The Crown Ain’t Worth Much

Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib. Button/Exploding Pinecone (SPD, dist.), $16 trade paper (120p) ISBN 978-1-94373-504-4
In his powerful debut collection, Willis-Abdurraqib uses pop culture and persona as entryways to explore themes such as family, friendship, race, love, and police brutality within the lives of his Midwestern black speakers. The poems prioritize inexhaustible energy and urgency of subject over any delicacies of craft as they leap quickly from image to image and theme to theme. Willis-Abdurraqib possesses a striking gift for merging pop culture with personal narrative: “the story about larry bird goes/ he walked into a locker room that night and asked/ which one of you is playing for second place? to a room full of black players/ and no one made a sound.” The poems’ breathlessness is understandable, though it can be to their detriment, preventing speaker and reader from sharing a common space. Some poems feel afraid of standing in one place for too long, while others, such as an erasure of Virginia Woolf’s suicide letter to her husband, feel more like drafts than finished poems. Yet when Willis-Abdurraqib meditates on the dangers of being young and black in America, the power of his poetry is undeniable: “When I say that I am growing old/ I mean that I have lived long enough to fear death.” (July)
Reviewed on: 06/20/2016
Release date: 07/01/2016
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