The Crown Ain’t Worth Much by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib (Button Poetry, 2016)
I don’t want to imagine how many strangled nights Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib spent thrashing inside the belly of death to give us The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, but I am immensely grateful he survived them with a soul as expansive and rich as found in this debut collection of poetry. This collection carries a fierce duende, a juggernaut unafraid to tie your body “to a truck in east texas” and drag it “through that jagged metal holy land so you can meet god clean”. The Crown Ain’t Worth Much is not so much a book you read, but one you survive—with Willis-Abdurraqib’s compassionate, elegiac lyric gently pushing you forward through heartbreak and violence.
Throughout the collection, Willis-Abdurraqib chronicles the speaker’s coming-of-age and intimate relationship with death through a narration of his summers—the season of block parties and drive-bys, basketball games and police brutality. The book is broken up into four sections. The first roughly sketches out the author’s adolescence, including the death of his mother and young black folk in his community. The second section takes this battle into his early adulthood and college years, where old and new ghosts follow a speaker unable to run away from his traumas. The wounds from these traumas never leave, but rather, are constantly reopened as the author is forced to relive his life’s cruelest moments with every act of aggression, with every subsequent death, whether or not it received the attention of popular media.
Each poem carries an urgency that might stagger a less resilient reader. For those who need a breather between heavier poems, this book may take a while to get through. In “On Duende & Death Culture,” Christopher Soto AKA Loma describes how writers with close proximity to a culture of death (its relentless pain and desperate frame of mind) produce poems that are “visceral, vital, dying as you produce them.” For these writers, survival supersedes deeper meditation and the mastery of craft. Most these poets are not afforded the privilege of reaching maturity, where the urgency of their poems is reinforced by form. If given the chance, I imagine most these writers would produce work like Willis-Abdurraqib’s. The prose poems in his collection work in conjunction with the content to propel you across image and language like a brick thrown through glass. The frequency of the prose poem might make the skeptical reader hesitant to commit to this book, as it potentially suggests a lack of formal mastery or understanding of how poems work on the page, as opposed to aloud. Willis-Abdurraqib himself acknowledges his past discomfort with line breaks in his interview with Kristin Maffei in Late Night Library. Fortunately, Willis-Abdurraqib exerts a masterful control over the authority and lyricism of his prose poems, akin to the spirit and energy found in matured poets, such as Sean Thomas Dougherty. For example, read an excerpt of “While Watching The Convenience Store Burn in Baltimore, Poets on the Internet Argue Over Another Article Declaring ‘Poetry Is Dead,'” a poem I selfishly (and incorrectly wish would’ve came earlier in the collection for the way it sets the tone for conversations about Williw-Abdurraqib’s work:
I mean is it really dead did we watch its mother pull its limp husk from the mouth of a night that it walked into living are there one hundred black hands carrying its casket through the boulevard did it die in a city that no one could find until fire drank from the walls of its abandoned homes did broken glass rain onto the streets in its memory did people weep at the shatter did people cry for the convenience store and forget the corpse did the reek of rising gas drain the white from a child’s eyes did we stop speaking its dead name when a fist was thrown do we even remember what killed it anymore I think it was split at its spine but I can’t recall I just woke up one day with this new empty can we uproot the body and drag it through the streets will people love it again if we lay it at the boots of those who last saw it alive are we calling it dead because white men got bored with its living (1-11)
With this poem, Willis-Abdurraqib makes his position clear: he’s not here for pretentious conversations about white space and form. Readers quibbling over line breaks are missing the point. There is something much more powerful carrying these poems than you will find in most contemporary US poetry.
The third section of the collection centers around loneliness. Loneliness is a theme present throughout the entire collection but it finds its first serious challenge here. It would be ironic, but not incorrect, to call this a communal loneliness, a struggle to love in the face of the incessant losses suffered by the author and his communities. The dead form a fundamental part in these communities, and their presence and influence is felt despite their absence. In the throes of this loneliness, the community provides the author perspective and comfort, whether it be through the blunt words of the local barber or the through the lessons provided by the ghost of the author’s mother. This strong sense of community is apparent in the collection through its cultural breadth, engaging with imagery and motifs from hip-hop to barbershops to sports to punk. Even on a literal level, Willis-Abdurraqib’s commitment is clear. In the acknowledgments, he gives shout outs to his communities, including the Columbus, Ohio poetry scene, and I was pleasantly surprised to find the names of Xavier Smith and Fayce Hammond, two promising Columbus writers yet to receive many accolades, who are in the nascent stages of their literary careers. Their inclusion in the shout-outs shows a rare attention to community for an author as accomplished as Willis-Abdurraqib.
In the fourth and final section, Willis-Abdurraqib emerges to confront the death found throughout the collection with authority and wisdom of someone who has survived countless summers. Here, Willis-Abdurraqib’s voice feels most contained, as if the support and love the author has found has given him the power to reconcile himself with the ubiquity of death. This power blesses us with moments of pure magic, as in “After the Cameras Leave, in Three Parts,” where a piece of glass shattered during the Baltimore protests can tell us “people have to mourn the shatter/ of anything that they can / look into / and see how alive / they still are” (12-14). I’m amazed by the way Willis-Abdurraqib can poignantly encapsulate the grief and joy found in survival, a reminder of the responsibility we have to live life well, if only for the friends and family who would have so eagerly lived it had their lives not been taken from them by the violence of poverty and racism in its thousand incarnations. As a first-generation Salvadoran American processing another generation of massacres, another generation of gunfire slaughtering my motherland, I felt a deep resonance between Central American and Black struggles, two communities so racked by the twin terrors of police and gang violence. This book ripped my heart out and gave it back to me stronger, more formidable in the fight for our joys.
I’ll finish off this review with some lines from “I Mean Maybe None Of Us Are Actually From Anywhere,” one of the strongest poems in the collection, for those who can’t relate to the content of this review or are unwilling to put themselves through the work of understanding what Black life means in America today:
I began running when the fire started and I haven’t stopped
since maybe I come from running maybe running is a
country maybe everyone who lives there misses someone
they thought would live forever
I’m glad you don’t know how to find it I’m glad
that you haven’t caught me yet I’m glad you have a
black friend I’m sorry
that your black friend may die soon
and then there will be only me (29-37)