Few are the writers making poems and novels of the highest caliber. Chris Abani is one of these, part of a cadre that includes Michael Ondaatje and Patricia Lockwood. Thomas Hardy their predecessor in spirit. Abani, who directs both the creative writing MFA and the Program of African Studies at Northwestern, has published six books of fiction, including The Secret History of Las Vegas. Smoking the Bible is his eighth book of poetry. The title refers to smoking thyme and oregano in torn-out pages from the King James with his brother, and the poems unfold a story of these “two brothers, one elder. The biblical, / unavoidable here.” The elder is dying of sudden, terminal cancer. The younger is trying to account for who he is, immigrant-citizen in the United States far from his native southeastern Nigeria—they are Igbo—and the younger brother wants to account for the violence of their childhood, the toxicity of the masculinity they have known, and how it forged their bond.

To lose such a sibling, the poems propose, is to lose half of a primal dialogue, and in this case it’s a dialogue that makes up part of the self the surviving brother is left to carry, missing forever the response and the call to his call and response. A few lines from “Rain”:

Why were you beaten each time?
For running away for coming back?
Your gaunt and funky body was evidence enough
you had been punished already. And like Pilate
I hand you over to that mob of angry men—
Father and his brothers—head down, unable to stand
before the fear in your eyes, a feral beast.
You touch my face in forgiveness and
I burn with a thing I still have no name for.

Abani spent several months taking shifts with his brother’s wife, helping him prepare to die, helping him think about how to die well. Some of the poems are in the voice of the mother of the boys, and these are the earliest lines, the lines around which the whole of the book spools. Other lines witness the death of the beloved brother. Such a book is riddled with painful discoveries in plain language:

The true epiphany is that beauty happens
whether we seek it or not.
A boy may become entranced by his shadow,
with the dark, with the incessant. Maybe
we carry death with us. It sits behind the eyes
like a shadow on a lake. Sorrow comes to us
like this at the edge of a sea: an immensity.

That’s a poem called “Terminus.” But the terminal moment for the dying brother is rendered in two stanzas of free verse: “My hand cups his slowly cooling chin, / and all the while I am singing him / across the gulf of the ineffable.” What’s striking is that after this quiet but clear music—sweetly prosaic music—the poet responds with a song. In this case it’s a kind of chant, the piece is called “Mbubu,” named by Abani for a mask carved from a calabash gourd:

My people say: the riddle of our beings is in the calabash.
My people say: as big as the sea is, a calabash can hold it.
My people say: there is no loss a bottle gourd cannot contain.
My people say: love is an unending hymn—
a tie left in the grass by a child’s hands,
a knot against tomorrow and the fickle wind.

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JESSE NATHAN: How did the book emerge? And what about the biblical theme?

CHRIS ABANI: I have many ideas, but I think I am at a point in my writing where I can only feel comfortable publishing a book that I feel has to exist. It can’t just be because I think it’s a great idea, or because I like what I’m saying. It must feel essential.

There are certain writers like Toni Morrison or James Baldwin that I return to again and again. I feel like the measure of an essential book is that it can bear repeated revisitations and still offer something new every time. I’m always amazed by those kinds of books. My friend Kwame Dawes just republished an updated version of one of his earliest books of poetry, Prophets. It has weathered time and his own revisions and remains essential. Consider someone like Jack Gilbert, who worked in relative obscurity for a long time as a poet and published sparsely. If we take his collection The Great Fires and say, for experiment’s sake, that it was the only book he had ever published, I think he would have achieved more in that one instance than many poets with many books achieved. Those are the kind of books I want to publish now.

This book started as a book of poems from the point of view of my mother. When my mother was alive, she kept copious diaries over a difficult life and marriage. I was witness to a lot of that difficulty. I always wanted to read those diaries, attempt a book in her voice and POV, but she burned every copy of these diaries. So, I sort of created a book of imagined entries. I eventually ended up with what you can call a strong chapbook, but it wasn’t enough. There were a few poems in which my immediate elder brother, Greg, appeared. They burned with an odd fire and were about a lost summer.

Although Greg was four years older than me, he was instrumental in shaping who I would become. Something of those poems burned with a searing melancholy and abutted my father, and the culture we grew up in that shaped our masculinity in the disfigurement of post-colonialism. So, we were bound in ways that went beyond regular sibling situations.

In 2016 my brother was diagnosed with a rare and terminal cancer. He was given a few weeks to live, but I was blessed with ten months with him. I spent as much of that time with him and his family, prepping him and myself for his crossing.

Part of the difficulty was at this point he was losing language, and the experience was atavistic—although English was a simultaneous language for us, he reverted to the dialect of Igbo that our father’s people spoke. When my mother passed, he performed for her the role I was performing for him, and it became important that I helped him pass as gracefully as he helped her pass. To say it was a profound experience is to do it an injustice.

I would sit vigil with him many nights, and then when he drifted off, I would write poems. Those poems got mixed in with the poems about the summer he and I smoked the Psalms in my father’s King James Bible, and poems from the news, immigration, forced migrations, masculinity, and our father.

I had known my brother my whole life, and felt the closest to him, and yet at his funeral I realized there was so much more to his beauty than I had known and will ever experience. Three hundred people turned up for his funeral on a busy rainy Monday morning in England, many of them strangers to me. And they came up to me to give testimony to his endless generosity. It remains a beautiful and humbling thing.

NATHAN: Where did he live?

ABANI: He lived in London. I have woven place and its slippage—interior and exterior—into the book, and his struggle to fill the erasure of masculinity with joy and love rather than rage. The only thing I know for sure about masculinity is that it’s an evacuation. It’s not a thing. You’re not a man because you are this, you’re a man because you are not this. So, it’s like a process of attrition. And it seems to me that everything that’s stolen from men, by other men, is what is vital to live a shining life, a tenderness.

A lot of men who try to be good in the world often put that goodness into simple acts like cooking and just inviting people over to eat with no agenda or just giving things away or just quietly, you know, working in soup kitchens and things. In a way, the book probes questions about how the quotidian become sublime? Because the only things that are sublime, their origins are in the quotidian and then they must go through the grotesque. And it’s the process of going through the grotesque that renders them sublime. At least this is my experience.

NATHAN: What do you mean by grotesque?

ABANI: Take that simple story that most people think they know, the story of Jesus, right? Because all of these myths are transformational stories. So, here’s a man who’s basically out in the world trying to interrupt power, interrupt misogyny, interrupt all these things, then gets accused and then gets sentenced and then is forced to carry the implement of his own execution through the streets. He gets beaten, gets flogged so that the entire journey to that mountain where they crucify him is sort of the slow aggregation of both the erosion of his humanity, and his own public shame. I mean that whole scene in Game of Thrones, when Cersei walks the city being shamed, that’s really Jesus’s crucifixion. That’s the story of his journey to Golgotha. And then he gets to this place and then they nail him to a cross and he dies. And in the story, he’s buried and goes to hell for three days before he can resurrect. So, it seems like transformation is a hard-won grace that one must go through difficulty, and if you are lucky, you come out of it with a sense of the sublime.