Excerpt: Smoking the Bible by Chris Abani


The point of a pen opens a hole
into a soul’s dereliction. This search

for the right word bores through stone.
Sunlight takes no measure of what is clung to.

A man can place the half-dome
of a tomato, slice into flesh,

and cut an island of loss. Migrant,
punished by spice and the scent of cooking,

you wake up on a cold day in another country
and put your faith in hot rice and braised goat,

and the persistent aftertaste of a lost home.
Gospels are made of less than this.

But outside it is morning. A summer breeze
burns down to the water and the ocean begins.



When the doctor said Terminal,
you went silent, and I set off, Brother. Journey
is a word trembling at a platform’s edge.
Traveling as a way of emptying out all
that cannot be emptied.
Only to arrive back
at myself twice as full but with a shovel, blade
worn to nub from the digging. There
will be a reckoning, but I promise
to walk with you as far as I can
in this fragile light buoyant with loss.



A train travels through an endless Midwestern cornfield,
yellow slants to gold as the sun leans heavy on the horizon;

this meager harvest of memory and hope –
the entropy of a coffee cup half spilling into

a wash of half-truths. A sweet decline.
To have spent your life thinking, I am

the good one, the stable one, then one
morning in a city between the city you call

home and the one you are traveling to, you
accept: you are migrant. This is where you

find yourself, somewhere between coercion
and insubstantial desire, the slow decomposition that is

life. Yet for now this half-light, the gentle
sway on the tracks: music enough for this journey.

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Birth Right

Thin pages brittle with words and
two brothers, one elder. The biblical,
unavoidable here. And there is the rub.
To come to self, to skin, is to rip away another, separate,
tear. Train snaking track, snaking thoughts –
window as page, margin as frame, what is kept within,
what slips away. From beyond the willow’s lazy bow
into river, beyond the crane stabbing for minnows
in the shallows, beyond the reflected sunlight,
in a cathedral the tints of stained glass,
that addendum to light
that tempers it to grace.



The train bores through corn like a weevil.
Birds hop across drooping leaves like scribes.

An immigrant, I try to read origin here but cannot.
Mighty nations erased in all but place-names,

reduced to fit the small malice of a conqueror’s heart.
What will not yield to the poet’s gaze will be overwritten.

Sure as ink rides the sway of paper.
But there, in a tear in the green and yellow,

a red tractor idles like a slow burning coal.
Fire, that man burning on TV,

skin melting, somewhere between Africa and Lampedusa.
Flaming in the prow of a boat.

You turn from the image, say: Death will find you
how it wills, and as it wills. The chemo in you is

fire too. And in the end,
in someone’s heart, we too must burn.



for David Doris

The fecund smell of loam, rotting wood, mushroom, and beets.
Other things also – earthworms at their workings.
They eat and excrete every grain of earth.
An eternity of sustenance and renewal, a world reformed.
Brother, our love is an endless summer turned over and over,
and yet so much is still this –
that we are deformed early, the pattern set:
curry still smells good, rhubarb baked in a pie,
tea heavy with milk and sugar reminds us that failure is
sated only for that moment, mitigated for a while between
the aroma of preparation and the last scrape of the fork.

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Light Flame, Turn Rebel

I remember your first blaze, carpet of flame
spreading with ease through a valley of corn.
The dry cobs awaiting the farmer’s hands
to pluck and smooth them.
The dry resistance of kernels ground
to submission on a worn stone. Or planted,
yellowed teeth turning to seed.

What flared in you, ignited a match
cupped from the wind and held to stalk?
Did your hands tremble in the moment?
Your immolation as boy, your incarnation as rebel?

And what did Father see in that barren blackness
punctuated by still-smoking stalks?
Your plea or the blackening of his heart?
The scar of a farm burned to the ground?
Even this devastation can grow love.


Read the full excerpt and buy Smoking the Bible here: Amazon

Excerpt from SMOKING THE BIBLE published by Copper Canyon Press. Copyright © 2022 by Chris Abani.

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