Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Hands Washing Water by Chris Abani

Paperback, 90 pages Published October 1st 2006 by Copper Canyon Press

”We are lucky to live now, I mean, look how far we’ve come.”—from “Foucault’s Funk”

Chris Abani, when asked by Walter Mosley in 2010, said he was a novelist first because he thought in stories. He works on poetry and novels concurrently, using one to break the logjams of the other. He works constantly.

The poems in this collection are food, a kind of fruit we have never tasted before, good in our mouth but unfamiliar on our tongue. We try something new in every poem, moving from Paris to the Caribbean, from California to New Zealand. Africa is there, and New York, Harare, Egypt, and Antwerp. At the pyramids

"Rabab tells me: We know how to build graves
here. I nod. I know. It is the same all over Africa."
One extraordinary twelve-part poem, “Buffalo Women,” imagines the correspondence between a white woman and a recently emancipated slave who is fighting in the Civil War. The agony of their separation and the possibility of no return is everywhere evident.
"Remember the bird of paradise you planted?
Well it has spread in the garden, so that it looks as though
a gaggle of tropical birds have gone beserk...
...I am enclose some rags to stanch your blood
and a long piece of sheet to swaddle yourself."
In “A Warrior’s Pride,” we learn to sharpen a broadsword till it cleaves a single blade of grass. Soot, ash, water, stone.
”Grandfather says:
Heed this! A severed head cannot be put back
This is a warrior’s wisdom.”

In Auckland, Abani feels at home. He has a face that is often mistaken for another nationality. Sometimes mistaken for a Maori (“It can be dangerous”), he says
"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."

My favorites in the collection are “Low-Down Dirty Blues,” written for Walter Mosley, and “Harare” which has a refrain in each stanza “This is kwela.” Kwela is a distinctive pennywhistle-based jazzy urban street music from South Africa (according to Wikipedia) that has influenced Western music, notably Paul Simon’s album “Graceland”. Another favorite in this collection is

The light this morning is an aria,
I turn back to the stirring of the coffee.
A way to ground this time
between the hush and the turning. Outside
a hummingbird is spreading rumors
among flowers. Even now.
Even after all the wounds have healed,
I scratch around a phantom scab, avoiding
what lies beneath. When I open the window,
rosemary and thyme spill in.
Later I will loam in the herb garden,
crumbling the dirt, whispering dirges,
spicing the plants with sharpness. For now,
there is Percival’s painted fire
and the coffee. Sometimes
it is enough.
In the TED talk below, Abani told us about seeding the names of the dead, singing melancholic dirges while planting. When it comes time to harvest, joyful songs commemorate the village’s newborns. The other reference in this poem is to the paintings of novelist Percival Everett.


This collection, first published in 2006 by Copper Canyon Press, is now available as an ebook by that publisher. The Notes at the end of this collection give the reader a frame of reference for each poem, except for the title poem, which has no notes.

Other work by Chris Abani:
Becoming Abigail (2006)
Hands Washing Water (2006)
Virgin of Flames (2007)
Song for Night (2007)
There Are No Names for Red (2010)
Sanctificum (2010)
The Secret History of Las Vegas (2014)
The Face: Cartography of the Void (2014)

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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