Dec. 27, 2010

IV. Those Who Are Surpassed

by Dick Allen

"Their eyes are always bigger than their stomachs,"
my father said,
"that's how you can tell them: big eyes,
little thin stomachs.

"At the table of life
they always heap too much and never finish."
Not him.
His plate was always cleared, he always kept

just a little room left over for dessert: Bavarian
creme pies,
deep dark chocolate cakes,
syrup floating up the edges of bread puddings,

and smacked his lips and seemed content while those
around him groaned
and nibbled with embarrassment the rich
concoctions he'd planned for

with calculating visions and a loosened belt. "You see,
the secret's in the appetite," he said, "to know
what's possible
and what's impractical. One taste at a time,"

he said, "one delicious bite and savor it, and then
the next,"
who lived to ninety, gained tremendous girth
and died without a speck

of usual regret—his several books, his articles, his meals
completed in a lonely condominium in Idaho,
the dishes washed,
and he asleep within his great armchair.

"IV. Those Who Are Surpassed" by Dick Allen, from The Day Before: New Poems. © Sarabande Books, 2003. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist and poet Chris Abani, (books by this author) born in Afikpo, Nigeria (1966). Within the past decade alone, he has published the novels GraceLand (2004), Becoming Abigail (2006), and The Virgin of Flames (2007), as well as the poetry collections Daphne's Lot (2002), Dog Woman (2004), and Hands Washing Water (2006). Several of his books have been selected as New York Times Editor's Choices, and he's won a long list of prestigious literary prizes, including the PEN Hemingway Book Prize, a California Book Award, and a Guggenheim.

He was raised in Nigeria, the son of a white secretary from the English countryside and a black West African who went to graduate school at Oxford University. He grew up a devout Catholic, obsessed with comic books and the poetry of W.B. Yeats. At 10 years old he published his first short story.

Then at 16 he wrote his first novel, a political thriller called Master of the Board (1985), in which Nazis stage a coup and take over the Nigerian government. The novel was published when he was 17, and it brought him lots of national literary awards. But the book also brought him a lot of trouble --- including a prison sentence.

Shortly after his novel was published, there was an actual military coup attempt in Nigeria. It failed, and the Nigerian dictator who remained in power decided that the events of the attempted coup against him too closely resembled the plot of Chris Abani's political thriller. So he threw the Abani in jail for being a co-conspirator to the coup, on the grounds that he helped organize the coup by providing a blueprint for it in the plot of his novel. The teenage novelist spent six months in prison.

He got out, wrote another political novel, and was sent back to jail for a year. Then he went to college and formed a guerilla theater group, writing and performing sketches about government corruption right in front of official government buildings. He went back to jail for treason, and this time he was sentenced to death, and also tortured. His friends were able to raise enough bribe money to get him out, and after 18 months in the maximum security prison --- a third of the time in solitary confinement --- he was released. He received multiple death threats after getting out and fled to England with his mom.

In London in the mid-1990s he started going to writers' workshops. People there urged him to write poems about his experiences in prison, and within the span of a few weeks he had more than a hundred poems. They formed his first poetry collection, Kalakuta Republic (2000), which became a bestseller and won awards from around the world. Critics called him one of Britain's top poets.

In 1999 he moved from London to a low rent district of Los Angeles, where he earned money fixing up broken-down cars while doing a PhD in English at USC. He wanted to write a novel which would capture his experience of Los Angeles, which he described as “middle class, biracial, with a hyper sense of surrealism." That book, published as The Virgin of Flames (2007), begins:

“This is the religion of cities. The sacraments: iridescent in its concrete sleeve, the Los Angeles River losing faith with every inch traveled. A child riding a bicycle against the backdrop of desolate lots and leaning chain-link fences, while in the distance, a cluster of high-rises, like the spires of old Cathedrals, trace a jagged line against the sky, every the uneven heart of prayer. The inevitable broken fire hydrant surrounded by an explosion of half-naked squealing children bearing witness to the blessed coolness of water. World-weary tenements and houses contemplating a more decadent past, looking undecided, as if they would up and leave for a better part of the city at any moment. A human silhouette on a park bench reading a book. Junkies hustling the afternoon. And out of sight, yet present nonetheless, the tired bounce of heat-deflated basketballs against soft tar. And a dog. Old, ancient even. And curious.”

He currently teaches creative writing at the University of California at Riverside. His most recent novel is Song for Night (2007). In 2010 he published three books of poetry: Sanctificum (2010), There Are No Names for Red (2010, co-author Percival Everett), and Feed Me The Sun - Collected Long Poems (2010).

Despite his background as a political dissident, he says that he does not at all believe in “the role of the poet as polemic educator.” He said, “If writers and poets have any role, it is this one: to not limit in any way the ability of their imagination to engage the world.” He said the difficulty he faces is how to “balance narratives that are wonderful with narratives of wounds and self-loathing . . . to balance the idea of our complete vulnerability with the complete notion of transformation or what is possible.”

Chris Abani said, “What I've come to learn is that the world is never saved in grand messianic gestures, but in the simple accumulation of gentle, soft, almost invisible acts of compassion, everyday acts of compassion. In South Africa they have a phrase called ubuntu. Ubuntu comes out of a philosophy that says, the only way for me to be human is for you to reflect my humanity back at me.”

And he said, "You know, you can steel your heart against any kind of trouble, any kind of horror. But the simple act of kindness from a complete stranger will unstitch you."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of humorist, essayist, and frequent This American Life contributor Sarah Vowell, (books by this author) born in Muskogee, Oklahoma (1969). Her books include The Partly Cloudy Patriot (2003), Assassination Vacation (2005), and The Wordy Shipmates (2008). She said, "Being a nerd, which is to say going too far and caring too much about a subject, is the best way to make friends I know."

It's the birthday of novelist and essayist Wilfrid Sheed, (books by this author) born in London, England (1930). He has written several satirical novels about the business of journalism, including The Hack (1963), about a miserable man who writes uplifting poems and stories for a Catholic magazine, and Max Jamison (1970), about a theater critic who can't help criticizing everything in his own life. He's also written several memoirs, including My Life as a Fan (1993), about his love of baseball, and In Love with Daylight: A Memoir of Recovery (1995).

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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