Hanif Abdurraqib’s A Fortune for Your Disaster is a book of poems that feels like it got written not because the poet thought he should write it, but because he had to. There’s a breathless, headlong quality here:
the lips thick
with a familiar slang
flooding the tongue
get me to the curve
of lover’s neck
while I am still alive enough
for my nose
to resist disappearing
And elsewhere, the long lines—the book is wide, necessarily—seem to sweep on as if the poet disbelieves in margins. Here’s how a poem with a long-line for a title—“If Life Is as Short as Our Ancestors Insist It Is, Why Isn’t Everything I Want Already at My Feet”—starts off:
if I make it to heaven, I will ask for all of the small pleasures I could have had on earth.
And I’m sure this will upset the divine order. I am a simple man.
Abdurraqib is a music critic, too, and he has no formal training in poetry, which means he writes about song with the richness of a connoisseur and with the wildness of a person free of the weight of American poetry’s various schools and centers of devotion. The poet has one other book of poems to his name, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, but he writes them all the time and for years has gathered them in chapbooks or publishes them individually. His books of essays are They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest, and most recently A Little Devil in America: Notes on Black Performance. One thing that this means, in terms of the poems Abdurraqib writes, is that they are not just objects of music, but make music an object. Here are a few lines from “The Ghost of Marvin Gaye Mistakes a Record Store for a Graveyard”:
they burned the disco records
and from the smoke I heard
my mother’s voice or was it
that my father once wore
my mother’s dresses spun in front of a mirror
the music he tried to pray out of himself
memory is as fleeting as any other high
Dazzling and open-hearted, the book is also full of poems about flowers, inspired in part by overhearing someone asking “How can Black people write about flowers at a time like this,” to which Abdurraqib responds with lyric fire in “How Can Black People Write about Flowers at a Time Like This,” a poem in which his long lines are fragmented by a gesture toward enjambment, a gesture that renders the poem almost like a musical score with bars dividing not notes but words:
but if you’ll indulge / my worst impulses / isn’t it funny / how the white / petals of the oleander / do not render the crow / flightless
JESSE NATHAN: How does the work of music criticism weave together with the work of poetry? Did you write about music before you wrote poems?
HANIF ABDURRAQIB: I think that I’m coming to terms with the fact that I have always been a music critic, which is to say that I grew up hearing the world differently. I was often asked, “What do you hear?” but not “What do you think?”—which, surely, was a function of the fact that I grew up the youngest child in a house of six. Which meant that I was a curiosity, at times, but never an authority. And in this way, I had to come to the understanding that what I heard was lighting a path towards what I might think, or what I might feel. Even the acknowledgment of that, applied to the action of writing, or obsession, is poetic. Not in a way I understood as a child, or even a teenager, or even a person in my early twenties. But I can deconstruct a song. I know I can do that, very well. Though, I have to ask myself the question of who that might serve beyond myself. I get gleeful about getting under the hood of a tune, but if I believe in writing about songs, partially, as an act of service, that alone doesn’t serve someone as much as translating what I hear into what I feel, and asking a reader if it’s possible that they might feel something. It doesn’t have to be even adjacent to what I’m feeling, but even inviting the reality that the song is a site for emotion is kind of a starting point. Which, I believe, is also poetic. And so to come to poems later in my life, I feel like I had a slight head start, because I came to poems through slam, through performance poetry. Through hearing the way language would interact with other language, sonically, and knowing that I wanted to be a writer who made choices with sound in mind. That I could play with language to create these small symphonies, but do it also while being realistic about the fact that it isn’t important to me if people hear what I hear. I am, once again, inviting an opportunity for feeling, and hoping people will take it.