Monday, March 7, 2011

Poetry of profound suffering, human survival and deep humanity

The first time I heard Nigerian poet Chris Abani was on Phillip Adams's Late Night Live Program in 2009. I vividly remember that interview for the shocking story that Chris Abani told about his imprisonment and torture by the Nigerian authorities.

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. 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, fiction and prose.

His book of poetry Kalakuta Republic is a collection of poems about the brutality and hardship of prison life (and release from prison) under the tyranny of a military dictatorship (which was propped up by Western governments and oil companies such as Shell) . These are poems of immense sadness and profound humanity. They tell of  horrific torture, cruelty and evil perpetrated by prison guards and Nigerian authorities. But they also capture moments of shared humanity and compassion shown by guards and fellow prisoners despite terrible circumstances. The title of the book comes from the Nigerian prison where Abani was imprisoned.
Buffalo Soldier

In the last week before
he died, John James would cry softly
every night.

His father, colonel on the wrong side
absconded to Chad across the border-
they came looking for him.

Finding only John James and his mother,
they took him, ransom for his father's head;
but he never came- maybe he never knew.

Unable to lose face, they held JJ anyway;
one extra hand for graveyard duty- and practise
for artists seeking the perfect torture.

This child's only crimes were an overactive
imagination, a belief in the unseen- a father who
haunted a despot.

He sucked through eager eyes tales from Jeremiah;
goblins, ghosts, cannibals and parrllel words. Doesn't
he recognise the plots from the comics he gave him?

In the week before
he died John James's laughter fell
mauve gossamer blossoms from a tree shaking.


Before he was transferred
for fraternising with the prisoners,

Lt Emile Elejegba came to
see me
in my cell at night.

Wrinkling his nose against the
and trying hard not to cry.

he handed me a slim worn
with the picture of a smiling white girl
on its cover.The Diary of Anne Frank.

'This might help"he said gently.
'I hear
Nelson Mandela read it on Robbens Island'

In the morning he was gone as
I turned
the first page and began to read.
poems copyright Chris Abani

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