On Hanif Abdurraqib’s “How Can Black People Write about Flowers at a Time Like This”

From Hanif AbdurraqibA Fortune for Your Disaster

Abdurraqib offers a fascinating series of poems all entitled “How Can Black People Write about Flowers at a Time Like This.” The fourth poem of the series describes a young woman—or a teen—the gum-smacking Jasmine, whose name suggests a flower, a flower known for its lingering scent. The memory in the poem seems precise, but the speaker admits,

                                                i would be lying
if i said i recall the color of the dress
or the way her hair spread its many arms
along the blacktop.

Cover image of A Fortune for Your Disaster

The metaphorical transformation of a woman’s animate hair, hair that has a body of its own, seems a lovely image, at first. But why is her hair spread along the blacktop? The poem reveals the memory that the speaker has tried and failed to revise: Jasmine is yet another victim of gun violence. A young woman struck down by a bullet cannot be disguised by a metaphor. The speaker knows this, despite summoning memory as a kind of resistance. When he says “with my eyes closed long enough, / I can at least remember,” he sees that memory fails, that it’s not enough.

Abdurraqib is kind to his readers: he doesn’t make us attend the funeral. We know, as mourners do, that funerals suggest flowers, flowers to honor those we’ve lost, or, perhaps—as the speaker had hoped—to bring forgiveness. Jasmine flowers symbolize love, our bonds with each other, and so love also lies slain, metaphorically, by gun violence: lingering losses, a death stink that will not fade.

Hanif AbdurraqibA Fortune for Your Disaster. Tin House, 2019