Chris Abani is a novelist, poet, essayist, screenwriter and playwright. His work has been translated into French, Italian, Spanish, German, Swedish, Romanian, Hebrew, Macedonian, Ukrainian, Portuguese, Dutch, Bosnian and Serbian. Through his TED Talks, public speaking and essays, Abani is known as an international voice on humanitarianism, art, ethics, and our shared political responsibility. His critical and personal essays have been featured in books on art and photography, as well as Witness, Parkett, The New York Times, O Magazine, and Bomb. He is Board of Trustees Professor of English at Northwestern University,
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Poem Cycle: The Urge Within, Flay, Sojourner, Thread
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The Urge Within
A train travels through an endless Midwestern cornfield,
yellow slants to gold as the sun leans heavy on the horizon.
Nostalgia is a better name for this mendacious embroidery
this meager harvest of memory and hope –
Even the entropy of a coffee cup half spilling into spent crumbs
cannot resist this pastel wash of half-truths.
A sweet decline. To have spent one’s life thinking
I am the good one, the stable one, and the sustainer of love.
And one morning in a city between the city you call home
and the city you are traveling to, you accept you are migrant.
This is where the prodigal finds himself, in the middle of his life,
somewhere between coercion and an insubstantial desire,
the slow decomposition that is life. Yet for now this half-light,
the gentle sway of the tracks: music enough
for this journey, real and imagined.
The point of a pen opens a hole into a soul’s dereliction.
Sunlight takes no measure of what is clung to.
This search for the right word bores through even stone.
That way a man can place the half-dome of a tomato,
slice into memory and cut an island of loss.
We are punished by spice and the scent of cooking.
And you wake up on a cold day in another country
and put your faith in hot rice and braised goat.
Resurrection is a daily rite, a prayer, passage, vessel.
Gospels are made of less than this: tangled bed linen
acrid night sweat and the persistent aftertaste of a lost home.
But outside it is morning. A summer breeze
burns down to the water and the ocean begins.
The train bored through the corn like a weevil
leaving no trace of the sojourn. You watch
birds hop across the drooping leaves like scribes reading
the charts of time, and there in a tear in the green
and yellow, a red tractor idles like a slow burning coal.
And speaking of fire, that man we saw, brother,
a man burning on TV, skin melting, somewhere
between Africa and Lampedusa. Flaming
in the brow of a boat. Emblem? Ship’s figurehead?
You turn from the image say: death will find you
how it wills, and as it wills. The chemo in you is fire too.
And in the end, in someone’s heart, we burn.
An immigrant I try to read a people here but I cannot.
Those I might have, have been erased in all but place-names.
Mighty nations reduced to fit the small malice
of a wicked conquerors heart. And so, what
will not yield to the poet’s gaze will be overwritten.
Even the brown earth will crumble to reveal
the red soil of my homeland, blood on the outside of the body.
It comes fast this yearning for ground and loss,
sure as ink rides the sway of paper
I will find you brother, find home.
The farther one travels the more the world
blends into one seam. A small gutter
in front of a wood and tin shack and inside
a woman and a sewing machine chatter away
in repair of things that can never be gathered again.
To make full restitution is an impossible dream.
Even a forced migration, even Atlantic, even Mediterranean.
Even a boat furrowing ocean to plowed field
is the final measure of a body’s desperation.
Yet it hums to buoyancy, to wish, not to the fact of ruin.
The red earth of my homeland is both wound and suture.
Nomad is the human urge, fear is the need to stay.
Word is what says, not even one of us will be forgotten.
“Out of the Door” by Ahsan Mazhar Domki. 2018. Gouache on wasli. 23 x 18 inches.