This debut collection sings. Forged in the fires of Columbus, Ohio, the poems are about childhood memories and community. If much of the work feels autobiographical, the collection transcends individual experience and speaks to anyone who’s ever watched friends fall apart, or got nostalgic over a piece of music, or been cheek to cheek with death.
Willis-Abdurraqib’s preferred form in this collection is poems made of big blocks of stream-of-consciousness text. He doesn’t go in for stanzas, and the images pile up thick and fast, like the thoughts of a genius child. The work has a kind of extemporaneity that reminds me of rap. The subject matter – gang-bangers, kids on the block, house parties, and all kinds of Americana including the Chicago Bulls, Whitney Houston, and A Tribe Called Quest – locates the collection firmly in its time and place: a milieu of 1990s kitsch and police brutality.
The first half of the book mainly deals with the poet’s childhood and youth. There’s enough trauma here to fuel a thousand poems, and Willis-Abdurraqib turns it into art. The second half, while no less vital, sees the “I” character mature into adulthood; a wife is referenced several times, and the high jinks of youth have dissipated into memory.
I had the great pleasure of meeting Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib at the Hurston/Wright Legacy Awards ceremony, for which this collection was shortlisted. He’s a hell of a nice guy and a cool cat. But if his poetry is anything to go by, he has fire in his belly. This is a great debut with a beautiful cover and a damn fine epigraph:
The crown ain’t worth much if the nigga wearin’ it always gettin’ his shit took. (Marlo Stanfield)