new zealand electronic poetry centre

Chris Abani


Chris Abani is from Nigeria and wrote his first novel at the age of 16. Two years later (1985) he was imprisoned on the grounds that this work had served as a blueprint for the failed coup of General Vatsa. In 1987, while at university, his activities as a member of a guerrilla theatre group which performed plays in front of government offices resulted in a further year’s imprisonment in the Kiri Kiri maximum security prison. A play, Song of a Broken Flute, which he wrote in 1990 for the convocation ceremony of his university, led to a third period of incarceration, under threat of death, for a further eighteen months. Many of his prison companions did not survive. His novels are Masters of the Board (Delta, 1985) which won the 1983 Delta Fiction Award, Sirocco (Swan, 1987), and GraceLand (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004). His short fiction has been widely anthologized. His plays are Room at the Top (IBC, 1983), Song of a Broken Flute (IMOSU, 1990) and for young adults, The Poet, The Soldier, The Lover and The Paper-Kite Maker (New Visions Foundation, 2003). He will read from his poetry collections Kalakuta Republic (Saqi, 2001), which received the 2001 PEN USA West Freedom-to-Write Award and the 2001 Prince Claus of Netherlands Award, and Daphne’s Lot (Red Hen Press, 2003). 
See also

Ode to Joy

John James,14
Refused to serve his conscience up
to indict an innocent man
handcuffed to chair; they tacked his penis
to the table
with a six inch nail
and left him there

to drip
to death
3 days later

Risking death; an act insignificant
in the face of this child’s courage
we sang:

Oje wai wai,
Moje oje wai, wai.

they went 
on a 
killing rampage


even canisters of tear-gas, 
fired close up or
directly into mouths, will
take the back
your head off 
and many men
died singing, 
that night.

Notes caught, 
as blows bloodied mouths
clotting into silence.

Jacobs Ladder

Release, alive, from Kiri Kiri
          is rare.

They hand you what is left of
          your personal belongings

in a polythene bag. Everything
          they did not want.

You step out and stand in the
          sun thawing like a side of beef

from a freezer. Yet you are afraid
          to proceed more than a few

steps from the gate. Convinced you
          will be shot in the back.

Or that people will recoil from you
          knowing you carry the stench 

of death on your now paler skin.
          But nothing happens.

A gentle breeze ruffles your shirt and
          a dog menaces a parked car.

The smell of frying plantain,
          carried gently hurts inexplicably.

Cold, sweet Coca-Cola stings you 
          to tears.

Auckland : Some Notations of Value

The only land I own is that between my toes
Hone Tuwhare

This is the measure of it.

Norfolk pines on Stanley Point, like pagodas
On an imagined horizon, descend the hill
To dip their travel-weary feet in the salt water.

On North Head, where the rock curves away
Like the broadside of a giant back, is a cave
That catches the sweetness of the full moon
Rising over the lips of the waves. An ancient
Buried there stands in my mind blowing a conch
Calling, calling, calling, calling,

The way Tutanekai played that horn
With a desire and tenderness Miles never could
Each note a drop, like pounamu on a string
Pulling Hinemoa across the water.

In front of St Andrew’s is a rock, recalcitrant
In the way only old stone can be. Until Yang
Lian’s tears watered it with all the purity of rain.
That rock is a tongue chanting the names of the dead
To all who pass, and even those who don’t.

My kiwi friends and I make fun of tourists. Coming
Up with new schemes to fleece them – no pun intended.
We plan to get a matching pair of fluffy Kerry Blue terriers
And pretend they are sheepdogs – a new species crossing
Sheep and dogs into two prototypes we name Baawoof and Grendel.

The museum on the sacred hill reassures
Me that all old cultures are more the same
Here there are the two staples of my people – the Igbo
Yams and kumara, the limbs and intestines of
A sacrificed ancestor who gave us life.

I enter the room with all the artifacts. Tracing the lines
On a Maori ancestor’s face, I remember in this action,
My grandfather’s face, cut deep like the grooves scoured
By blood, marking him as a warrior, and I am closer
To home than I have been for a very long time.

Tapa cloth against my skin recalls
A blue night in Timbuktu, where a lone
Star filled the maw of darkness.

In a radio station studio, Yang Lian and I
Face off like warriors. But this meeting
Is an embrace, not death. And his words:
Before I came to Auckland, the sea was a distant
Idea. When I came to Auckland, I put my hand
In the sea and felt only the points of separation.
It took five years for me to find the sea inside my body

This is true: words are bridges linking people
Defeating the abrupt betrayal of piers.

Tin of cocoa
Tin of cocoa
Tin of cocoa
Car tow-er
Signal me that another ancient language is being
Mangled in the clumsy mouths of a newer people.
Yet even this clumsy gesture is better than the erasure
My language suffers, because all gestures point
To a horizon of possibility.

Kauri trees are chained to the earth on Queen Street
Where the land ends in the sea. I wonder if these
Chains keep the kauri from returning to their relatives –
Sperm whales calling in dreams the path to freedom.

All of me meets here, an alchemy of parts –
The Pacific of residence, the Atlantic of birth
The English of heritage and a culture, like mine,
Old enough to have words for birthing the earth.

The glass arch of Grafton Bridge curves around
Me in light, like the dazzle of the sun through
A dragonfly’s gossamer wings, protecting me from
The old cemetery below. And that light, I think
Will light my way home.


© Chris Abani 2003


Last updated 11 August, 2003