “The Ghost of Marvin Gaye Plays the Dozens With the Pop Charts,” Hanif’s Marvin says:
your mama so black she everywhere but ain’t never on
time. your mama so black she sang hound dog first & died with nothing to her name but the
drink that carried her to the grave. your mama so black she my mama too. your mama saw
the gun & let you bleed out & ran screaming into the sunlight… your mama so black she will
carry you in her teeth to the river & hold you down until you become either holy or dead.
This deft movement through the images of Marvin Gaye, mothers, “your mamas,” pop charts, love and violence is dizzying. Like music, he pulls the ordinary stuff of life into a mythic sphere. The mundane is not juxtaposed with the archetypal, but transformed by it.
Another semi-musical sensibility in this collection turns up in its return to refrains, a recycling of characters and images, that is more like a musician’s theme and variation than a simpler anaphora of a poet straightforwardly rotating through their obsessions. Roses at Obama’s feet in Kehinde Wiley’s presidential portrait and roses thrown onto the stage at a Marvin Gaye concert in California. These poems are concerned with a kind of idolatry, or with how heroes are manufactured. Marvin Gaye and Nikola Tesla, recurring characters, are obvious examples of this. But so is the speaker himself. (Maybe we all do this? Maybe art-making is a kind of enshrining of oneself as an artist?) The speaker’s divorce, his displacement in New Haven, witnessing the ordinary shocks of violence, all becomes a hero’s journey. Again, the voice in this collection feels important. It makes me think of one of the stylistic shifts I have seen across Ross Gay’s books, where an early commitment to polished, beautiful language (like in Against Which) shifts into something which is more whimsical and immediate and also somehow more like reportage, more like the act of observation and thought itself.
Is this a book about violence? Yes, and. Yes but. Violence is sometimes a compelling glamour, and at other times merely exists, a stark fact. Violence is explicit or implied or personal or familial. Violence works in parallel with the memory’s struggle against violence, rendering it dreamlike. In another one of the pieces entitled “How Can Black People Write About Flowers At a Time Like This”:
… i would like for memory alone
to declare me forgiven but i would be lying
if i said i recall the color of the dress
or the way her hair spread its many arms
along the blacktop.
… of course
i tell myself it was the popping of gum.
of course i say she was pulled to the ground
by revelry and nothing else. of course i
do not ask you to relive with me the funeral,
though by now you surely know there was one.
In another moment, violence is given to the speaker by himself, as a perversion of care, in the poem “If Life is as Short as Our Ancestors Insist It Is, Why Isn’t Everything I want Already At My Feet”:
I sit in a running car under a bath of orange light and eat
the fried chicken that I swore an oath to stray from
for the sake of my heart and its blood labor.
Still, there is something about the way a grease stain begins small and then tiptoes
its way along the fabric of my pants. Here, finally, a country worth living in.
This is emblematic of the breadth of Abdurraqib’s voice, and his use of an almost cinematic frame: At first, we see the contemporary setting, ordinary but sinister: Then, the body with it’s frightening majesty enters the story: Then, we zoom out, watching the stain spread, the shape becoming a metaphor.
Okay, in trying to find an un-glowing remark about something for review purposes, there is an easy target: Why is this book so big and floppy? Physically, I mean. I picked it up and was like, Why this shape? ew. And the reason why did not truly arrive until well into the second half, in a piece called “The Ghost of Marvin Gaye Mistakes a Record Store for a Graveyard,” which I won’t try to quote. Part of the conceit of Marvin’s character is that he is being addressed as a celebrity, or an expert, at times correcting the record, in one poem answering redacted questions for an interviewer. In this one, the space between the sparse lines turns the poem into the voice of a ghost. It is readable as a contrapuntal, it is readable as fragments, and knowing that it was coming puts my whole book-shape-sizeist issue to rest. Going through the book again, I was able to catch and appreciate a number of other pieces where the composition was working with the width of the page. So shut my mouth. In all seriousness, not only did I love this book because I’m predisposed to love books of poems, nor because I have enjoyed Abdurraqib’s work in the past, but I could find very little in the way of fault or flaw. It is masterful
This rigor and breadth of the voice in this collection moves us from place to place, while still giving remarkable feeling of consistency. This quality of voice is interesting in that it does not feel particularly intimate, even as it reveals and witnesses excruciatingly intimate acts. What tone is Abdurraqib building, what feeling? It is a feeling that is very “now,” and is also built on an innate royalty, history, legacy, which is in turn tied to sharp mourning. It feels rich and also like wealth is not salve enough against the pain that accompanies it.
C. Bain is a gender liminal artist based in Brooklyn. His book, Debridement, was a finalist for the Publishing Triangle awards. His writing is published in journals and anthologies such as BOAAT, them., Bedfellows Magazine, PANK, and elsewhere. His plays have been performed at Dixon Place, The Kraine, and The Tank in NYC. He is a performer, and has worked as an actor with several independent theater companies. He apprentices at Ugly Duckling Presse, and is a Lambda Literary fellow. He works extensively with trauma, embodiment, and sexuality, but he’d rather just dance with you. More at tiresiasprojekt.com