A Fortune for Your Disaster (Tin House Books, September 2019)
Reviewed by Maria Isabelle Carlos
An important writing lesson was gifted to me just this past January, at the start of a nonfiction course: the instructor led us through an exercise on the first day of class in which we responded to a series of quotes. She first asked us to write a question—any question—that we might approach in our writing; after some time, she then asked us, “Is that the real question?” and let the words hang in the air. Were we going deep enough? Or were we asking questions to which we already knew the answers? She let us write for a few minutes and then read another quote, after which she said something along the lines of, “Are you accounting for the beauty and the burden?” and we could only sit still in the silence that followed.
I think of the heaviness of that moment, that challenge, every time I sit in front of a blank page. Much of what I write is heavy, won’t come out without a fight, and, often, it hurts; I have to train my mind to look for tiny pockets of glory or growth in whatever painful thing I’m struggling through. And I thought of “the beauty and burden” over and over as I read A Fortune for Your Disaster (Tin House Books, September 2019), Hanif Abdurraqib’s devastatingly beautiful new collection of poems—a book born of blood, of heartache, of isolation, of history, of forging new paths and new endings. Poetry is both heavying and liberating, to me, in its ability to contain multiple truths, its resistance to solving problems or answering questions and, instead, letting questions linger on the page. Abdurraqib’s work—and this book especially—is a testament to that power.
A Fortune for Your Disaster begins with a twisted knife and ends with a “mourning that trembles out a celebration.” Composed of three parts, each section takes its name from the stages of a magic trick, according to Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film The Prestige: first, the pledge, when the magician shows you something ordinary, be it a bird, a deck of cards, or a man with nothing up his sleeves; second, the turn (or volta?), when the magician takes an ordinary thing and makes it do something extraordinary; and finally, the prestige, the final act, when something changed or disappeared is brought back. Woven throughout the book are three series of poems: one about Nikola Tesla, the inventor played by David Bowie in The Prestige; another from the voice of Marvin Gaye, specifically his ghost as if it inhabited the album, Here, My Dear, recorded in the wake of his divorce from Anna Gordy; and last (my favorite), a series of poems that all share the title, “How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This.”
It would, perhaps, be reductive for me to say this is a book about heartbreak—by that I mean, the heartbreak is there, yes, and as a reader I receive it as a catalyst for many of the poems in this book, but these poems take us so far further. With agility, empathy, and tenderness, Abdurraqib asks us a number of other questions: In the aftermath of love’s dissolution, in the isolation of an emptied apartment, what does that ache look like? Having accepted a new state of being, an altered reality, how does one survive the day-to-day continuance? At what point does “survival” evolve into “healing,” and at what cost?
A constellation of images shimmers throughout the book—patterns of echoes, ghosts, mirrors, and ancestors, all speaking to the idea of something that once was. In the book’s penultimate poem, the thirteenth and final “How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This,” those echoes take more definitive shapes: “… you leave and atop my sink a makeup remover holds a memory of / you & the toothbrush dripping the small pond into a contour of porcelain // holds a memory of you & the mug on the table with the stain of lipstick shaped / like the crescent of a blood moon holds a memory of you…” Loving someone deeply asks us to risk its death, its ending; moving forward from that grief, when love ends, requires an excavation of the years, reexamining the memories like artifacts of another life, before one can set them down. The images in these lines are searing because of their specificity, the care bestowed upon them through the speaker’s exacting observation. But then, the prestige: “… all I have been trying to say is this: / may even the residue of our love find a curve of wind to dance an echo into.” The poem ends with the understanding that some pains will never fully heal, that they will reverberate through time well after the love has been put down, but the speaker has blessed them with a new ending: may they find a curve of wind, may they dance.
