The Hermit Poet

March 2, 2006

Why We Write: Chris Abani’s “Ode to Joy”

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 11:14 pm

I’ve just finished reading Chris Abani’s Kalakuta Republic – an amazing, heart-rending, terrifying, and for me, ulitmately a tranformative collection of poems which grew out of his time spent as a political prisoner in Nigeria between 1985 and 1991. How does one take such horrific experiences and psychological trauma and transform it into something else, something more powerful than pain?

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 the blows bloodied mouths,
clotting into silence.

~ Chris Abani, Kalakuta Republic

When I read this poem, I was transported there — right into the depths of hell with all these voices rising, giving up the only thing they had in protest, in defiance, in honor, in rage, in respect. Perhaps this is the real heart of poetry, to lift your voice and speak, even at the risk of your own life. To me the whole book became more than simply a document or an artifact of a particular time or moment. More than an object to be considered purely for its craft or for its cultural import. Rather, each poem was a voice yearning against the form it had been cast — there is more here, they each seemed to say, more here than can be held in these lines. Like old clay vessels on the verge of bursting, and yet holding together, their beauty born on the edge of destruction.

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