It's Not Like Nikola Tesla Knew All of Those People Were Going to Die

September 24, 2018

Hanif Abdurriqib: I’m Hanif Abdurriqib and this is Poetry Now. I watched the film The Presitge, which is kind of about magic but mostly about various iterations of heartbreak and revenge. There’s this great scene where Nikola Tesla played by David Bowie is creating a machine for a magician played by Hugh Jackman. The idea is that this machine will enhance and advance the trick of a magician vanishing and then reappearing. In order to pull off this trick he needs a machine that allows him to regenerate like a clone of himself that he then has to kill. There’s a really pivotal bit of dialogue where Tesla says have you considered a cost of owning a machine like this?


Have you considered the cost of owning such a machine?

Price is not an object.

But have you considered the cost?


I thought a lot about what it is to have the power to create something that leaves a lot of bodies in it’s wake, but also causes a lot of amazement.


It’s Not Like Nikola Tesla Knew All of Those People Were Going To Die


Everyone wants to write about god

but no one wants to imagine their god


as the finger trembling inside a grenade

pin’s ring or the red vine of blood coughed into a child’s palm


while they cradle the head of a dying parent.

Few things are more dangerous than a man


who is capable of dividing himself into several men,

each of them with a unique river of desire


on their tongues. It is also magic to pray for a daughter

and find yourself with an endless march of boys


who all have the smile of a motherfucker who wronged you

and never apologized. No one wants to imagine their god


as the knuckles cracking on a father watching their son

picking a good switch from the tree and certainly


no one wants to imagine their god as the tree.

Enough with the foolishness of hope and how it bruises


the walls of a home where two people sit, stubbornly in love

with the idea of staying. If one must pray, I imagine


it is most worthwhile to pray towards endings.

The only difference between sunsets and funerals


is whether or not a town mistakes the howls

of a crying woman for madness.


The age old question of the child or the curious is if god is capable of all this good, how do you explain the bad? I’m not necessarily trying to explain the bad, but attempting to explain the wide range of tools at our disposal to create bad. Tesla in that film is the creator of the tool. I’m not saying Tesla is god, but Tesla plays a god-like character. He produces this creation, this tool, and then he’s gone and the tool is left in the hands of someone who may or may not be worthy of holding it. Maybe Tesla’s grand hope is not that far off from whatever god there may be. The hope that you give these humans these tools and hope that in time they figure out how dangerous they are, and figure out from there how to proceed.

Katie Klocksin: That was Hanif Abdurriqib and his poem, “It’s Not Like Nikola Tesla Knew All of Those People Were Going To Die”. I’m Katie Klocksin and this is Poetry Now, a production of The Poetry Foundation. For more about this series go to

Hanif Abdurriqib investigates a scene from Christopher Nolan’s film The Prestige and considers the costs of one’s life. Produced by Katie Klocksin.

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