Perhaps the most important image in the poem is that of the “glass” which shuts out the speaker in the poem. It is a symbol of the divisions of colour, and class - often the same thing in South Africa. As he backs away from it at the end of the poem, Afrika sees himself as a “boy again”, who has left the imprint of his “small, mean mouth” on the glass. He wants “a stone, a bomb” to break the glass - he may wish literally to break the window of this inn, but this is clearly meant in a symbolic sense. He wants to break down the system, which separates white and black, rich and poor, in South Africa.
The title of the poem suggests not just that things have not changed, but a disappointment that an expected change has not happened. The poem uses the technique of contrast to explore the theme of inequality. It has a clear structure of eight-line stanzas. The lines are short, of varying length, but usually with two stressed syllables. The poet assumes that the reader knows South Africa, referring to places, plants and local food. The poem is obviously about the unfairness of a country where “Nothing's changed”. But this protest could also apply to other countries where those in power resist progress and deny justice to the common people.
- What does the poet think about change in his home country?
- How does the poem contrast the rich and the poor in South Africa?
- Why does the poet write about two places where people buy food?
- Comment on the image of the plate-glass window to show how poor people are shut out of things in South Africa. What does the poet want to do to change this?
Grace Nichols: Island Man
The subtitle really explains this simple poem - it tells of a man from the Caribbean, who lives in London but always thinks of his home.
The poem opens with daybreak, as the island man seems to hear the sound of surf - and perhaps to imagine he sees it, since we are told the colour. This is followed by simple images:
- the fishermen pushing their boat out,
- the sun climbing in the sky,
- The island, emerald green.
The island man always returns to the island, in his mind, but in thinking of it he must “always” come “back” literally to his immediate surroundings - hearing the traffic on London's North Circular Road.
Grace Nichols ends the poem with the image of coming up out of the sea - but the reality is the bed, and the waves are only the folds of a “crumpled pillow”. The last line of the poem is presented as the harsh reality.
Many Afro-Caribbean’s in Britain live a split existence. They may yearn for the warmth and simple pleasures of the islands they think of as home, yet they find themselves, with friends and family, in a cold northern climate. This poem neatly captures this division - between a fantasy of the simple life and the working daily reality. But perhaps it is not really a serious choice - if one were to stay on the island, then one would bring one's problems there, too. In fact, this man is like most other British people - he does not relish work, but faces up to it.
After reading the whole poem, one sees that it is ambiguous - the island is both in the Caribbean and Great Britain.
Grace Nichols also challenges us to think about where home really lies. Is it
- the place we dream about,
- the place where we, our friends and family live, or
- The place where we do our work?
The poem is written as free verse - it is a quite loose sequence of vivid images. The poet relies on effects of sound - contrasting the breaking of the surf with the roar of traffic. There are a few rhymes and repetitions. Grace Nichols also refers to colour - blue for surf (surely an error - the surf is the white foam of the blue sea), emerald (green) for the island and grey for the traffic.
- Is this poem about the Caribbean or London?
- Why does the title have more than one meaning?
- Is this poem about a real wish for sun and surf or just an escapist fantasy?
- What do you find interesting in the images of this poem?
Imtiaz Dharker: Blessing
This poem is about water: in a hot country, where the supply is inadequate, the poet sees water as a gift from a god. When a pipe bursts, the flood which follows is like a miracle, but the “blessing” is ambiguous - it is such accidents which at other times cause the supply to be so little.
The opening lines of the poem compare human skin to a seedpod, drying out till it cracks. Why? Because there is “never enough water”. Ms. Dharker asks the reader to imagine it dripping slowly into a cup. When the “municipal pipe” (the main pipe supplying a town) bursts, it is seen as unexpected good luck (a “sudden rush of fortune”), and everyone rushes to help themselves. But the end of the poem reminds us of the sun, which causes skin to crack “like a pod” - today's blessing is tomorrow's drought. The poet celebrates the joyous sense with which the people, especially the children, come to life when there is, for once, more than “enough water”.
The poem has a single central metaphor - the giving of water as a “blessing” from a “kindly god”. The religious metaphor is repeated, as the bursting of the pipe becomes a “rush of fortune”, and the people who come to claim the water is described as a “congregation” (people gathering for worship).