It’s hard for me to consider the thirteen poems in the series “How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This” and not think of a sonnet. In fact, several of the poems in this series are fourteen lines, or close enough to suggest it. Each poem uses the image of flowers—the beauty—to speak about larger issues of history, race, violence, lost love. The lack of a fourteenth sonnet suggests a resistance to closure, a challenge to the traditional “argument-answer” structure of a sonnet taught in high school English classes. And when I read the final lines of the last poem in the series, at the end of my journey with this speaker, I look up from the book in this same room I’ve been in, but the light is somehow different—the space and silence that follows it, where the fourteenth sonnet might have been, allow the speaker’s revelatory ending to echo, to expand beyond the confines of the poem.
A Fortune for Your Disaster is a difficult book to digest. Several times in my reading and rereading, I found myself having to put the book down and pace or walk to another room and turn the words over and over. But at the same time, it’s a deceivingly easy book to read, with its velvety smooth and musical sentences. If you’re familiar at all with Abdurraqib’s previous work, you’re aware of his masterful control of sound, syntax, and lyrical depth. His poetry feels simultaneously restrained and abundant, each ampersand and line break accruing surprise, nuance, complexity. Consider one of the earlier poems in the book, “Welcome to Heartbreak,” in which the speaker is remembering his past self/life:
“… I thumb the edges of the picture frame & consider the wood—what tree had to fall in order for this younger & smiling version of myself to have a home. It is the killing season again. All of the flowers drag the crowns of their heads along the snow & die with a prayer of softer ground on their lips. I wish this type of betrayal on no one: being born out of that which will be your undoing.
Imagine, instead: the place where you have a bed of your own & a table to sit across from someone who laughs thick & echoing at your smallest joy as an open palm & then
the fingers close”
Abdurraqib’s work gifts me with a newfound appreciation for the prose poem: the way a sentence can unfurl across and around, the energy it carries from clause to clause, the intensity transferred from the page to the reader when we’re not given a break. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good line break—its cleverness and surprise, its sonic and narrative tension, the visual pause, the sharp inhale of a hard-wrought white space—but I couldn’t imagine this poem existing any other way. It feels somehow snobbish for me to even consider where the poem might surrender to enjambment or end-stops. In some ways, the ampersand here functions similar to the way a line break could, but at a certain point, my eye flits faster and faster across it—my internal rhythm is at pace with the syntax instead. Such deep understanding of the prose poem form requires, as shown here, an equally thorough and sensitive understanding of more traditional lineation: when we are finally given a breath, here at the poem’s close, it’s a devastating one—there’s stillness in the space surrounding the final image, but that stillness crackles, reverberates, and haunts, because of the hopelessness suggested in the metaphor, and because of how isolated it looks on the page. Each clause in the sentence after “Imagine, instead:” builds our trust in this relationship, but we end with “the fingers close”: two lonely iambs, rising, and then silence.
A Fortune for Your Disaster is a rare accomplishment of poetic language, of music, of heart, of resilience. As with Abdurraqib’s previous work, the speakers of these poems manage to draw metaphorical resonances from seemingly incongruent pop culture references, but these aren’t just music poems or sports poems or heartbreak poems—they are all that and more: poems that reclaim body and history, that make space for forgiveness, that empower us to carry what refuses to be forgotten and hold it close. Abdurraqib’s poetry reminds me that truly honest and vulnerable writing is bold enough to ask the hard, heavy questions, and open enough to let them linger, echo, or fall. I disappear into these poems and am brought back unscathed, as any good magician promises—but I am brought back braver, more tender, and somehow, healed.
Maria Isabelle Carlos is a poet from Columbia, MO. She was awarded the Thomas Wolfe Scholarship from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she received her BA in English. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House Online, Pleiades, Sycamore Review, Cave Wall, Four Way Review, The Collagist, and elsewhere. She was a finalist for The Pinch Literary Award, the Palette Poetry Prize, and the Nazim Hikmet Poetry Prize. She is a second-year MFA candidate in poetry at Vanderbilt University and editor-in-chief of Nashville Review.