Sometime between now and when we chat with Hanif Abdurraqib about this, his second collection of poems, I’m going to rewatch The Prestige, a movie which I couldn’t recommend enough to people when I first saw it, but which I haven’t found the time to rewatch in the years since. I want to see what Abdurraqib saw in that film, what would lead him to quote Cutter (portrayed by Michael Caine) in epigrams, write poems in the voice of Nikola Tesla (of the film, not the historical person), and title his book’s sections “The Pledge,” “The Turn,” and “The Prestige.”
Anyone who’s studied poetry knows what a turn is. It’s also called a volta. It’s probably best known in the sonnet, where it usually appears around the end of the octave/beginning of the sestet in an Italian sonnet and in the closing couplet in a Shakespearean one. It’s the moment where the argument of the poem turns. The poet Miller Williams used to like to say (and I’m really paraphrasing here) that a poem starts off belonging to the poet and ends up belonging to the reader, and the turn is where the change of ownership happens.
Before I tell you more, a quick reminder that in order to receive your early copy of A Fortune for Your Disaster, read along with the Poetry Book Club, and participate in our exclusive chat with Hanif Abdurraqib, you’ll need to subscribe by July 15!
In the film, The Prestige, Cutter explains the turn, or the second act of a magic trick, this way: “The magician takes an ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary.” There’s more, some stuff about how the audience doesn’t see the trick because they’re not really looking for it because they want to be surprised, but it’s that first sentence that’s applicable to this book, and to good poetry generally. You could almost see Cutter’s line as a restatement of William Wordsworth in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads:
The principal object, then, proposed in these Poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men, and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain coloring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect.
That’s a bit too wordy for a film about magicians, but the thrust, I think, is similar.
Which brings us to what Hanif Abdurraqib does, over and over again in this collection, takes an ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Look at these lines from the poem “If Life Is As Short As Our Ancestors Insist It Is, Why Isn’t Everything I Want Already At My Feet.”
I want, mostly, a year that will not kill me when it is over.
A hot stove and a wooden porch bent under the weight of my people.
None of this sounds like living.
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 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.
Can there be anything more ordinary than a hot stove, a wooden porch, eating in a car, and a grease stain on your pants? But wow, what tension in those lines. How they play against the question of the title, the sense of disbelief that life is short while eating something that just might shorten it.
There’s so much in this book to talk about beyond what I’ve touched on here. There are thirteen poems in this collection all titled “How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This” which probably deserve their own essay; there are poems in the voices of the ghost of Marvin Gaye; there are poems about divorce and the death of a parent and the many and various ways blood is spilled in this life.
I want to talk with you about all of this and more, and I hope you’ll join us in the Rumpus Poetry Book Club in August as we read and discuss A Fortune for Your Disaster, first together and then with Hanif Abdurraqib in our exclusive online chat. Subscribe to the Rumpus Poetry Book Club by July 15 to make sure you don’t miss out!