The water is a source of other metaphors - fortune is seen as a “rush” (like water rushing out of the burst pipe), and the sound of the flow is matched by that of the people who seek it - their tongues are a “roar”, like the gushing water. Most tellingly of all, water is likened to “silver” which “crashes to the ground”. In India (where Ms. Dharker lives), in Pakistan (from where she comes) and in other Asian countries, it is common for wealthy people to throw silver coins to the ground, for the poor to pick up. The water from the burst pipe is like this - a short-lived “blessing for a few”. But there is no regular supply of “silver”. And finally, the light from the sun is seen as “liquid” - yet the sun aggravates the problems of drought.
The poem is written in unrhymed lines, mostly brief, some of which run on, while others are end-stopped, creating an effect of natural speech. The poet writes lists for the people (“man woman/child”) and the vessels they bring (“. ..with pots/brass, copper, aluminium,/plastic buckets”). The poem appeals to the reader's senses, with references to the dripping noise of water (as if the hearer is waiting for there to be enough to drink) and the flashing sunlight.
We have a clear sense of the writer's world - in her culture water is valued, as life depends upon the supply: in the west, we take it for granted. This is a culture in which belief in “a kindly god” is seen as natural, but the poet does not express this in terms of any established religion (note the lower-case “g” on “god”). She suggests a vague and general religious belief, or superstition. The poem ends with a picture of children - “naked” and “screaming”. The sense of their beauty (“highlights polished to perfection”) is balanced by the idea of their fragility, as the “blessing sings/over their small bones”.
- How does this poem present water as the source of life?
- “There is never enough water” - do readers in the west take water too much for granted?
- Why does Imtiaz Dharker call the poem Blessing?
- Why might the poet end by mentioning the “small bones” of the children?
Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes
The poem's title alerts us to the simple contrast that is its subject. “Beautiful people” is perhaps written with a mild sense of irony - as this phrase was originally coined by the hippie movement in 1967 (maybe earlier) to refer to the “flower children” who shared the counter-culture ideals of peace and love. The couple in the poem are not beautiful people in this sense but wealthy and elegant.
The poem is deceptively simple - in places it is written as if in bright primary colours, so we read of the “yellow garbage truck” and the “red plastic blazers”, we get exact details of time and place, and we see the precise position of the four people: all waiting at a stoplight and the garbage collectors looking down (literally but not metaphorically) into the “elegant open Mercedes” and the matching couple in it. The details of their dress and hair could be directions for a film-maker.
Ferlinghetti contrasts the people in various ways. The wealthy couple are on their way to the man's place of work, while the “scavengers” are coming home, having worked through the early hours. The couple in the Mercedes are clean and cool; the scavengers are dirty. But while one scavenger is old, hunched and with grey hair, the other is about the same age as the Mercedes driver and, like him, has long hair and sunglasses. The older man is depicted as the opposite of beautiful - he is compared both to a gargoyle (an ugly grotesque caricature used to decorate mediaeval churches, and ward off evil spirits) and to Quasimodo (the name means “almost human”) the main character in Victor Hugo's novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
The poem moves to an ambiguous conclusion. The two scavengers see the young couple, not as real people, but as characters in a “TV ad/in which everything is always possible” - as if, that is, with determination and effort, the scavengers could change their own lifestyle for the better. But the adjective “odorless” suggests that this is a fantasy - and their smelly truck is the reality.
The poem also considers the fundamental American belief that “all men are created equal” - and the red light is democratic, because it stops everyone. It holds them together “as if anything at all were possible/between them”. They are separated by a “small gulf” and the gulf is “in the high seas of democracy” - which suggests that, with courage and effort, anyone can cross it. But the poet started this statement with “as if” - and we do not know if this is an illusion or a real possibility.
The form of the poem is striking on the page - Ferlinghetti begins a new line with a capital letter, but splits most lines to mark pauses, while he omits punctuation other than hyphens in compound-words, full stops in abbreviations and occasional ampersands (the & symbol).
The poem challenges the reader - are we like the cool couple or the scavengers? And which is better to be? Of which couple does the poet seem to approve more? TV ads may be “odorless” but without garbage collectors, we would be overwhelmed by unpleasant smells - especially in the heat of San Francisco. The garbage truck and the Mercedes in a way become symbols for public service and for private enterprise.
- How does this poem show the gap between rich and poor?
- Does the poet really think “everything is always possible”, or is this an illusion?
- Why does the poet call the couple in the Mercedes “beautiful people”? How does he use this phrase in a different sense from what it originally meant? Does the poet approve more of the scavengers or the beautiful people?
