FEBRUARY 1, 2019
THIS PIECE APPEARS IN THE UPCOMING ISSUE OF THE LOS ANGELES REVIEW OF BOOKS PRINT QUARTERLY JOURNAL: THE EPISTOLARY ISSUE, NO. 21
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From Chapter Ten: Family Business. This letter is addressed to the mother of Phife Dawg (Malik Izaak Taylor), member of A Tribe Called Quest, along with Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammed. Phife Dawg passed away in March 2016. Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Quest is now available for purchase.
Ms. Cheryl Boyce-Taylor,
We are maybe each other, through two different mirrors. I know what it is to be a son and long for a living mother. You, a mother, now longing for a living son. When I heard the news, I do admit that I thought first of you. You are not obligated to believe this, of course, but I imagine there are ways in which specific types of loss make kin out of folks who are not kin. I had read the stories about how Malik was born with his kidneys half the size of a normal kidney—begging Him for mercy from the moment you brought him into the world. I had read the stories of how there was an older twin, Mikal, born into the world mere seconds before Malik was born, suffering from the same kidney afflictions. How he held on for eight hours before finally succumbing.
Malik was your only, and I was my mother’s youngest. My mother wrote, as you wrote and still write. I like to think that I learned to write first from her, though she didn’t teach me English in my earliest youth. It was Arabic that I first learned, writing along the page in a direction I would later fight to un- learn—from the right to the left. I think there is a very particular mercy in being born to a woman who writes, or at least to a woman who sees a world worth writing about.
I am a poet, like you. I came to your work as I came to so much work in the world of poetry: watching, admiring from afar. I first sat on the floor in a crowded New York room in some year when I had traveled to the city maybe listening to your son’s raps, as I often did. There was something about the rhythm he held in his voice and the slow crawl of funk layering the instrumentals that made me feel like I was truly in the city. There was always something about the way A Tribe Called Quest negotiated the noise around them, almost becoming it, until everything was awash with a sound you desired.
From the floor of the crowded New York art studio or coffee shop or narrow bar, I could only hear your poems, but not see you. I craned my neck to see early on, but the crowd was drawn so close to you that I accepted my fate, and leaned into the brick that was propping me up. I heard, from murmurs in the back, that you were wearing a Tribe Called Quest T-shirt underneath a slick blazer. Ms. Taylor, I think it might have been better this way, for me to clearly see what you are doing in your work, which I must say is transformational. You are transforming the space.
I love most how you milked the ending of each syllable and let it sing in the air a bit longer. There is a way to read a poem, and then there is a way to allow the poem to exit the body and be read by everyone in the room. The way you, with impeccable rhythm, hung each bit of language from the lights in that room and let me see them, even with my eyes closed. There are beats that happen in between the breaks of words that I think most poets don’t tend to understand. There is a way for a reader to manipulate silence so that it is no longer silence but something drawing a listener toward a brief and breathless anticipation that, too, is a type of beat. We know how to read our poems, if nothing else. I say we and mean black people, sure. People who have, at some point, clapped on the two and the four. But you, especially, are carrying songs to the people. I found myself, in the back of your reading, humming lowly, as if receiving a spiritual. And I suppose I was, though I didn’t know it until now, when reflecting on the moment of that encounter and realizing how healed I was.
I have never been to the town in Trinidad where you come from, Arima. I have read that it is situated between bright red hills. What I love about you is how you fiercely write yourself into your poems and, in doing so, write the reader toward you. I love how richly you integrate Calypso—the social and political aspects of it along with the musical elements of it. I read a part of your poem “A Woman Speaks” out loud to myself often, when trying to figure out how to make language dance with its companions:
Now and then I sit quiet cup ah coffee in meh hand
listen hear de words hiss sing
draw magic in dem breath
rest crimson in de damp gauze of girlhood
dem words weave faded straw into colorful baskets they hang heart and lungs
teeth and bone
meh head almost fall off de side ah meh face
an fall fall on meh dauter womb
dem words loop poems ’round moon neck
and if yuh hear dem hear dem write
dem down yes we
ah write ah write dem down
It’s all a song at the end of the day, isn’t it? I was at an open mic in the days after Malik passed, and an older black woman came to the microphone and asked everyone to close their eyes. She started into a poem of yours, in respect for your loss. It was such an honor to have you in the room then. The woman was a mother, she said. I imagine she understood a mother’s loss, and didn’t want your name to be alone or buried. She read “Devouring the Light, 1968”—my favorite of yours. I recited a few lines along:
The day they killed Martin
we could not return to New York City
our visiting senior class stuck in Huntsville
streets blazed with suffering in that small
in the dull shroud of morning
the whole world went crazy devouring whatever light
that lit our half-cracked windows.
