Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib

Five Prayer Fragments





as a child, I would face the east five times a day.

bend at the waist and press my nose into a thick red carpet, overgrown with dust from past summers.

when each prayer finished, I would make du’a,

watch the sun pass over the creases of my young palms and think of who to speak into forgiveness.

the boy who split my lip during a game of 21.

the neighbor who once cursed my father’s name

as I watched his white fist close, a small river of red blood rushing over each knuckle and climbing to his


the woman in the market who blocked the aisle

with an empty stroller, holding a box of cereal in one hand and weeping into another.






the thing


about some countries is that not everyone gets a casket

some of the dead


just rest underneath whatever dirt those they left living

can push aside


no one in this country likes to think

about standing on a grave that they cannot see

the feral whisper of death coiled around their legs while they blow a kiss sending a lover off to war


in this country we don’t speak

of who we have buried or how they got there we pretend every death comes with a name carved into a


in an endless field


so that no one can feel themselves sinking into the streets.





& by the third salat of the day you may run out of names to seek forgiveness for & you may feel again

unclean & who comes before any god this much to ask for anything & who has so many sins that no light

will wash them off & here is another du’a in the orange hours of a new sun & still the dead don’t rise & still

I wash my face before answering the call to prayer & I never let the water pass through my nose & I let the

dust from the final summer of my mother’s living gather inside & it grew into a rope of 99 prayer beads & I

pulled it from my mouth for a whole year & pressed my fingers to each one & speaking her name & this is

how I re-learned praying & I am still sorry for everyone who wasn’t forgiven.





I have never killed a man / but I have wished one dead / I have conjured the knife into my own hands / I

have dreamed a wife into a widow / and did not wake up in a sweat / isn’t this the language we speak now

/ the people we can render invisible / so we can have more space / the man calls into the radio and says /

it’s not that I’m afraid of them / it’s just that I have a family, you know / I have to think about my family /

we just can’t let anyone into this country, after all / I think about the mercy / of merely being afraid / and

not feared / I knew this once / when I was small / and knew everything of violence / but nothing of the

ghosts it leaves / I do not wish to kill a man / but I have closed my eyes in the shower / on the day a

mosque burns / and I let the water pass over me / while imagined blood circles the drain.





In the summer, the Midwest prays for rain to wet the earth So that the children can be fed.


No one prays for what comes before the storms.

The swift howl of wind, clouds bright and trembling.


The youngest children, hiding underneath their beds, don’t know what grows their food.


The hand that reaches down and pulls the wheat corpse from its winter resting place.


When a gust of wind summoned by prayer catches a loose door and blows it back, smacking it against a

house’s cracked siding


A young boy only hears:


get out.

there is something coming that you cannot survive

Rihanna – Birthday Cake



rarely is it a good idea to tell someone when they have appeared

in a dream that came to you during a long and hot


week. You know, the kind of week where you do not sleep

much, and instead drag your fingertip along the fluorescent


graves. The kind of week where you say how or oh,

not again. This week, the politician on television says that we are fighting


a different kind of war and I wonder if this means

the kind where everyone returns to their homes unburied, a candle


pushed into a sheet of sugar for every year they’ve missed.

I think I’m saying that a different kind of war is maybe not a war


at all, but then what here would keep us up at night.

I shake my worry for the born and unborn alike out


of a pill box and swallow it with a glass of water. And I hesitate

to say this, friends. But when I finally let go and closed my eyes,


I saw all of your faces. Your face, and yours, and perhaps the faces

of all who are reading this now. I remember all of your faces inside of a single


face. It is easiest to play tricks on the eyes this way. When they are closed

and dancing behind their caves. And yet, I know all of you were there,


a lone face rising out of the sweet mud to meet my hands. And I kissed

your forehead in this dream, friends. I asked for forgiveness in one hundred


different ways for the world that I did not set fire to and can still fall asleep

in. And I do not want to tell you everything, friends, but in this dream,


only I was weeping. Only I pressed my mouth to the mud and tasted chocolate.