- What do you think of how the poem looks on the page? Does this help you as you read it?
- Perhaps a modern society needs both architects and street-cleaners. But is it right that we should pay them so unequally? Which would you miss the most if they stopped working?
Nissim Ezekiel: Night of the Scorpion
In this poem Nissim Ezekiel recalls “the night” his “mother was stung by a scorpion”. The poem is not really about the scorpion or its sting, but contrasts the reactions of family, neighbours and his father, with the mother's dignity and courage. The scorpion (sympathetically) is shown as sheltering from ten hours of rain, but so fearful of people that it “risk(s) the rain again” after stinging the poet's mother.
What follows is an account of various superstitious reactions:
- the peasants' efforts to “paralyse the Evil One” (the devil, who is identified with the scorpion);
- the peasants' belief that the creature's movements make the poison move in his victim's blood;
- Their hope that this suffering may be a cleansing from some sin in the past (“your previous birth”) or still to come (“your next birth”).
The poison is even seen as making the poet's mother better through her suffering: “May the poison purify your flesh/of desire and the spirit of ambition/they said”. The poet's father normally does not share such superstitions (he is “sceptic, rationalist” - a doubter of superstition and a believer in scientific reason). But he is now worse than the other peasants, as he tries “every curse and blessing” as well as every possible antidote of which he can think. The “holy man” performs “rites” (religious ritual actions) but the only effective relief comes with time: “After twenty hours it lost its sting”.
The conclusion of the poem is its most effective part: where everyone else has been concerned for the mother, who has been in too much pain to talk (she “twisted...groaning on a mat”) she thinks of her children, and thanks God the scorpion has spared them (the sting might be fatal to a smaller person; certainly a child would be less able to bear the pain).
Ezekiel's poetic technique is quite simple here. The most obvious point to make is the contrast between the very long first section, detailing the frantic responses of everyone but the mother, and the simple, brief, understated account of her selfless courage in the second section. The lines are of irregular length and unrhymed but there is a loose pattern of two stresses in each line; the lines are not end-stopped but run on (this is sometimes known as enjambment).
Instead of metaphor or simile the images are of what was literally present (the candles and the lanterns and the shadows on the walls). The poem is in the form of a short narrative. One final interesting feature to note is the repeated use of reported (indirect) speech - we are told what people said, but not necessarily in their exact words, and never enclosed in speech marks. The poem may surprise us in the insight it gives into another culture: compare Ezekiel's account with what would happen if your mother were stung by a scorpion (or, if this seems a bit unlikely, bitten by an adder, say).
Some comments about Nissim Ezekiel that you might find helpful in relation to Night of the Scorpion are these: he writes in a free style and colloquial manner (like ordinary speech); he makes direct statements and employs few images.
- The title of the poem seems more fitting almost to an old horror film - do you think it is a suitable title for the poem that follows?
- How do the people try to make sense of the scorpion's attack, or even see it as a good thing?
- Are scorpions really evil? Does the poet share the peasants' view of a animal?
- How does the attack bring out different qualities in the father and the mother?
- What does the poem teach us about the beliefs of people in the poet's home culture?
- In what way is this poem rather than a short story broken into lines?
- How does the poet make use of what people said, to bring the poem to life?
Chinua Achebe: Vultures
This is one of the most challenging poems in the anthology. The vultures of the title are real birds of prey but (like William Blake's Tyger) more important, perhaps, for what they represent - people of a certain kind. Chinua Achebe is a Nigerian writer, but has a traditional English-speaking liberal education: the poem is written in a highly literate manner with a close eye for detail.
The poem introduces us to the vultures and their unpleasant diet; in spite of this, they appear to care for each other. From this Achebe goes on to note how even the worst of human beings show some touches of humanity - the concentration camp commandant, having spent the day burning human corpses, buys chocolate for his “tender offspring” (child or children). This leads to an ambiguous conclusion:
- on the one hand, Achebe tells us to “praise bounteous providence” that even the worst of creatures has a little goodness, “a tiny glow-worm tenderness”;
- On the other hand, he concludes in despair, it is the little bit of “kindred love” (love of one's own kind or relations) which permits the “perpetuity of evil” (allows it to survive, because the evil person can think himself to be not completely depraved).
We are reminded, perhaps, by the words about the “Commandant at Belsen”, that Adolf Hitler was said to love children and animals.