Monday, January 11, 2016

There Are No Names for Red by Christ Abani and Percival Everett

This collaborative work features the poetry of Chris Abani and the oil paintings of Percival Everett, also a novelist. Published in 2010, the 7.5" x 10" format with a wainscoting of gray in the bottom third of a white page gives plenty of space to display Everett’s work alongside numbered stanzas of what might be a single poem by Abani.

Desire is a theme Abani returns to again and again in his writing, and the first line of the first stanza holds that word aloft for us to contemplate:
“The way desire is a body eroding
into a pile of salt marked with a crown of birds:
and black.”
While I cannot be exactly sure what Abani meant by those lines, it sounds a great deal like death, outside, a feast for birds, blackening in the sun.

Desire and death, "all the terror we can bear", "survival", "hunger", "sorrow, of weight beyond measure", "drowned". These poems describe the "box of wood and canvas…red lines cut thick as paste."
"My first death was a butterfly."
The poems describe the perpetrators, so many over the years, over the continents: Auschwitz, Jim the Crow, Boer, Mau Mau, Rwanda.
"If I were a better man, I would have compassion."


"I walk the stations of that pain
with all the relish of a self-flagellating
Everett’s paintings are bold, saturated with color, reds, golds, deep indigo with definite forms and irregular thick black grids.
"Like Van Gogh it is what is not alive that lives here…
…This knife pulls a jagged wish
through oils thick as butter…
…Percival’s heart bleeds on a stiff white canvas window."
And then, suddenly, three torsos, painted warm on a red background, without heads, arms or legs standing backs to us, graceful in form and beautiful, male and two females, without ethnicity, race, or national origin, undeniably alive, and in motion.

Abani finishes "It’s not hard to kill a childhood,"
"How nicely they’ve fixed the bullet holes in the walls,
in Rwanda. Painted bright petals around some areolas."
Abani sees Rwanda in the torsos. We bring ourselves to the interpretation of paintings, photographs, literature. But now we must admit that Percival’s paintings no longer share the same horror of Abani’s vision. We must begin again, and see how Abani is caught in the web of his nightmare and cannot get free:

"There is a green one above my desk.
Ripe, viridity fairer than lime and yet darker...
...Some nights,
when I look up suddenly, I am back in a cell and fear
chokes me and then my guilt...

...In the end, there are no names for red but fire,
hydrant, apple, ball, heart, blood, sacrifice, and altar.
Look, my nephew says, fire engine."

A remarkable collaboration by two remarkable artists.

Paperback, 56 pages Published April 1st 2010 by Red Hen Press

Other work by Chris Abani:
Becoming Abigail (2006)
Hands Washing Water (2006)
Virgin of Flames (2007)
Song for Night (2007)
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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