Wole Soyinka– 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature Winner:
Soyinka is the author of such powerful poems like “Telephone Conversation,” “New York,” and many others. Even though many of us who love poetry adore Soyinka as a poet, he is best known for his great plays that capture the realities of African oral culture and tradition. His power over language is amazing. Many of us learned how to write poetry by reading and teaching Soyinka’s many plays and poetry, feasting on his ability to use vivid images to explore tradition, myth, community by his use of language as a tool in writing African literature. Even though Soyinka is a Nigerian writer first, his work is true to all of Africa, and his power of the word is appreciated by anyone who loves literature.
Civilian and Soldier
by Wole Soyinka
My apparition rose from the fall of lead,
Declared, ‘I am a civilian.’ It only served
To aggravate your fright. For how could I
Have risen, a being of this world, in that hour
Of impartial death! And I thought also: nor is
Your quarrel of this world.
You stood still
For both eternities, and oh I heard the lesson
Of your traing sessions, cautioning –
Scorch earth behind you, do not leave
A dubious neutral to the rear. Reiteration
Of my civilian quandary, burrowing earth
From the lead festival of your more eager friends
Worked the worse on your confusion, and when
You brought the gun to bear on me, and death
Twitched me gently in the eye, your plight
And all of you came clear to me.
I hope some day
Intent upon my trade of living, to be checked
In stride by your apparition in a trench,
Signalling, I am a soldier. No hesitation then
But I shall shoot you clean and fair
With meat and bread, a gourd of wine
A bunch of breasts from either arm, and that
Lone question – do you friend, even now, know
What it is all about?
Wole Soyinka was born Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka in Abeokuta, Nigeria on July 13, 1934. The son of a canon in the Anglican Church, Soyinka grew up in an Anglican mission compound in Aké. However, his parents were careful to balance this colonial, English-speaking environment with regular visits to his father’s ancestral home in Isara. He would later chronicle these years in his autobiographical work, Aké: The Years of Childhood (1981) as well as in Isara, a Voyage Around “Essay” (1989). Wole Soyinka, whose work I studied as a high schooler and throughout my educational pursuit, won the Nobel Laureate in Literature in 1986. His poetry was one of my earliest inspiration and continues to be today. Over the past decades of my teaching career both in Africa and in the US, I have taught Soyinka’s powerful poetry and plays over and over.
Break, not the gecko’s slight skin, but its fall
Taste this soil for death and plumb her deep for life
To the warmth of waters, earthed as springs
As roots of baobab, as the hearth.
Spin you on the navel of the storm, for the hoe
That roots the forests plows a path for squirrels.
Be ageless as dark peat, but only that rain’s
Fingers, not the feet of men, may wash you over.
Long wear the sun’s shadow; run naked to the night.
Peppers green and red—child—your tongue arch
To scorpion tail, spit straight return to danger’s threats
Yet coo with the brown pigeon, tendril dew between your lips.
Shield you like the flesh of palms, skyward held
Cuspids in thorn nesting, insealed as the heart of kernel—
A woman’s flesh is oil—child, palm oil on your tongue
Is suppleness to life, and wine of this gourd
From self-same timeless run of runnels as refill
Your podlings, child, weaned from yours we embrace
Earth’s honeyed milk, wine of the only rib.
Now roll your tongue in honey till your cheeks are
Swarming honeycombs—your world needs sweetening, child.
Camwood round the heart, chalk for flight
Of blemish—see? it dawns!—antimony beneath
Armpits like a goddess, and leave this taste
Long on your lips, of salt, that you may seek
None from tears. This, rain-water, is the gift
Of gods—drink of its purity, bear fruits in season.
Fruits then to your lips: haste to repay
The debt of birth. Yield man-tides like the sea
And ebbing, leave a meaning of the fossilled sands.