Essays, Recent

Flight by Flame: On Chris Abani’s Smoking the Bible

by Indira Dahlstrom | Contributing Writer

This essay is part of a series in which Poetry Northwest partners with Seattle Arts & Lectures to present reflections on visiting writers from the SAL Poetry Series. On Monday, April 3, Chris Abani will read and discuss his work at 7:30 pm Pacific time. Tickets to this in-person and online event can be purchased at the SAL website.

I first encountered Chris Abani’s linguistic brilliance on an unnamed walking path parallel to Highway 12 in Walla Walla, Washington. Among the roar of cars and rustling wheat, I turned up the podcast to hear Abani speak about language as a way to understand the self and about the nonlinearity of time in Nigerian thought. At the time, I was an undergraduate student deeply interested in how writers of color make intentional craft choices that subvert Western ideas of temporal linearity. I studied Abani’s memoir The Face: Cartography of the Void, in which Abani considers his face, others’ faces, and how touch and language shape ideas of self. Abani writes: “In Yoruba Iwalewa is beauty, and it means the beauty of truth or even the beauty of existence. The word Iwa is best translated to mean existence, an eternal state, being outside of time.” Passages such as this made me aware of my own neuroplasticity, of the ways that language births meaning.

I felt this again as I read Smoking the Bible, Abani’s latest poetry collection. These autobiographical poems invite the reader to reconsider their relationships—to loved ones, languages, history, and lineage. At the heart of the book is Abani’s own examination of his relationship with his dying brother. In “Ritual Is Journey” he writes,

Still, ritual is journey, atonement is real.
As you lay dying, I asked, What is your biggest regret?
Every kindness withheld, you said.
Every flicker of pleasure denied, you said.
Look, you said, sunlight.

This passage represents a shift in the poem. Before this moment, Abani writes about his and his brother’s shared lineage and upbringing. They are biracial Nigerian men living in diaspora who witnessed their Black father facing racial discrimination and their white mother facing abuse. This turn, from heavy truths to noticing something as quotidian as sunlight, is a recurring way that Abani’s poems move in this collection. The joy that his brother expresses, even as he is dying, exalts the quotidian to the same plane as the heavy truths.

By stitching the mundane to the profound, Abani renders a reclamation of a tender masculinity, an understanding of the relationship between joy and trauma, and a pursuit of the sacred. For Abani, deeply considering complexities and liminal spaces show a way forward. One complexity of Smoking the Bible is the meaning behind the title itself. In the poem “Broach: Cameo,” Abani writes,

I fold an origami bird, think of hand-rolled / cigarettes made from Bible pages, / suddenly given flight by flame, egrets / immolated in the burn.

Here, the delicate folding of an origami bird leads the reader to the sacrilegious creation of cigarettes. The ritual of immolation is reclaimed, as is the pain that Abani and his brother endured from being beaten by their father’s Bible. I am reminded of the story of Abraham and Isaac, in which Abraham is told by God to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God as a test of his faith. In this immolation, the sons make an offering of the pain that their father inflicted, until it is “given flight.”

In this moment, and others in the book—like when Abani and his brother break their fast by eating stolen communion wafers, or when Abani’s altar serving robes catch on fire—there is a dark humor that I’m familiar with. For those raised in the Catholic Church, irreverence becomes an important part of ritual. The holiest part of the Easter Vigil was when my twin brother and I would play with candle wax.

In “How to Write a Love Letter to Your Brother,” Abani writes,

I want to say I love you to all the men
our father couldn’t be, all the men
our brothers are trying to be, and the man
you are—a creature iridescent yet wrong for it.
I want to say I’m sorry, I wanted to save you.

The repetition of “I want to say” is delivered with pain, regret, and vulnerability. The “I love you”s feel like a radical declaration, and the tension of “a creature iridescent yet wrong for it” highlights how violent and limiting masculinity can be, while at the same time offering a masculinity sculpted in a softer shape.

This softer masculinity joins with the spiritual in the poem “Olokun” named for a Yoruba deity who is the ruler of water. Abani pursues the sacred in the poem “Olokun” named for a Yoruba deity who is the ruler of water. By the water, Abani offers the kola nut to his ancestors. A voice says, “Ase, baba, ase.” Ase is a Yoruba word meaning, “the empowered word that must come to pass, life force, and energy that regulates all movement and activity in the universe.” By calling on his father and ancestors in this ritual, the speaker tenderly reconnects with the dead, even if his relationship to them when they were alive was tense. This profound encounter with the speaker’s ghosts shows how the complexity of old cultures opens worlds of meanings.

Through honoring his culture, Abani upends the question “What if the Western reader won’t understand?” This challenges Western readers to look beyond themselves. There are no footnotes where Abani has to explain his cultures and knowledge systems. Instead, poetry offers a locus where the speaker delves into the fullness of his experience and knowledge. Smoking the Bible‘s invitation to look at our relationships, our griefs, and our histories in their fullness, ignites a reckoning towards hope. 

Indira Dahlstrom lives and writes in Seattle, Washington. She is interested in how stories shape us and how writing and listening can transform us for the better. When she was younger, her proudest moment as a writer was when she found out that teachers shared a poem she wrote in honor of her community in Skagit Valley by dropping copies of the poem in people’s mailboxes.