Published on Academy of American Poets (

The New Religion

The body is a nation I have never known.
The pure joy of air: the moment between leaping
from a cliff into the wall of blue below. Like that.
Or to feel the rub of tired lungs against skin-
covered bone, like a hand against the rough of bark.
Like that. "The body is a savage," I said.
For years I said that: the body is a savage.
As if this safety of the mind were virtue
not cowardice. For years I have snubbed
the dark rub of it, said, "I am better, Lord,
I am better," but sometimes, in an unguarded
moment of sun, I remember the cowdung-scent
of my childhood skin thick with dirt and sweat
and the screaming grass.
But this distance I keep is not divine,
for what was Christ if not God's desire
to smell his own armpit? And when I
see him, I know he will smile,
fingers glued to his nose, and say, "Next time
I will send you down as a dog
to taste this pure hunger."


Copyright © 2006 by Chris Abani. From Hands Washing Water (Copper Canyon Press, 2006). Reprinted from Split This Rock’s The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database.


Chris Abani

Chris Abani was born on December 27, 1966 in Afikpo, Nigeria to a Nigerian father and an English mother. Abani fled Nigeria with his mother and four siblings in 1968 during the Biafran War (1967–70). The family moved to England for three years, then returned to Nigeria. Abani has lived in the U.S. since 2001.

Abani published his first piece of short fiction when he was ten. He wrote and published his first novel, Masters of the Board (Delta, 1984), in Nigeria at age sixteen. The book was a thriller about an ex-Nazi officer attempting a coup in Nigeria. Its publication resulted in Abani being accused of providing instructions for General Mamman Vatsa’s conspiracy to overthrow President Ibrahim Babangida, leading to Abani being imprisoned for six months. Abani’s poetry collections are There Are No Names for Red (Red Hen Press, 2010), illustrated by the writer Percival Everett; Sanctificum (Copper Canyon Press, 2010); Daphne’s Lot (Red Hen Press, 2003); and Kalakuta Republic (Saqi Books, 2000). Abani’s other published fiction works are The Secret History of Las Vegas (Penguin Publishing Group, 2014); Song for the Night (Akashic Books, 2007), a PEN/Beyond Margins Award-winner; Becoming Abigail (Akashic Books, 2006); GraceLand (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), winner of a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award; and Sirocco (Swan, 1987). 

Abani’s other awards are the PEN Hemingway Book Prize (2005) and a Guggenheim Award in Fiction (2009). 

Formerly a professor in the department of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside, Abani is currently a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Board of Trustees Professor of English and comparative literary studies at Northwestern University. He lives in Chicago. 

Date Published: 2016-03-25

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