Chris Abani's Hands Washing Water
I first became award of Chris Abani (http://www.chrisabani.com) a few years ago at an Antioch University reading in Los Angeles. He was doing tours for his second book of poetry, Daphane’s Lot, a collection of poems written in the voice of his mother, and his second book of fiction, Graceland, about a boy named Elvis growing up in unfathomable circumstances. Since then he has written two more books of poetry, including the one being reviewed here, and two more books of fiction. After I saw him read at Antioch I took workshops from him and went to every reading of his I could, but as with all good things you find, other people noticed him and he was off to teach at UC Riverside and tour the world as a keynote speaker and honored guest all over the world. What I mean to say with this introduction is that my view of Abani’s work is completely biased by my belief that the man is a genius of a writer, but that I am not completely alone in this view.
Hands Washing Water is the fourth collection of poetry from Abani and possibly his most diverse. His first three collections focused on poetry written in the voice of someone else. The past collections have been amazing journeys but have always seemed to be a case of the poet distancing himself from what he could not yet reveal to the reader. Hands Washing Water seems to be the first step towards the revelation that Abani readers have been waiting for all this time.
The book is divided into three sections, titled strangely enough: One, Two and Three. The first section is a collection of what might be considered travel poems, but what is revealed in them is the traveler. This section is prefaced by a quote from John Outterbridge, “I have never found a way to separate art from the act of living” and it prepares us to read about the poet as a traveler who sees his “act of living” reflected in the eyes of those he travels with and the natives he sees in the lands he visits but also feels the contrast he creates when he is placed in different locations. As with all great poets work though, the personal is both political and universal and Abani’s long years of writing in the voice of others pays off here in these poems.
In "Hanging in Egypt with Breyten Breytenbach" Abani writes:
The guard at the pyramid eyes me.
Are you Egyptian? he demands,
then searches my bag for a bomb.
At the hotel they speak Arabic to me,
don’t treat me like the white guests,
and I guess, even here, with all
the hindsight of history we haven’t
learned to love ourselves.
In the second section of the book, Buffalo Women, Abani goes back to his comfort zone and writes in the voice of another in a series of letters written from a black soldier to his wife. The poems delve into the nature of gender, war and the way violence can become a way of life. The poems in this section will be considered timely for our generation because we can relate them to the current US war in Iraq, but the truth is that each generation has dealt with the same issues and until we find a way to stop warring, poems like the ones here will be timeless.
In "Letter VII," Abani writers in the voice of the soldier Henri:
I killed more men today. Not with the distance
of a musket shot or the justice of a sword.
This was something entirely different.
I clubbed them to death with my rifle stock.
Beat them with the confidence of a Chinese
washerwoman. Until their bodies yielded
red to my cleansing. All the time,
I grunted, moaned even. The sound low
and sweet at the back of my throat. Clubbing
until each one was still, and then panting.
I gulped for air, sweating, alive, so alive.
In the third section of the book Abani delivers a selection of poems that have no theme in the traditional Abani sense. There is no “other” to claim the words the poet writes only the poet and his poems. There is anger and longing in these poems and, after reading the tightly controlled poems of past collections, a little sense of disarray which is at first alarming, but then after re-reading (and you should always read poems over and over again) they become elegant and enriching like all of Abani’s work.
Hands Washing Water is a great collection of poetry, one that can be enjoyed every time it’s read. The Copper Canyon publication is a nice size and weight and travels well in a purse or pocket.
Hands Washing Water, Chris Abani, Copper Canyon Press 2006, ISBN 1-55659-247-8, 90 pages, $15.