Review by Darla Himeles
by Chris Abani
Copper Canyon Press
Post Office Box 271
Port Townsend, Washington 98368
2010, 105 pp., $15.00
After falling in love with Chris Abani’s Hands Washing Water (2006, Copper Canyon Press), I was eager to get my hands on his latest poetry collection, Sanctificum. Sanctificum lifts Abani’s usual obsessions—identity, exile, language, violence, eulogy, and love—to the level of ritual. “Ritual is the only language we believe in,” Abani says in “Processional,” and it is the only language the book believes in. Abani’s poetic gesture in Sanctificum is, to quote again from “Processional,”
a circle song. Like songs of old.
We go over the same territory, like a mower
religiously eating grass that will grow again.
Some call it history.
The wise say it is a pond, a river.
There are things you can only say
with a canyon. Or smoke
moving across a valley toward the mist
at the foothills.
“Sanctificum,” Latin for “sanctify” or “make holy,” is the book’s action and its invitation, written in an accessible, insistent, and haunting voice reminiscent of that in Alicia Ostriker’s No Heaven or Book of Seventy. Like Ostriker, Abani’s spiritual focus is more on human concerns (addressing himself, his parents, his fellow poets, and whole governments) than on the abstract divine. He admits in “God’s Country,” however, “I believe in God. There I said it.”
Divided into fourteen sections with names like “Divination,” “Descent,” and “Benediction,” Abani’s mostly untitled linked poems unfold in the direction of revelation, using repetition to ritualize remembrance and hope, his song of light and love. His poems move with gravity and playfulness from Los Angeles, “a dream we cannot bear,” to Berlin’s Holocaust museum, to Israel/Palestine, to Burma, Tanzania, Nigeria, and beyond. Across his various landscapes and concerns, Abani’s sanctification process blends Catholic liturgy and reggae rhythms, which thread through his poems like incense in a church. He circles through confessions, accusations, and observations in order to find “the blood beneath the blood, / skin beneath the skin,” as he writes in “Dear Kimiko Hahn” before asking her both in jest and in earnest, “Do you think I am a cannibal?”
Having been imprisoned and tortured in his homeland Nigeria for his “literary activities,” and having lived through losses and loves as profound as any, Abani writes from a deep well. From that well, he seeks light, and he seeks it through language. As any poet knows, language’s ability to hold and give light is linked to its alchemy—its potential to shift from ordinary to special. Some of Abani’s words, like the Igbo “akwa,” slip between meanings without his help, such as in “Benediction”:
Tone is God.
Akwa kwara akwa maka na akwa ya kuwara na akwa.
The cloth cried because its egg broke
on the hardness of the bed.
This is not avant-garde. This is Igbo.
Other words carry multiple meanings in the weight of their cultural and personal associations, such as in “Pilgrimage”:
I say hibiscus and mean innocence.
I say guava and mean childhood.
I say mosquito netting and I mean loss.
I say father and it means only that.
Happen that we all dream, but the sea is only sea.
Happen that we call upon God but it is only a breeze
ruffling a prayer book in a small church
where benches groan in the heat.
In the end, it is poetry—its aural and visual alchemy and its line breaks—that makes words shimmer in Abani’s collection, not definitions. For example, also in “Pilgrimage,” Abani writes,
There are so many ways I could undo the night
my father expired if only I could
find the fastenings of time.
Each line in this excerpt is a whole thought, a whole poem, taking ordinary verbs, such as “undo,” “expire,” and “fasten,” and anointing them with unusual power. This is the alchemy of language: that the second line could be about the poet’s death wish, if it weren’t for the other lines; that the assonance of the “I” sound rings throughout “night,” “expired,” “find,” and “time”; that the words “I could” in lines one and two stand visually stacked on the page, one confident and the other wistful; and that the space in line three, where the “I could” would repeat a third time, visually negates the assertion that the speaker could do anything about that night—which is what these lines express. When meaning is reinforced by form and sound, poetry happens.
Abani is impatient with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Iraq war, and the part of himself that would change the channel before witnessing—even mediated by television—any more of the violence around him. But when he gives a reading in the South and “three white boys in the audience” wear “KKK outfits,” he cannot change the channel; in an act of courage, mockery, and, absolutely, love, he takes one of their hoods and wears it for the rest of his reading. “I mostly remember how hot it was under the fabric / and how that boy’s smell filled me, / and how wet my tears were” (“Elephants”). Again, alchemic poetry: the sensual unfolding in the line breaks enacting the memory’s layering, the repetition of the explanatory yet questioning “how,” and the alliterative joining of “fabric” and “filled” makes art of his subversive act. The sensual details make it convincing.
Santificum‘s “circle song” is ambitious. It teaches us about poetry’s capability for courage and its dependence on renewable hope, on each day’s resurrection of light. Abani doesn’t want readers (or perhaps himself) to mistake his ritual’s complexity or heaviness for regretful mourning, as he writes in “Renewal”: “This is not a lamentation, damn it. This is a love song. This is a love song.” And to the cynics and anti-sentimentalists, Abani stands with fellow poets who assert optimism and love in spite of the world’s darkness, contemporaries such as Cornelius Eady, Aracelis Girmay, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Gerald Stern, to declare,
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.
For the reader searching for meaning and hope despite war, oil spills, genital mutilation, and white supremacy, Sanctificum is a must-read. I can’t wait to see what Abani does next.
Darla Himeles is a fourth semester student in Drew University’s MFA program in Poetry and Poetry in Translation. Her poems have appeared in Horticulture, Mad Poets Review, Poetica Magazine, and elsewhere. She lives with her wife and two orange tabby cats in Castine, Maine, where she works from home as a freelance copy editor. She can be contacted at: email@example.com.