"Background and Friezes"

Matthew DeFusco '94 (English 32, 1990)

In 1967, because of writings sympathetic to secessionist Biafra, Wole Soyinka was incarcerated for twenty-two months. His poetry represents what happens to the human mind when it stays isolated for so long. Soyinka said in 1971,"And it was this ever -recurrent awareness, this level of the loss of human contact that proved more corrosive than that purely physical loss upon which the little mind butchers had based their hope."(A Shuttle in the Crypt p.viii)

Wole Soyinka uses a consistent poetic structure in "Background and Friezes." Throughout the eleven five line stanzas, Soyinka varies his rhyme scheme from third line and last line to second line and last line. The poem's structure can be attributed to the fact that Soyinka was imprisoned at the time of its conception. His writing materials were limited at best, and what he did write had to be stored in his memory until he was sure that no guards were about, hence the simple stanzaic and rhyme form. Soyinka said that, "the form was quite arbitrary, something short enough and as self-containing as possible to remain in the head until, at night time or in a slack moment of surveillance I could transfer it to the inside of a cigarette packet or an equally precious scrap of salvage" ( Shuttle, p.59). Soyinka also the uses rhyme to show a change in the poem itself. The first three stanzas deal with death and the murder between other prisoners. The next five deal with his premeditated thoughts of revenge directed toward the murderers. The final three stanzas are his mental struggles concerning death and his confinement. In the first two cases there is a shift from the (abcdc) scheme of the first three to the (abcdb) style of the next five. The final stanzas are in no set order, portraying Soyinka's confused state of mind at this point in his detention.

Soyinka once said, "The Prisonnettes are dedicated to all who participated in the two-year experiment on how to break down the human mind"(Shuttle p.59). "Background and Friezes" is essentially an analysis by Soyinka's partially insane mind of the deaths of fellow prisoners, his possible death, and his lengthy imprisonment. The first three stanzas detail the soldier's brutality in the death of prisoners:

They varied death
A thousand ways -- sudden
To piecemeal. Virgins bled
At lepers' orgies
The streets were cobbled with unnumbered dead.

The middle five stanzas are revenge upon the soldiers. He guarantee's a safe journey down the one way street, the street of the unnumbered dead.(Shuttle, p.72) He also wants the mud reptiles to be driven into the sea at his approach.(Shuttle, p.73) He realizes,however, that this imaginary concept of his, which represents the state of his unravelling mind, just a veils his hate and fear. In stanza nine he writes:

A beach
Hides the pebble. Create --
But bleach (or whitewash) --
of bones to hide the skeleton of hate.

The beach and cairns of bones obviously hide the hate, the hate that he feels inside. He reinforces the same idea in the next stanza as he describes the "Futile shield/Before the festive slayers.

The last stanza of the poem is quite different.

Week Seventy-five:
Observers welcome. cheap
Conducted tours -- behold!
Our hands are clean.
The rains have fallen twice and the earth is deep.

Soyinka has served almost a year and a half of his incarceration in this passage. He seems to plead, almost beg for someone to end his isolation. The realization that he may be losing his mind is expressed in the last line. "The rains have fallen" symbolize that he may have lost control of his mind twice. He has obviously regained it, but the earth can absorb another rain, meaning he may lose his mind again.

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Last Modified: 20 March, 2002