- The Crown Ain’t Worth Much by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib
When he’s not writing poems about Ohio, basketball, race, and family, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib works as a music journalist, most notably as a columnist for MTV, helping the company to reestablish itself as a reputable source for music news and thought. It’s no [End Page 50] surprise then, in his first collection of poems, that he cites artists such as Jay-Z, Whitney Houston, and Pete Wentz, and his odes to the likes of Drake, Kanye West, and Elliott Smith seem thematically par for the course. Even the occasional mention of Journey or Bruce Springsteen passes through the reader’s mind without a second thought; Willis-Abdurraqib isn’t a fifty-something dad-rocker, but he knows music, and his taste is beyond eclectic.
What is perhaps surprising is that these associations function neither as crude-but-meaningless name drops nor as the only worthwhile parts of the poetry. It’s one thing to write a poem about “The Summer a Tribe Called Quest Broke Up” that would resonate with those who enjoy the group’s music and remember that particular moment. It’s another to turn that trigger toward a consideration of the differences
in those things which we lose & those things which decide to gift us with a kind of feral silence
When the poem finishes with its specific images,
the change that leapt from our pockets into the cracked basketball courts & the older brothers
who never found their way back home
the band’s breakup still echoes, but it’s obviously no longer the central point.
Even when not referencing a particular band or song, Willis-Abdurraqib’s poems will often be found at a show or in a mosh pit, and it’s here that the poet opens his narratives up toward understandings of racial biases and his own perspective as a black man. In “All of the Black Boys Finally Stopped Packing Switchblades,” a young man named Danny has his front teeth knocked out in the pit
by the fist of a white boy from the side of town where no one buries a boy that came into the world after they did
When Danny is shot by the police because “I guess anything can be a gun if the darkness / surrounding it is hungry enough,” the ‘I guess’ shows the narrator’s lack of shock in retrospect, and the question soon after of “and isn’t that what we’ve always been fed?” brings the scenario forward as one that is not strange or unsettling in the way that it should be. The narrator’s perspective and thoughts come out in both explicit and subtle ways, a reflection of the author’s attention to syntactic craft.
What is perhaps more difficult than writing a good poem steeped in popular music though is writing one steeped in sports. From “Ain’t None of the Kids on My Block Gonna Debate about the Existence of God,” which begins with Michael Jordan’s famous dunk from behind the free-throw line in 1991, to “All the White Boys on the Eastside Loved Larry Bird,” the poet turns basketball in particular into a lens through which one can understand the world and its divisions. Picking up two hours west of James Wright’s Martins Ferry, Ohio, which stands as an obvious, if unintended, precursor, Willis-Abdurraqib writes in “All the White Boys” not about rural life and escapism through athletics, but instead about how the white boys win even when they lose “whatever money their parents could spare” in pickup games against the narrator. The white boys lost the basketball game, but, afterwards, “walked home on a street where no one had died.” To contrast this, the narrator, even in excellence, admits to facing racial slurs from the student section of at least one rival school during high school games.
While one can’t say for sure that Willis-Abdurraqib’s style, narrative and wending, comes from his background as a music journalist, there is seeming overlap between his...