Thursday, March 30, 2006

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #28

The Nigerian poet/playwright/novelist/literary critic and first-ever black African Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka has never been one to shy away from shining a bright, harsh light on racial discrimination, hypocrisy, tyranny and other forms of human cruelty. His is a moving, powerful and sometimes bitter voice crying out from the wilderness of West Africa, and he has suffered through long periods of imprisonment and exile for his courageous criticism of various brutal governments in his home country. His work combines elements of the great Western literary tradition with African myths, legends and folklore.

Though I don't know it well, what I have read of Soyinka's poetry reveals it to be powerful work that is deeply emotional, at times very moving and tender and at other times, harsh and uncompromising (especially when attacking the injustices that have been inflicted on his own people over the years). This particular poem touches on all of these things, and serves as a real eye-opener for those of us who have grown up within the celebrity-obsessed entertainment culture, and therefore sometimes don't see how arrogant and air-headed we must seem to the rest of the watching world. By contrasting these two very different deaths (and the ways in which they were marked), Soyinka makes us question and ponder what truly makes a human life worth celebrating and memorializing (and what doesn't). These heart-stirring lines will stick with me for a long time:

Courage is its own crown, sometimes
Of thorns, always luminous as martyrdom.

IMPORTANT: Here is Soyinka's note that goes along with the poem, which is essential for we ignorant Westerners to grasp its meaning:

Kudirat Abiola, the wife of the elected Nigerian President M.K.O. Abiola, was assassinated by agents of the usurping dictator, Sanni Abacha, in June 1996, the year before Princess Diana died in a motor accident.


Some Deaths are Worlds Apart
(for Kudirat)

No bed of flowers bloomed for Kudirat
She was not royal, white or glamorous
Not one carnation marked the spot of death.
Though undecreed, a ban on mourning spoke
Louder than cold-eyed guns that spat
Their message of contempt against the world.

Oh, there were noises from the diplomatic world
A protest diskette ran its regulation course -- but
She was no media princess, no sibling
Of hagiomanic earls. All too soon it was:
Business as usual. Dark sludge
And lubricant of conscience, oil
Must flow, though hearts atrophy, and tears
Are staunched at source.

Death touches all, both kin and strangers.
The death of one, we know, is one death
One too many. Grief unites, but grief's
Manipulation thrusts our worlds apart
In more than measurable distances -- there are
Tears of cultured pearls, while others drop
As silent stones. Their core of embers
Melts brass casings on the street of death.

She was not royal, white or glamorous
No catch of playboy millionaires.
Her grace was not for media drool, her beauty
We shall leave to nature's troubadors.

Courage is its own crown, sometimes
Of thorns, always luminous with martyrdom.
Her pedigree was one with Moremi,
Queen Amina, Aung Sung Kyi, with
The Maid of Orleans and all who mother
Pain as offspring, offer blood as others, milk.

She seeks no coronet of hearts, who reigns
Queen of a people's will.
Oh let us praise the lineage
That turns the hearth to ramparts and,
Self surrendered, dons a mantle that becomes
The rare-born Master of Fate.

1 comment:

Mutt Ploughman said...

Powerful poem.....if the two deaths that Soyinka is concerned with were not "worlds apart", then I don't know which two deaths could ever be. Normally you hear the comparisons between Diana and Mother Theresa, since they died the same day, and the disparity in the world's reactions to those events. But this pairing contrasts even more starkly. I agree with Duke that the phrase "courage is its own crown" and the allusion to the death of Christ is powerful vision and language in action. Another great selection in this series. Man, would all of these poems grouped together consistitute a hell of an anthology. I wonder what title Duke would give to that collection, as the obvious Editor.....?