archives fall 2007




Boys are taught to kill early.
I was five
when I shot a chick in my first ritual.
I was eight
when chickens became easy
but turkeys drew loathing.
I was ten
when I killed a goat. I was made to stare
into that goat’s eyes before pulling
my knife across its throat.
I thought it was to teach me the agony
of the kill. Perhaps it was
to inure me to blood.
To think nothing of the jagged resistance of flesh,
To make the smell of rust and metal and shit familiar.
I didn’t grow up on a farm.
I have never killed a man, but
I know how, I know I can,
I know that if the timing were right I would.
I am afraid that I might not feel sorry.
I am afraid that I will enjoy it.
Let there be love.
T-shirt for Terrence:
“And you say psycho like it’s a bad thing.”
What can you say about growing up in Nigeria?
Does anyone care that you picked plump red and yellow
cashews from trees and ate them in the sun,
the sticky sweet of them running down your arms.
And later, the seeds collected and roasted for the nut.
Can you talk about later in prison?
Writing names on other men with the sap of cashews.
Names to obscure their real selves,
names to protect what might be left over
for when they returned to the world from hell.
It is an old trick, to fool death by writing
a new name on your body.
I was afraid my soul would be obscured,
and in cowardly script, almost invisible to the eye,
scrawled with the tip of a needle: Saddam.
It has faded to a nice smudge on my belly,
where a network of hairs and stretch marks
pretend it never happened.
 I learned alchemy in prison.
Words mean only what you want them too.
You say, sunshine and you mean hope.
You say, food and you mean refuge.
You say, sand and you mean play.
You say, stone and you mean, I will never forget.
But you do, but you do and thank God, thank God.
When they called from the university,
in all innocence, they said,
there is a letter for you from the president.
They had never heard the words Dele Giwa uttered
before the bomb blew him and his family to hell.
You tell your friend who runs the place.
And you sit turning the letter over and over,
while she gently clears the building
and then comes back to sit with you as
you turn the letter over and over.
Fingers ignorantly searching for wires.
Over and over you turn wishing you were American
and could have the naivety to not fear a letter from
your president. To feel only pride or the gentle rise
of acerbic wit as you prepare
to decline whatever is on offer.
You smile at your friend who has no reason
to be here except she won’t let you die alone
and you rip the envelope open.
There is no explosion,
A letter spills out with the crest of the president.
You are crying, tears running down your face.
You are glad you are not dead.
You are glad that your country is proud of you.
You are glad to see the day when things can change.
You are confused.
Your friend is holding your hand.
Dear Eloise Klein Healy,
blessing be upon your name.
Is this what it feels like to have your father love you?
To not fear his return?
To not expect to be hit when he reaches for you?
What can it feel like to believe
that the world is inherently good?
Let there be love.
I am not a pessimist.
I believe in love.
It has however, often been a foreign country to me.
This is the body of Christ.

There Are No Names for Red
       Based on paintings by Percival Everett

The way desire is a body eroding
into a pile of salt marked by a crown of birds:
and black. This fall is not rain, grain too subtle
for that dissolution. A constellation wrapped
in a stitch spreading like sand charting
thread across time a tender weave
and hope. This is resurrection.

And the sky is red
                        And the moon
And light is this rain.

This is all the terror we can bear:

            the moment between flame
and where shadow begins
            but only so much as can be cupped
in a child’s palm

and yet to say: the loved one
            has slipped to ghost.

What attempts survival here has no words
but hunger. A white backcloth that devours
the blackening. Then red cut in lines thick
as paste and obscuring the once figurative.
This desire wears cerements of yellow and sun.
And at the edge of this world, a box of wood
and canvas; light and light and light.

Everything here can so easily turn to mud
and the recalcitrance of dead leaves and bugs.
There is hair here too. Not so much brown and animal
as rough; I speak now of sorrow, of weight
beyond measure. There is a drowned woman
in the dark swirl. This paint, buoyant and light, eddies.

Whatever guilt drives this brush is nocturnal and heavy
with the smell of the cramped darkness under the stairs.
But night will not be blamed. What good are words
when the green light over the ocean is all we need?

What passes for night here has more to do with the place
where the body is flayed open to sorrow and wonder.
The boy on the bridge drops a feather into a lost river.
A rusting lawn dreams of grass rude and fescue.
A match held down to tobacco still burns with an upward flame.
There is no truth here.
Dutifully the mist comes down the mountain. What else can I tell you?  


Chris Abani’s prose includes the novels The Virgin of Flames (Penguin, 2007), GraceLand (FSG, 2004/Picador 2005), Masters of the Board (Delta, 1985), and the novellas Becoming Abigail (Akashic, 2006) and Song For Night (Akashic, 2007). His poetry collections are Hands Washing Water (Copper Canyon, 2006), Dog Woman (Red Hen, 2004), Daphne’s Lot (Red Hen, 2003), and Kalakuta Republic (Saqi, 2001). He is a professor at the University of California, Riverside, and the recipient of the PEN USA Freedom-to-Write Award, the Prince Claus Award, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, a California Book Award, a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and the PEN Hemingway Book Prize.