Poem for World Poetry Day 2014: ‘Massacre, October ’66’, Wole Soyinka
Massacre, October ‘66
Written in Tegel
Shards of sunlight touch me here
shredded in willows. Through stained-glass
Fragments on the lake I sought to reach
A mind at silt-bed
The lake stayed cold
I swam in an October flush of dying leaves
The gardener’s labour flew in seasoned scrolls
Lettering the wind
Swept from painted craft
A mockery of waves remarked this idyll sham
I trod on acorns; each shell’s detonation
Aped the skull’s uniqueness.
Came sharper reckoning –
This favoured food of hogs cannot number high
As heads still harshly crop to whirlwinds
I have briefly fled
The oak rains a hundred more
A kind confusion to arithmetics of death:
Time to watch autumn the removal man
Dust down rare canvases
To let a loud resolve of passion
Fly to a squirrel, burnished light and copper fur
A distant stance without the lake’s churchwindows
And for a stranger, love.
A host of acorns fell, silent
As they are silenced all, whose laughter
Rose from such indifferent paths, oh God
They are not strangers all
Whose desecration mocks the word
Of peace – salaam aleikun – not strangers any
Brain of thousands pressed asleep to pig fodder –
Shun pork the unholy – cries the priest.
I borrow seasons of an alien land
In brotherhood of ill, pride of race around me
Strewn in sunlit shards. I borrow alien lands
To stay the season of a mind.
The poem is about two things. 1. The sadness of the massacre in Nigeria, which just a few years after independence, was beginning to be torn apart by ethnic-religious-regional and oil conflicts leading up to the Biafra’s declaration of independence (May, 1967) and the ensuing Biafran war (estimated 2 million dead). After oil was discovered in the Christian Igbo Nigerian Delta region, there were arguments about who should be getting the money for the oil. Muslim Hausa attacks on Igbo people in the region, led to many deaths and many to flee.
2. The poet’s feelings around being in exile in Tegel, Berlin, away from the happenings in his home country. Wole Soyinka, a Yoruba-born Nobel prize winner (Africa’s first), returned to Nigeria the year after writing this poem and was arrested and imprisoned for two years in solitary confinement.
The foreignness of the surroundings – a German lake in an European autumn – are imbued with Soyinka’s sadness. He cannot forget what has happened. The red leaves on the lake are “dying”, and when blown around by the wind they are “seasoned scrolls / Lettering the wind”, each a reminder of the lost lives back home. The fallen acorns “aped the skull’s uniqueness” when he steps on them. Death is everywhere in his thoughts. The sunlight comes down in “shards” and is “shredded” by the (foreign) willows.
The identification of the lake with the Christian church of the continent he is temporarily homed in shows the religion to be a foreign one too. It is associated with this cold, alien continent. And not the ‘ethnic’ identification he is supposed to have in supposedly religious wars.
Diving into the lake, he “sought to reach / A mind at silt bed” as if he could find the source of it all , the common humanity perhaps, the reason for it all. Instead the “lake stayed cold” and in the “idyll” of peaceful Europe, war was everywhere. The “painted craft” of a motor boat that shoots the water is something false and the “mockery of waves” remind us of a machine gun’s round. The peace is a “sham”.
It is a sham because as the acorns fall in Germany so do the victims in this post-colonial civil war. Their “laughter / Rose from such indifferent paths” yet ended in the same manner. And he prays to a more universal feeling: “oh God / They are not strangers all”. Yet, the manner of their “desecration” – the church of the holy human body torn apart – is a mockery (that word again) of the tenets of a religion that tells us to “shun … the unholy” and greets by wishing “salaam aleikun” [sic], peace be upon us. Humans made into “pig fodder”, acorns to be trod on and destroyed, in the name of righteousness.
And so he ends reflecting on his position of exile. The fact that he returned to be arrested shows that he must have felt the need to be at home where the struggle was going on. He says “I borrow seasons of an alien land” – having moved into another world’s time. And that “I borrow alien lands / To stay the season of a mind”. But as he dives into the cold lake, surrounded by falling leaves, crushed acorns, resounding waves from a “painted” craft, watching light through “stained glass” church-window waters, it is a futile, only temporary relief. For Europe, for the world and for the poet, “in brotherhood of ill, pride of race” the massacre carries on.