November 9, 2016

The Poetry of Monotony: Finding the Extraordinary in the Ordinary with Chris Abani

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William Martin stated: “Do not ask your children to strive for extraordinary lives. Help them instead to find the wonder and the marvel of an ordinary life.” Yet it can be difficult to discover new meaning and inspiration within the mundane aspects of everyday life. If I were to profusely read poems by Billy Collins and Robert Frost, perhaps for a cycle I may be inspired by their pastoral descriptions of our natural world to appreciate the multiplicity of hues which color Ithaca’s trees or the torrential gorges as I walk over the suspension bridge. But eventually, I lose the wonder of these sights and remain trapped in the routine of prelims, homework and sleepless nights. But after hearing poet Chris Abani read and perform several of his own compositions this past Thursday, I found the new awe, joy and magnificence within my daily life, including my 2:30 a.m. walks back from Olin library.

As I entered Klarman Hall G70, I didn’t know what to expect from a poetry reading. My prior experience with poetry readings had been back in Chicago at Louder than a Bomb (LTAB), which was Chicago’s largest annual slam poetry event for high school students. Up and coming DJ’s would play their newest mixes in between poetry performances. The audience was much more interactive, and they would unleash a cacophony of thunderous snaps as poets read original compositions packed with double entendres, smooth cadence and an energetic flow that matched the depths and heights of life on the South Side. At many times it felt a bit more like a hip-hop concert than a poetry reading, but I still loved every minute of it. Doing a brief bit of research on Chris Abani’s body of work, I arrived at Klarman knowing that this reading would be a little more subdued than LTAB, but was surprised nonetheless to experience how powerful it still was.

After a touching introductory address from Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Chris jokingly stated that he wasn’t a poet who did the whole “explaining thing.” He made the short disclaimer: “I’ll just give the poems to you. I want you to feel them.” Right away, he established himself as a down-to-earth individual who wanted to bypass the formalities of the event. Lyrae had read off a litany of Chris’ accomplishments and awards, but he downplayed his accomplishments in favor of connecting with the audience. He then told a humorous anecdote involving a group of South Africans trying to evacuate from a burning plane (he confessed that this was the only clean joke that he knew). Even in the almost packed auditorium of Klarman Hall, Chris was still able to inject a sense of intimacy and comfort.

He then went on to read several of his compositions from Sanctificum and other works. As he read, his works created a poetic biography and testimony which covered a multiplicity of topics, from his Nigerian upbringing and religious background, to his journey to, and time in, the United States. He spoke at a rapid pace and with a sense of urgency as though he earnestly wanted the audience to take a first-person perspective of his narrative world and join him in his poetic journey. Through his works, he detailed how he cut tomatoes, wrote to his father from his mother’s perspective and would roll up pages of his father’s King James Bible and smoke oregano through them with his brother, and all of these painted a beautiful collage of his life experiences and outlook.

It was clear that his culture and religion bled through his work. As he sliced the tomato, he described it as a culinary prayer, admiring the precision of the knife. Yet inversely, he shared a poem about how killing an animal with the same weapon was haunting, because it reminded him of the possibility and power that he had to kill a man as well. This was a powerful juxtaposition, and displayed his versatility in being able to describe the hostility and the comfortability of a knife. When describing elephants looking at their dead kin he said, “The elephants howl to the absent flesh on bones.” Yet in the soon after, he stated that “every human body is scripture”; the dichotomy of his works showed his maturity of perspective; that themes such as death, life and religion could be explored through a multiplicity of emotion. He spoke about seeing a street performer in Chicago and how the rhythmic popping and clicking of cicadas offered a measure of comfort to the performer. In my opinion, one of his greatest pieces was the poem “The Calculus of Faith.” Here, one can clearly see how he inherently values the seemingly simple things in life. In the poem, he stated that when he tasted the sweetness of the mango, it was his first miracle, and that ripping out pages from the King James Bible, rolling up the thin paper and smoking oregano was the second great miracle. The third was his mother’s turquoise ink fountain pen, which he realized had the power to create literary worlds. He was able share so many pieces, and yet he never rushed. Chris gave enough time to let the audience soak up the imagery within each line.

Chris Abani’s poetry was visceral. He invited his readers to an emotional journey, and I’m grateful to have visited his past and present world.  His poetry drew out emotions that reminded me of my own culture and faith. His work reinvigorated a wonder of my own ordinary upbringing and current college life. He wanted to make every day extraordinary and sacred.  So I am elated to have been a tourist of the literary world that he created, even if it was for only 45 minutes. But most importantly, I’m excited that I have my own ordinary world to discover anew and explore.

Zachary Lee is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at zjl4@cornellsun.com.

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