Risks Beginning with ‘Answer’

When Hanif Abdurraquib started reading his work at Greenlight last Thursday in Brooklyn, I couldn’t see him from where I was. The front of the bookstore felt at—or beyond—capacity and I found myself house left, crowded-in and back by the registers, my hands deep in my coat, a scarf double-knotted around my neck.

Hanif and the other featured poets of the event, Natalie Eilbert and Safiya Sinclair, were out of view, but there at the ending of the night his voice was a warm, almost tidal rumble filling the room. “One Side of an Interview with the Ghost of Marvin Gaye” must have been the second or third poem he shared and what I haven’t been able to shake is the way he read it—how he paused with a brief intake of air after the title, said “Answer:” (expanding aloud the "A:" of the text), and paused once more before moving on.

In her lecture, "Madness, Rack, and Honey," Mary Ruefle channels Galway Kinnell for an instant, his musing that "the secret title of every good poem might be 'Tenderness'" and I am wondering now if we shouldn't humbly add to our sensing such hidden undercurrents.

Perhaps what Hanif, Ama Codjoe, Valgerður Þóroddsdóttir and K. B. Thors, and this Dispatch suggest is that poems in their own strange ways start with "Answer:" even without announcing it, framing for us their talking back, their "This is not a coming to terms," their "grope in the dark / [to] find something / only to lose it again."

Because I’m preparing course notes and materials for the coming spring, I'm trying once again to articulate for myself—and for these classes I have yet to meet—something about why certain poems and translations matter, how they work to illuminate and trouble, enliven and undo.

And so perhaps every poem that means something to me these days risks being christened "Tenderness," risks beginning with "Answer:" before, inevitably, turning and turning in its own intimate contradictions. Visible or not, audible or thrumming at some private frequency, I hear those two words now, affirming that the poem that follows must be a response to what history or memory, the body or faith, grief or whatever haunts us asks of us.