Sanctificum by Chris Abani


The hills of my childhood are purple with dusk and wings—
guinea fowl launched like a prayer to the still forming moon.
I hold Bean’s shell to my ear. There is no sea. But only sea.
By my bed, in an empty chair, my shirt unwinds.
I remember my aunt counting the dead in the newspaper.
I never told anyone that every sliver of orange I ate
was preceded by words from high mass.
Per omnia saecula saeculorum.
Spit out pit. Amen.
Juice. Amen. Flesh.

A full moon leaning on a skyscraper. The taste:
qat and sweets on a tropical afternoon.
The dog’s black tongue was more terrifying than its teeth.
The gravestone rising out of the puddle was more sinister
than the body we discovered as children swinging
in the summer-hot orchard.

The old woman singing a dirge has a voice of dust.
Sorrow lodged like a splintered bullet next to the heart.
A man once asked me in the street:
Do you own your own bones?
She like the home I come in, I say to Cristina
as we drive toward the Golden Gate.
Bean, I repeat.
She loves the home I come in
and I am alive with fire and scars.
Here is my body, I say, eat it, do this,
remember me—

Even now melancholy is a skin flayed
and worn in dance through the city.
Yes, the city becomes skin too and wears me
as skin and I want to say, This is my body, as I stroke
the curve of the fountain in the park.
This is my blood. Drink it. Remember.
The safety of doorways is an illusion.
They lead nowhere.
This is why we build houses.
Sand, when there is no water, can ablute,
washing grain by grain even the hardest stone of sin.
But you, but you, you are a sin that I live for.
Ne Me Quitte Pas. Ne Me Quitte Pas. Ne Me Quitte Pas.
Nina’s voice walks in dragging bodies,
dead black men that bled unseen in the dark
of southern nights, shaded by leaves
and the veiled eyes of hate.
And in a poem, Lucille stands in the shadow of a tree
and pours libations for our souls,
for our salt, for our gospel.

Somewhere a man speaks
in the dark, voice lost to rain.
I know this hunger, this need
to make patterns, to build meaning
from detritus; also the light
and the wood floor bare but for the lone slipper
tossed carelessly to one side. I admit the lies I’ve told.
Look, nothing has to be true
since that picture of hell on the living-room wall lost its terror.
I say I want a strong woman, but unlike Neto
I cannot have the woman and the fish.
The war followed.
Children are losing their souls to the heat.
That is to say, poor American soldiers.
The rich have found a way to charge theirs to Amex.
Ask this: what is the relationship of desire to memory?
Here is a boy in the airport café, hair cropped from service.
And he closes his eyes to take a sip of coffee.
And smiles as the dark washes the desert away.

Los Angeles:
A red sky and angels thick like palm trees,
and garbage blown in the wind like cars
and the gluttony of SUVs
in an endless river of traffic.
Through the dark, we say, through the dark:
but do we ever really know?
There is a man in a field and he is searching for God.
Father, he says, Father.
In the distance, birds, traffic, and children.
There is a blue sky. There is a sky blue with night.
The call of the earth is a primitive song,
stomping feet and broken men.
There is a blue sky. And night.
The city is a flock of lights.
The darkness of tunnels like caves is knowledge,
also mortal. Maps are like God.
They are the city yet not the city.
They contain the city but yet do not.
We trace the lines in loss.
Sometimes we find treasure.
Sometimes something fills the mind,
something at which we pause, stopped.
The way a photograph cannot remember the living.

To die is to return.
To fly is to be a bird’s heart.
Neither is freedom.
If it were we would have no name for it.
No language. Not even the temptation of wind
blowing a dark woman’s hair away from a cliff’s edge.
Instead, feathers are brought to my door every day by mystery.
Kindling for a fire, a beacon, an epiphany I cannot light.
This is the body of Christ.

"Om" from Sanctificum by Chris Abani. Copyright 2010 © by Chris Abani. Reprinted with permission of Copper Canyon Press.