The PdS Black Voices Series Presents: HANIF WILLIS-ABDURRAQIB
A Poem In Which No Black People Are Dead
here, the bouquet of bullets
instead find a patch of fresh dirt
and just like that,
it is spring again.
in this poem, I speak of the grandmother
but not of time’s eager shadow
reaching for her legs.
instead, there is no ancestor
that cannot be touched
by a hand four generations younger.
in this poem, we weaponize joy.
gospel is sung during the week
without burying anyone,
because it is what the living demand.
no one dead looks like anyone’s child here,
because there is no one dead here.
there is no child who is not called a child,
even when they have sinned against the earth.
all of our heroes are still living,
their statues bronze and tall on street corners.
jamal from the barbershop. ms. rose who put her foot
in some fried chicken once, and ain’t never pulled it out.
here, no one asks for permission to celebrate their living
and so it is:
the night pulls back its black mask and gives way to more black.
the type that turns the speakers up loud and runs into the streets.
the type that don’t know how to act,
but ain’t here to impress nobody.
a whole city opens its cracked palms and holds the buzzing within.
in this poem, it sounds like a prayer.
not the hushed kind, but the one that arrives on the lips
after a lover trusts you with their undoing.
the kind that comes from a table
where the spades are up and the tea is sweet.
here, everyone black is a church that never burns.
everyone black is the fire themselves.
eternal light, blood still hot and never on the pavement.
if heaven is a place of no pain, let this be heaven.
here, the god of bulletproof rapture is washing a boy’s feet in the river.
the boy looks up, summons every black bird from its nest.
commands them to cover the sky.
Aaliyah – Rock The Boat
I want to dance the way they have black kids dance on television
in shows where there are no other black kids
the floor, sinking into the earth
and the black kids trying to keep their feet dry
I, too, wish to ache and move in the suburbs of a big city
but never for anyone’s pay, thrown across the table of a cheap diner
I want no one to buy anything I am selling
I wish only to be settled into a tornado of limbs
two black clouds over a storm cursed ocean
a set of shivering hips unlocking midnight
instead, I have found the corner of a house again
I draw a palm over the back of two yellow cats
I do not sweat in rooms where I can love small things
I do not love anything that can’t fit in my hands
I leave my bedroom only to wake up in another’s bedroom
it is hard to make small talk if everyone you love is still alive
and the sky is threatening nothing
that you haven’t lived through a million times
it is hard to understand why anyone gets undressed
in front of anyone else’s eager eyes
I get undressed with all of my clothes on
I get undressed and it is really so moving
here we are again in the moon-licked grass
after the bar lets out or the quarters run dry
whichever comes first after the revelry
the water up to our ankles
the small animals gathered around
slowly marching in to our unzipped bodies.
I, Too, Have Been Sad
you must know
I wept in the winter of the felled boy
I do not do well in the dark
I do not do well when there is only a moon
but also isn’t death so sad
isn’t death just the most impossible thing
I saw my son’s eyes in the eyes of the dead child
I don’t mean that I actually have a son
I mean I only dream of tall boys with my own face
I mean I know what my own blood looks like
but I have never seen a ghost
I went to the movies twice
to see the one about the boy who got shot in Oakland
I told all of my friends to go
we didn’t know why it had to be so heartbreaking
do you all actually have to see the tears
isn’t this profile photo enough
isn’t this hard conversation enough
aren’t we all inching towards the same flame
I’m not a bad person
I just never learned to orbit anything other than my own grief
you not respecting my sadness makes me sadder
it’s not like I’ve killed a black person myself
it’s not like I speak to my grandfather who has
unless it’s thanksgiving
but then only about the weather
which by then feels like one hundred dark clouds
barreling towards the tepid horizon
or at least I’ve been told that’s how it feels
look at my new coat
look at my new sky
look at how the vultures hover and hover
but never descend
A few good words with Hanif
PDS: How does your identity influence, inspire, and construct the way that you think about your work? What does it mean for you to be a black poet?
