Throughout Hanif Abdurraqib’s latest collection of poems, A Fortune For Your Disaster (Tin House Books) meaning shimmers oddly; a thing seen through roiling water. Lines imitate the title of the book, designed to allow for and often demand a multiplicity of interpretations. In one poem, the ghost of Marvin Gaye—a recurring character in the collection—responds to an unheard interviewer. His answers open on the page, responding as much to blank space as to the reader’s imagination. Elsewhere, in keeping with what many readers familiar with Abdurraqib’s body of work may by now have come to expect, poem titles bear slant or at times direct reference to pop culture: music, film, sports. “Lights Out Tonight, Trouble In The Heartland” nods to the opening verse of Bruce Springsteen’s “Badlands,” the first track on his (best) album, Darkness on the Edge of Town. The poem begins:
and besides, by the time this ends, you will have forgotten what drew you here in the first place.
There is an art of impermanence to this admission of forgetting. Intent may be grasped only for a moment, before it slips and sinks from view, changing over time and contexts. It is impact that is constant. A series of poems that reappears throughout the collection, “It’s Not Like Nikola Tesla Knew All of Those People Were Going to Die,” plays with this disconnect, in name and content:
[…] Some of us work for our meals, and some of us eat the dead pulled from the top hat of
a hunter. What I’m saying is that after I crawled out of the pit, I know the blood on my shirt was
not a child of any wound I owned, but I still wore it the way fire wears a city it is only a visitor in.
A certain counter-intuitive feeling emerges when trying to make any assertion about a book that does so good a job masking, or multiplying, its author’s intent. Everything that might otherwise appear certain is pushed into a place of seeming. That said, the two most fundamental elements of this book seem to be a series of thirteen poems, “How Can Black People Write About Flowers At A Time Like This,” and a book-wide undertaking of re-examining the fallout of a romantic relationship.
Impermanence comes alive most viscerally in those poems that discuss love, or its promise—there is a connection here between being Black in America and being in a state of unrequited love. In each case, the author is aware of his openness to impact. The book is packed full of male figures, real and fictional—besides Marvin Gaye, Bruce Springsteen, and Michael Jordan, the movie Logan and the work of Montell Jordan, Blackstreet, and Journey all make appearances. A reader might feel in the presence of an unreliable narrator at times, in the way any narrator drawing from a record of limited variety can seem unreliable. If this is what happens, it happens with the author’s full awareness: The poems in this book are buttressed by three sections beginning with quotes by Florence Welch, Octavia Butler, and Suzan-Lori Parks respectively. Hardly the warning signs of an incomplete bibliography.
For all the people and characters we do find, virtually absent is any romantic partner (in terms of breakup books, the obvious foil to Fortune is Sharon Olds’s Stag’s Leap, which features a husband throughout, identified not only by pronouns but name as well). It becomes increasingly clear that in matters of love, the speaker is unable or unwilling to place much blame outside himself. If Fortune book performs just a single revolutionary act, this is it.
Placing blame is a national pastime, and quite an easy one when you are in a historically privileged position—circle back to the speaker’s awareness of his maleness, the many ways in which identity might shape or skew perception in matters of love, particularly as far as what we deserve is concerned. Abdurraqib’s poems reveal him to be a writer of extreme sensitivity to the realities of privilege, and this sensitivity is a gift. In strong moments, it reveals to us the way in which privilege, at its most insidious, may compel many among us to feel a sense of ownership over the bodies of others, those who we don’t know as much as those who we love. In its best moments, the poems offer a lexicon that suggests even in a language as crooked as this one, there can be ways to live.
The author’s awareness of his maleness is not unrelated to America’s hyperawareness of his blackness. One has always been a position of privilege in the United States, the other always of oppression. It is unfortunate that what tends to make us aware of our privileges are the oppressions we are subject to, though it is always a mistake to observe a single layer of identity through a lens that occludes every other. Where blackness and maleness intersect, life expectancy drops and the chances of being imprisoned radically increase. Aburraqib speaks to this intersection in the poem “If Life Is as Short As Our Ancestors Insist It Is, Why Isn’t Everything I Want Already At My Feet” which ends with an according philosophy of briefness:
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.
One that falls thick from whatever it is we love so much
that we can’t stop letting it kill us. If we must die, let it be inside here. If we must.
This was a difficult review to write. Fortune is a heady collection, rife with possibility and a focus that is unafraid to shift, then shift again. The names of the poems are long, their forms varied. There are sweeping prose poems and poems that live mostly in blank space. It’s excellent and time-consuming. It is never simple or easy. If the central question of this book is, “How Can Black People Write About Flowers At A Time Like This,” then there may be an answer in this approach. Never simply. Never easily.
A micro-collection of two poems sharing the same name takes us back to love. One of the couple, “I Tend To Think Forgiveness Looks The Way It Does In The Movies,” ends:
tell me what it means now
that one cannot say heartbreak
without the lips
making a soft circle of themselves
at the opening of break
as they also might to beckon a kiss
is it that memory is a field
with endless graves
A person is a kind of text. The late Maya Angelou said we may forget everything about a person, but not how they made us feel. Though I may forget what drew me here in the first place, I cannot forget what draws me back. There are children in this country whose bodies are broken before their hearts are. This book is about flowers, arrangements, not turning away.