"Conversation at Night with a Cockroach"

Karen Van Ness '92 (English 32, Spring 1990)

Soyinka discusses the problem of stopping violence in his poem "Conversation at Night with a Cockroach." The situation in Nigeria probably influenced this theme. The Nigerian Civil War, the election of 1965, and following riots, and the general corruption and violence that had plagued Nigerian politics all fit into the theme discussed in the poem. Soyinka structures the poem by means of a dialogue between a man and a cockroach. He gives the human speaker a voice representing his own; the speaker's statements can be assumed to be Soyinka's. The cockroach speaks for the encouragers of violence, it tells humanity to kill for profit and to continue the violence by using lies and treachery. The cockroach replies to the man's protest that too many have died by saying:

I murmured to their riven hearts:
Yet blood must flow, a living flood
Bravely guarded, boldly split

Much of the violence in Nigeria during the time Soyinka was writing was done in the name of lofty causes such as the preservation of Yoruba identity. The cockroach's argument represents these rationalizations for continuing violence. Soyinka finds these words "stale deception, Blasphemer's consolation." Soyinka suggests a force worse than anything humans could produce plagues his nation, thus he uses cockroaches to symbolize this evil. The human speaker claims "Not human attributes were these/that fell upon us". Both the man and the cockroach are aware that the violence is unstoppable due to the cockroach's actions and man's weaknesses. The poem opens with the man addressing the cockroach and lamenting the fact that all of his people's plans for peace have been ruined by the cockroach. The cockroach acknowledges its fault and laughs at the useless attempts by the humans to cleanse their land.

Half-way up your grove of union
We watched you stumble-mere men
Lose footing on the peaks of deities.

Man has given into and joined with evil, according to Soyinka. Although the human speaker condemns the cockroach's falseness, apparently many others have believed in it. A third voice which seems to be an impartial narrator enters the poem and describes

A round table, board
Of the new abiding-man, ghoul, Cockroach,
Jackal and broods of vile crossbreedings
Broke bread to a loud veneration
Of awe-filled creatures of the wild.
Sat to a feast of love-our pulsing hearts!

Soyinka's picturing of man at a love feast with cockroaches and ghouls shows his belief that man has compromised with evil, forming an unnatural, frightening alliance. After witnessing the corruption of the rulers and the nightmares of the violence in Nigeria, it might well have seemed as if man had aligned with some unnatural force.

Throughout the poem, Soyinka uses imagery and symbolism to express his ideas and emotions. In addition to the symbols of the image, Soyinka uses images of the land to help establish the ideas in the poem. The human speaker describes the land as

No air, no earth, no loves or death
Only the brittle sky in harmattan
And in due season, rain to waken the shurb
A hailstone herald to the rouse
Of hills, echoes in canyons, pastures
In the palm of ranges, moss horizons
On distant ridges, anthill spires for milestones.

This image brings out the desolation of the land as well as the mindset of its inhabitants. For example, the phrase "anthill spires for milestones" shows both the flat emptiness of the land and suggests that anthills may be made mentally into milestones. The poems ends when the cockroach

Spread its wings in a feeble sun
And rasped his saw-teeth. A song
Of triumph rose on the deadened air
A feeler probed the awful silence,
Withdrew in foreknowing contentment
All was well. All was even
As it was in the beginning

The most prevalent symbol in "Conversation at Night With a Cockroach", is of course, the cockroach. At once it brings up feelings of subversion, obstinate survival, and disgust, all of which are appropriate associations for the evil that it represents. Fire, another important symbol in the poem, stands for the attempt by mankind to purge the land of evil. The human speaker claims

In that year's crucible we sought
To force impurities in nation weal
Belly-up, heat-drawn by fires
Of truth.

The crucible may stand for the elections of 1965, the first free elections held in Nigeria in several years, or it may stand for the combined attempts to purify Nigeria. The cockroach picks up on this symbolism and states

You lit the fires, you and saw
Your dawn of dawning yield
To our noon of darkness

The election failed to halt the corrupt practices of the ruling party and ended in riots that were to develope into the Biafran War. One of the most striking symbols in the poem is "a mine/ Of gold-filling the teeth of death". This image refers to the perpetuating of violence for personal gain by Nigerian leaders.

Thus Soyinka's poem "Conversation at Night With a Cockroach" paints a bleak picture for mankind. Soyinka finds the actions of mankind to be worthy of cockroaches, not men. The fact that the conversation is at night as suggested by the title furthers the idea that humanity is lost in darkness. Soyinka shows no solution to the problems he presents, probally because he had seen the same cycles of violence repeated over and over again. He sums up his resignation to disaster in the prayer of the men in the poem: "May Heaven comfort you;/ On earth, our fears must teach us silence."

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