HWA: It means that I am, if nothing else, always going to be useful. I believe everything to be urgent, because it is. I am often wrestling with multiple ideas in a day, and I feel an obligation to at least consider them beyond how they live in my own head. I think I am confronted, more often, with imagery of people who look like me, leaving. This, of course, makes me think more directly about what I may leave behind. Like so many black people in America, I come from a long line of storytellers. People who reveled in folklore, or told tall tales to corner a small part of their humanity. I really believe in the continuing of that tradition, in the best way I know how. My father has never stopped telling stories to his children. Even now, when I visit home and sit down at any table he is sitting at, he has a story for me. Often, it is one I have heard many times. But the way it is told changes, and so, in some ways, the story takes on a new life. I consider all of our blackness to be so vast. It isn’t just grief, and it isn’t just joy. I know this because I have stories inside me that reflect it. I want, more than anything, for black people to exist to others as more than just one thing. Of course, I think about my work when a black person dies, but I also think about my work when I see black people living. When I am at dinner with a friend and their song comes on, and they start to dance, because they can’t keep that happiness inside. When I’m at the barbershop and a see a young black child getting their first haircut, the wonder in their eyes when they look at their new self in the mirror. The narrative can’t just be “we are born black, and then we die.” I’m so incredibly eager to write into the living space in between.
PDS: I often think about legacy and history, how countless writers, theorists and activists have shaped how I can imagine my identity reflecting in my work. Who has done that for you? Whose scaffolding have you looked at to build your own?
HWA: I truly learned to write and create at the feet of black women. I read black women more than I read anything else, and it’s the work I still turn to now, when I find myself in need of a push. Josephine Baker is such a titan, to me. Josephine Baker is the face of my canon, and always has been. My book begins with a Josephine Baker quote, and I spent a lot of time choosing which one to use. And though I didn’t end up choosing it, I have always loved the quote: A violinist had a violin, a painter his palette. All I had was myself. I was the instrument that I must care for. She was so explicitly aware of her space in the world. This performer, this black woman in the 20s/30s/40s/50s/60s/70s, who began her time on the stage in blackface, and then spent an entire life speaking and performing so brilliantly around conversations about race and gender in her time. I’m always so fascinated by her. I return to Josephine Baker’s legacy when I think about how to best use my place in the world. The story about Josephine Baker’s death is that her family found her unconscious in bed, surrounded by newspapers with glowing reviews of a show she had done four days earlier. I like to imagine that she got to read every word before she slipped into a coma. I hope she left us knowing how much she meant to the world.
I love Morgan Parker and Angel Nafis. Khadijah Queen’s writing has changed my own. Eve Ewing is an irreplaceable genius, peer, poet, and collective partner. Safia Elhillo’s approach to the work seems so careful, intentional, and beautiful. I saw Dawn Lundy Martin read once, and I’m not entirely sure the world has started moving again. The work of Jacqui Germain haunts me in all of the best ways possible. Ariana Brown is the future of poetics in every way imaginable. I could sit here and list all of the black women and women of color who have work that has informed my own, but I would be here for a long time. The truth is, black women and women of color are the ones historically most dismissed, pushed aside in the history of American literature and poetics. But they have always been giants, to me. We’re reaching a point, or we’re at a point, where people are just going to have to get comfortable with acknowledging their greatness. Their star is literally too bright to ignore, at this point. Either bathe happily in the light, or find a whole new island.
PDS: In “A Poem In Which No Black People Are Dead,” although you write that “no one dead looks like anyone’s child here, / because there is no one dead here,” there is a certain space that death still takes up, because you have to keep reminding yourself, and the reader, and perhaps the characters of the poem, that there is a lack of death. I was reminded of something Danez Smith wrote in “not an elegy for Mike Brown”: “we will mourn / until we forget what we are mourning / & isn’t that what being black is about?”, in that your poem about living is still somehow an elegy. What conversation do you see this poem having with the intersection of grief and exaltation?
HWA: I’m glad you mention Danez here. Danez is, of course, not my family in a literal sense. But they’re my family in that I feel like we’re in this same cohort/generation of poets, trying to leave a mark with our work. I feel very a very familial connection with the generation of poets that I’m lucky enough to exist in, and I often feel bad about not expressing it enough. I think the best elegy is one where there is both grief and celebration. I know that maybe strays from the textbook definition, but, as I mentioned, I feel a responsibility to the poem. I feel like when writing about being black, the poem cannot just be about one thing. Death is the hovering muse. It takes up space in my poems even when the poems are about no one dying. It hovers because of my relationship with it, but it doesn’t need to take up all of the space in the room. I saw a funeral in New Orleans, a little bit after Katrina. And after the service, there was all of this joy. People carried the casket and sang. A band played. People danced in the streets. Neighbors came out of their homes and joined in the dancing. There was real, palpable grief, as well. But it was set aside for this moment. What joy, to have survived long enough to celebrate the life of someone you have loved. I wish to never lose the idea of that. The idea that even death can be more than just one thing.
Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. He is the poetry editor at Muzzle Magazine, and a Callaloo creative writing fellow. His first collection of poems, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, is being released in 2016 by Button Poetry/Exploding Pinecone Press.