By Charles Rammelkamp
Chris Abani’s Smoking the Bible is a long letter to his brother, dead from cancer, full of sadness, grief, melancholy, but also a strange kind of nostalgia and a groping toward forgiveness, a resolution of grief that can never come. The poems are written on a train ride through the American Midwest, the train itself a metaphor for so many journeys.
The title refers to a memory, growing up in Nigeria with his older brother, using pages from their often violent father’s Bible to roll cigarettes. As he writes in the poem, “Leather,” which begins with the observation, “The Bible is heavy with vengeance”:
And so we smoked Father’s Bible.
Page by torn page folded into the origami
of an adolescent rebellion.
All these pages inhaled,
the holy evocative power of words and we
remained silly children bound by our fears.
Indeed, Smoking the Bible is full of ghosts, which necessarily refer to a profound past that lives on in the present, and which introduce God into the equation, that Ultimate Ghost. In the poem “The Ghost Speaks” he writes:
You tear Psalm 23 from Father’s leather-bound Bible,
roll it. Silently I recite, The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not –
You consider the roll and with the match and flame
already licking the edge of the paper, you ask if I think
God remembers my name.
Abani is no stranger to political oppression. He spent six months in prison at a tender age for writing a political thriller, Masters of the Board, on suspicion of having helped organize a coup. The plot of his novel resembled what actually occurred in Nigeria. His brother, like Chris, was also a political refugee. From the very first poem, “Flay,” addressed directly to his brother, we understand this. “Migrant,” he writes,
punished by spice and the scent of cooking,
you wake up on a cold day in another country
and put your faith in hot rice and braised goat,
and the persistent aftertaste of a lost home.
Gospels are made of less than this.
So the train metaphor becomes even more pointed – flight, escape. As he observes in “Ritual Is Journey,” “To be a man, to be black, to be a black man, / is a dangerous journey.” In “What Is Traveled, What Is Fragile,” while winding up a mountainside in America, on the train, Abani writes, “The first lie they tell you
is the lie of immigrants. The truth
is America is a nation of refugees
of trauma, displacement, and fanatical hope.
When we say immigrants we mean
I left home but I have nowhere to arrive to.
When they say immigrant they mean
an anxiety that leads to murder, erasure—
of indigenous, black, brown and other bodies stamped
into bedrock, into foundation, into sacrifice, deleted.
And later in the poem,
Grief is the beast we must all ride,
for the sublime yields only after the grotesque
has been traveled with grace: a living.
“Jordan Is No Mere River” is addressed to God. It starts “I don’t know how to work out this loss with you, O God,” meaning his brother’s death. “Here in the Midwest, winter haunts everything.” And later in the poem:
Now death feels familiar as my palm on your brow.
We are citizens of displacement, never
recognized for who we are. Never
from where we travel to.
Moreover, his mother, a white British woman, represents the tribe of the colonizers, an inherent tension; his father is violent and abusive. In “Lineage” he writes about his father’s “quiet revenge” against the British, “blow after blow dealt to my mother, / his white English wife.” While she did try to leave her husband, he writes in “Cameo: The Cut,” “No woman can leave five children like a wayward past. / No road can hold that journey.”
In “Portal,” Abani spells out the situation that forms the background to this thoughtful sequence of poems, the underpinning urgency with which he addresses his brother:
I wear my father’s death like a scar.
I wear my brother’s death like a scar.
I wear my mother’s death like a scar.
Not a talisman, but another kind of medicine.
The danger of begging the dead to return
is that sometimes they do.
“How to speak of us / without speaking of Father and Mother?” he asks in “Cameo: Broach.” Likewise, in “Rain” he asserts that “our father’s violence” has bound them as brothers. “How to Write a Love Letter to Your Brother,” which begins in “A train station silent but for the hum of tracks,” includes the lines:
When father stepped to you, just before
the first blow landed, I heard you
begging, negotiating, pleading
that began as words became a keening.
How overwhelming! The futility of grief, though inevitable, dominates the landscape. In “Offertory” he writes, “Though we know grief cannot raise the dead, / we speak the spells nonetheless.” Similarly, “Fragrance” begins “Sometimes grief is acceptance / that love has always been inadequate.”
I think of that endless summer of fragrance –
smoke from burning Bible pages….
The final handful of poems in this powerful collection, from “Scythe” (“I watched your tense quarrel with death”) and “Vigil” (“My brother’s jaw slackens in death, / mouth falling open, slides to one side.”) through “Mbubu,” “Crossing,” “The Familiar Is a Texture We Cannot Trust,” and the last poem, “The Calculus of Faith,” focus precisely on his brother’s death. This inevitably brings up the theme of religious belief and meaning. “The Calculus of Faith” begins, “In the end I realize / every human body is a scripture,” and later goes on:
The second miracle was an onionskin sheet
of paper torn from a King James Bible
filled with oregano and thyme and smoked.
Smoking the Bible is a powerful, elegiac collection, eloquent with grief and forgiveness.
You can find the book here: Smoking the Bible
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His most recent releases are Sparring Partners from Mooonstone Press, Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and Catastroika from Apprentice House.