In your son’s lyrics, I hear the rhythmic bounce between patois in his flows. The dance between punch line, politics, and boast. I see the Calypso in that, too. Like his verse in Whitey Don’s “Artical”:
Everytime yuh see mi licked mushitup dancehall
Mc’s big or small, mi nuh afraid it dem all
The boyz, dem are jealous cuz see how I’m rock
I try comb voice to represent non’stop
Idiot bwoy, idiot bwoy, idiot bwoy step to side
And in enough room, feature all in my ride
It seems, Ms. Taylor, that we are nothing if not for our histories, and so much of mine is tied up in the business of ghosts. I don’t want to burden anyone, but I consider anyone who has lost someone my kin, because I think we are all faced with the same central question of how we go on. How we live the life that best reflects the people who aren’t here and are still counting on us.
A mother is never supposed to bury a son, I think. I don’t know who makes that rule, as if linear time is the only direction we all have to follow. But something about it seems particularly wrong. A cynic might say that it all depends on the length of life—who had the most fulfilling years and who didn’t. But I am not a cynic.
I don’t believe much in any natural order. I buried my mother, but at least I was young. I don’t remember the day much, but for the dirt that remained on my good pair of dress pants. My family didn’t have a lot of money growing up, and I didn’t have many reasons to get dressed for nice occasions, and so I only had about one good pair of dress pants. A pair that, I imagine, was passed down from one of my two older brothers. My mother was skilled with sewing—she would sometimes sew together outfits I would wear to school. And so it was nothing to shorten a pair of pants for her youngest child who didn’t seem like he would grow past the paltry height he was given already. I cherished the pants, I think, because being young and poor, I maybe clung to what I was told was a nice thing.
I didn’t dig much of the grave—maybe none, if I recall. I do recall kicking the dirt around it, though. It seemed so odd to me at the time, to have a living person to hold a mere three days earlier, now having dirt heaved atop their body. Sometime during the kicking I got a dark stain of wet dirt on my pants. I remember staring at it on the ride home, and then while sitting on my bed after the funeral. I remember thinking that I had betrayed the fabric, this item that my mother had worked so hard on for me to wear and feel nice, or briefly wealthy. Focusing on the stain and mourning the pants, I think, allowed me to mourn the greater loss. I was mourning something that my mother had poured her heart into for me, because I was her son. And so, this is how I remember mourning my mother: by way of soiling something that she crafted for me with her bare hands. The stain came out after two washes, though I often wished it hadn’t.
I am wondering what, if anything, you held in your hands after Malik died. What you still might hold in your hands today. I know it is different to lose a person who was distinctly yours but also everyone’s. What is that feeling? Is it better or worse? To have a loss be something you are mourning in a singular way, which is not the way everyone else is mourning, though perhaps they think it is. On the day I heard the news, I first sat down on my couch and then instinctively checked every corner of the internet I could, hoping it wasn’t true. Death is such a reckless and unexpected visitor, waiting to make a mess of our past, present, and future in equal measures.
I am not here asking for a reliving of the moment, but I am here, instead, to say thank you for raising a writer. I was raised by a woman who wrote, and I don’t know if that means anything other than the fact that I saw language as a way to get free at an early age. She wrote a book that she didn’t live long enough to finish. I have all of the books you’ve written, stacked outside of my bookcase, which has long since run out of room. I am saying that I love words, and I have long appreciated what you do with them. And all of this time I was listening to Malik rap, I was hearing your fingerprints. You raised a literary figure—someone who knew his way around verse and punch line and clever turn of phrase. At the heart of his writing and yours was the same driving force: themes of the vast black interior—hair texture, and skin color, inner and outer strife, and the small joys that must be unlocked to survive it all.
I knew I would miss him when he was gone. I always did. But I thank you, particularly, for still living and writing. For the way you let the syllables dance around each other in the air when you read your poems. The way you let words hang above an audience and linger way up with the dimming lights in a room, until they fade and fade, and eventually fall away for good, a fresh memory.
Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. He is the author of The Crown Ain’t Worth Much (Button Poetry, 2016), They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (Two Dollar Radio, 2017), and Go Ahead in the Rain (University of Texas Press, 2019).