Only I ate my fill and begged for more. And, friends, you did not speak, but to say


something of how we are all still worthy of mercy while standing at the feet

of what wants us gone. But maybe that is what I wanted myself to hear.


In a dream, no one has to answer for language. The song we remember upon waking

is the one that drowns us in a sweetness. A memory to drag us through the day.


In truth, I only remember closing my eyes. In truth, I believe you were all there

because I knew that in a dream, I could keep all of you safe. In truth,


I woke still afraid. In truth, all of my teeth were aching when I crawled

from underneath the covers.

Olivia Newton John – Let’s Get Physical



& o Olivia, I can tell by the way your neck / is pulled into a tight arch / & the soft parting of your lips / on

the cover of a record / that has known more than its fair share of hands / our sweat did not arrive on the

back / of the same animal / & yet / I take everything about this as a challenge / & anything that can carry

me gasping / into the breeze of a hot saturday / is my master / & so when a shirt clings to my chest / I

give thanks / & so when I am offered water from a stranger / I give thanks / & so when the wet and hairy

forearm of another man drags itself across my cheek in the middle of our fifth straight full court game / I

give thanks / & when I wipe away the small river it has left / & I look into my palms & see the small beads

dancing like children racing towards the end of summer / I give thanks / & physical, too, is the moment

when the night slips past too many drinks / & two pals first playfully push fists into each other’s ribs / &

then remember whatever loneliness has them in its teeth / & then the fists pull back & swing forward /

with more violence / until there is nothing left but weeping in the grass-stained sweaters / passed down

two generations / & I know this is truly not what you mean, Olivia, when you summon the boys

horizontal / but let us not stand on ceremony / we will all be laid horizontally when the world is done

having its way with us / & due to this, I remain thankful / for what a burden it must be / being asked to

exist for an entire life of rising & again falling for another’s pleasure / & o, Olivia, I wish to know the devil

but not hell itself / I wish to know the secrets that the worst of our dead know / but I do not wish to walk

among them / I am sorry to speak of half measures again / but I have run out of ways to ask for directions

to any party with a blood hot neon light beating / down from the wooden beams of someone’s basement /

in a part of town where no one calls the cops / & the cops wouldn’t come even if they did / & this is

physical: the space and who gets to plant their flag into it / among the twerking masses / & o, Olivia, I am

sorry to say that we do not listen to you at parties in the hood / but for when the stereo from a 1986

pontiac driving past pulls you moaning / let me hear your body talk / into an open window / & your voice

bends more & more with each passing block / surely if my body could speak it would ask / who will not have

a meal to call their own so that I can remain full / or it would ask / what hours are we stealing from the wicked in order to

keep living like this / & what is sleep these days but a chapel to run into & seek forgiveness after the ravishes

of intimacy / & o, Olivia, like you, I have tried to keep my hands on the table / & like you, I just want

everyone to get the hint without me speaking of what I actually want / & all of this silence this makes us no

better than the animals who paw at the doors of their small gods / & pray for the food that may fall from

their trays / & o, Olivia, I have long given up on leather / like I have long given up on headbands / I have

long given up on trying to stop the sweat from spilling reckless into my own eyes / & I embrace the brief

and aching darkness / & the darkness itself is physical / how smoothly it can lean into us / & convince the

tongue out of hiding / & yet, I still run every morning / not into or out of anything / only until I cannot

feel my legs / or until the wind decides to carry me home / or until my shirt is baptism-slick / or until the

body finds either a silence /or a language that exists / for no one but itself.


HANIF WILLIS-ABDURRAQIB is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. He is a poetry editor at Muzzle Magazine, a columnist at MTV News, and a Callaloo creative writing fellow. His first collection of poems, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, is being released in 2016 by Button Poetry/Exploding Pinecone Press.