Novelist, poet and publisher, Chris Abani is facilitating a poetry workshop today at the Lagos International Poetry festival.
To acquaint his audience with his work, sabinews.com presents a review of his 2010 poetry collection, Sanctificum, which Toni Kan describes as a “chronicle of interwoven histories, a catalogue of rage and hate, of sorrow and exploitation, of evil and prejudice.”
AUTHOR: CHRIS ABANI
PUBLISHER: COPPER CANYON PRESS, WASHINGTON
REVIEWER: TONI KAN
When you have a firm grip on the language, you can pretty well write anything and it will read like magic.
Chris Abani, award winning author of Graceland, Song for Night, The Virgin of the Flames and Becoming Abigail reminds us of that fact with his new collection of poems, Sanctificum which is Latin for sanctify or to make holy.
In eighteen poems of varying lengths which run all the way to almost one hundred pages, Chris Abani presents elegant and lyrical verses and lines that parse emotions, lay bare thoughts, unravel memories and unleash rage.
On the surface, the poems read as eclectic and electric poems masquerading as a long and plangent lament of a lapsed Catholic mixing memory and nostalgia:
“I was seduced as a boy by frankincence
And altar lights
And Latin mass
And wafers and wine
And wooden pews dark with sweat
And confessionals musty with lies and rosary beads worried for a vision.” (p.62)
But they are much more than that. They are the songs of a world-weary traveller, of a man who, traversing the scarred and beautiful promenades of the world’s cities, is at once, a part of their histories. The poems in Santificum are thus narratives chronicling a journey through history and the present, through love and hatred, through life and death, being and invisibility.
The poems breathe with the urgency of a CNN news report but they are also as brooding as a lake full of dead bodies of people murdered in a pogrom.
The collection crackles with poems that are profoundly personal, achingly public and stridently political. They drip with allusions; religious mostly but also classical, literary and urban. The poems are essentially distillations.
He merges the Latin Deus Per Omnia Saecula Saeculorum, which loosely interpreted would approximate to God through everything forever and ever with the Hindu Om which represents for them the eternal syllable, a word that is not just a word, but an intonation, a sound that is not circumscribed by race or tongue or clime.
This marriage of religions is, perhaps, the best example of Abani’s distillation process, that Eliotian filament of platinum that is the catalyst for change but which is itself not changed.
Abani struts his stuff with the calm confidence of a maestro. The images leap off the page with dazzling clarity.
“The old woman singing a dirge has a voice of dust
Sorrow lodged like a splintered bullet next to the heart.” (p.6)
There are deeply personal poems which read like interior monologues provoked by an urgent need to come to terms with family history and pain.
“In the old country my mother planted flowers
In the face of my father’s disdain” (p.73)
“Perhaps this is why the death of a father
Brings new life. Communion;
Water and wine. Amen
But the death of our mother’s is annihilation.” (p.49)
Sometimes intensely personal, the poems in the collection blur the lines between the profoundly private and the public. There are references to people; the constant allusion to Bean.
“And Bean in the warm bed breathing softly and me cold….” (p.31)
Then there are the private moments laid bare, the unravelling of intimacy, the intimations of voyeurism and hints of the illicit.
“We stop arguing only once, when her husband calls
and she says to the darkness beyond the window: I miss you.
The phone cradled in the crook of her neck
As she stirs my tea. I want to cry
In the stillness of the smoke.” (p.32)
Sanctificum is a chronicle of interwoven histories, a catalogue of rage and hate, of sorrow and exploitation, of evil and prejudice. Abani defines courage “as often invisible” then goes ahead to capture prejudice and then acceptance succinctly but with compassionate grace in these lines.
…Emeka was albino….
To my shame, I never ate with him
Saying: I just ate
And to my sister under my breath:
He disgusts me
She never told on me, but made me wait
While she ate with him
-Same plate, no utensils –
Her eyes never leaving mine.” (p.65)
His words are guns, mowing down; they are machetes cutting down; they are shrapnel, embedding in our minds. They are like a second skin enfolding us with the things we know but from which we have learnt to avert our eyes.
“Let me tell you about sorrow.
A woman wandering down a street calling
For a child while planes scream overhead (p.71)
Some of the poems are playful, filching, as they do, lines from other poems, hinting at and yet holding back, teasing, as with the tongue a rotten tooth, waiting to see whether pain will sprout.
In “Sacrament,” when we read “Deep in the grove of trees, the sacred lake” (p.130 we recall Okigbo’s Mother Idoto.
“My lust is simpler still” brings swiftly to mind, Denis Brutus “A Simple Lust” while the poem to DEAR DEREK WALCOTT, PATRON SAINT OF SHIPWRECKED POETS is an unabashed pastiche of T.S Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock.
When you read: “I am not Crusoe, though I may want to be.”
The lines that echo back to you are Eliot’s. “I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be”
In Santificum, Chris Abani has given a collection of poems that approximate to the very best of Mahmoud Darwish, Rainer Maria Rilke and W H Auden in their interrogation of the human condition in a voice that is now eloquent and now fevered, but one that never manages to lose its elegance, measured grace and balance.
photo credit – Richard Ali (instagram)