Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Poetry of cruelty and love

A Nigerian who endured prison and torture writes with grace and wit.

CARLOS PUMA / UC Riverside
CARLOS PUMA / UC RiversideRead more

nolead begins By Chris Abani

Copper Canyon Press. 96 pp. $15

nolead ends nolead begins

Reviewed by Beth Seetch


, the fifth book of poems by Nigerian-born poet Chris Abani, is a blessing, a work of heart and mind backed up by surpassing skill. Poem by poem, it investigates human cruelty - "darkness that can burn the cornea" - alongside redeeming love, and steadily earns its risky, final lines in "Renewal":

This is a love song.

This is a love song.

Like reggae - it all falls on the offbeat.

If there is a way, it is here.

They say you cannot say this in a poem.

That you cannot say love and mean anything.

That you cannot say soul and approach heaven.

But the sun is no fool, I tell you.

It will rise for nothing less.

The direct, unfussy voice in those lines engages "you" throughout - you being always the reader and sometimes fellow poets, dead kin, or God. Or the poet himself, asking, on the most personal terms, What does it mean to live a moral life? As poet Brenda Hillman has written, "It is nearly impossible to think about this." Yes, it is.

Nevertheless, in Santificum Abani addresses that question with story, wit, and grace, delivering sanctification without sanctimony.

A prolific poet and fiction writer, Abani teaches at the University of California, Riverside. He survived the Nigerian-Biafran War, published his first novel in Nigeria at 16, and was promptly jailed for conspiring against the government. During subsequent prison terms, he suffered torture and solitary confinement and was sentenced to death - all before the age of 25. His earlier books have addressed the gruesome experiences of prison (Kalakuta Republic), his mother's epic journey to survive the war with five children (Daphne's Lot), and his own exploration of his masculinity and his feminized selves (Dog Woman).

Abani's major concerns in Sanctificum are one's capacity to escape cycles of vengeance, the effort to properly honor difficult parents, and the power of words to make redeeming gestures. In the first poem, "Om," the poet summons materials and strength for the work, as "feathers are brought to my door every day by mystery. / Kindling for a fire, a beacon, an epiphany I cannot light. / This is the body of Christ. / Sanctificum." The poems move among elegy, narrative and lyric. Catholic, Hindu, and Igbo traditions for "making holy" appear alongside Buddha, Zeno, Bob Dylan, and many train images:

If Zeno's paradox reveals anything it is not that

space and time can be divided into infinity infinitely,

but simply this:

That we can only approximate the object of our desire.

That we are always on a train traveling to happiness.

But what we do reach are coffee, biscotti, and Bob on the iPod.

Sanctificum depicts moments of human ugliness, addressing them as part of human nature, not anomalies. These depictions press readers to recognize human ugliness and to struggle out of the infinite vengeance around us - in our high schools or on our battlefields. In his talk at TED Global 2007, Abani explains, "We're never more beautiful than when we're most ugly. Because that's really the moment we know what we're made of."

Of course, we must recognize ugliness in ourselves; it doesn't work to see it only in others. The poem "Benediction" begins:

Let me tell you about hate.

A bayonet on the end of a rifle run through

a teenager's bony chest by a swarthy soldier

frothing from the pleasure of it, amazed

at the sound of it, flesh sucking on metal.

And this boy dying and

his eyes do not lose their burn,

staring at his killer as though to say,

Do it, do it now because I will do it to you,

and even as I die, I am doing it to you.

Images of boys and young men losing their humanity to ethnic violence and rampant militarism haunt Sanctificum, addressing a question posed in "Processional":

Why would a boy who knows nothing about alchemy

and the machinations of blood and other terrors respond

to a voice calling for a rain of death and other terrors?

Abani continually wonders, "What can happen to all this hate? / Where do I bury it? / To exit is the first stage of enlightenment."

To reach that exit, the music of Sanctificum deserves emphasis, for it restores much joy. Abani's use of Igbo, a tonal language that seems to defy poetry on the page, stuns with its clarity and jazz lines. The simple word holy, so much lovelier than its Latin counterpart, supplies rest at the end of demanding sections, as in "Dew": "Holy the glow. / Holy the O. / Holy the old. Amen."

Like music, humor offers relief. Self-deprecation salts grim ruminations, as in "Nomad," when Abani walks, deep in thought about his distant father:

Skin blacker than worked leather, and wrinkled.

As though all the anger in him had burned out on his skin.

And small as a bony wet cat and I think, How could it all

become so pedestrian, as I step out into traffic.

The bus misses me, but I am tenacious,

There is another at 6:15.

There is a God, I chant, there is a God.

Sanctifum richly rewards rereading, as ordinary and important as that missed bus.