Friday, March 19, 2010

Chris Abani: Harrowing poem of the death of a 14 year old political prisoner

Chris Abani's poem Ode to Joy on a wall of the building in the city of Leiden, The Netherlands The image is courtsey of Wikipedia Commons

The first time I heard Chris Abani was on Radio National's Late Night Live where he was interviewed by Phillip Adams. It was one of the most remarkable interviews I have heard.

Chris Abani is a Nigerian born poet, author and musician who wrote his first novel aged 16. In 1985, aged 18, he was imprisoned by the Nigerian government who believed his novel was a blueprint for a coup. Over the next 6 years Abani was imprisoned many times by the Nigerian authorities for his writings and political activism and in 1991 he went into exile in London, and eventually the USA, where he now lives. Abani takes the experiences and trauma of his time spent as a political prisoner and turns it into powerful poetry and prose.

The poem Ode to Joy, like many of his poems are about people he saw tortured and murdered in prison. It tells a story that is profoundly shocking and alarming.

Ode to Joy by Chris Abani

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.

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