Soyinka's "Ever-Ready Bank Accounts"

Amelia Warren'93 (English 32, Spring 1990)

Wole Soyinka's "Ever Ready Bank Accounts" appears in the "Poems of bread and earth" section of A Shuttle in the Crypt, (1972). In his introduction, Soyinka tells how this section serves as a "map of the course trodden by the mind, not a record of the actual struggle against a vegetable existence." Soyinka wrote these poems during "nearly two years of solitary confinement" in a Nigerian prison.

"Ever Ready Bank Accounts" begins when Soyinka receives his bank statement from his "good friend and foe,/ The bank clerk." The line "Slipped below the grill" might indicate to the reader that the bank clerk visits the imprisoned Soyinka to give him his statement, and Soyinka then narrates the poem. This line could also refer to the grid at a bank teller's window, in which case the poem would be from Soyinka's memory. Either way, there is no indication within the poem that the narrator is anyone other than Soyinka. The line "Now that was long ago, and yesterday, and Now" indicates that Soyinka has received several such bank notices, and perhaps it indicates that he has been imprisoned for a long time when he writes this poem.

"Ever-Ready Bank Accounts," a poem written in free verse, unfolds as a series of images. Although the grammar does not follow traditional sentence patterns, the language of the poem is relatively simple. At times Soyinka uses adjectives or descriptions that seem unusual for the context, such as when he calls a bank statement "mournful" or a home a "Seven-tiered modest monster." Soyinka's tone is generally bitter and angry, especially when he evokes images of "hungered innocence" and "the solemn/ Chiding glare of. . .The bank clerk." A feeling of permanence and resignation envelopes the poem; the forager has returned "with empty sack" for two years and he will again tomorrow, and Soyinka sees "The latest cup of supplicating hands" as if there have been and will be many more.

The title serves as the first indication that money is a central theme and symbol in "Ever-Ready Bank Accounts." Soyinka shows anger at human greed very early in the poem as he chastises "a thousand fingers/ Clutching loud at plenty." This image sharply contrasts with the poverty in much of Nigeria; Soyinka recognizes that a bank statement is meaningless in a land where "Children slay the cockroach for a meal." Soyinka seems concerned that his own generosity has placed him in a precarious financial state. As an internationally known literary figure, he has been in a position to help the Nigerians; the people believe that "He earns the sky, commands a fortune when he farts." Soyinka worries that he has been too generous, and he curses "the last extortion I was guilty of / For falling prey to." Yet he does not hold that wealth and possession are desirable things; in his pun with the word bread as being both slang for money and an actual food, he points out that "arms/ Stacked too full of loaves cannot/ Embrace mankind." Money can even be a burden; the bank statement is covered with "noughts and crosses/ Which I must bear." The declaration that "Charity may be a one-way street, it's not/ A one-man way of life" appears twice in the poem. This phrase seems to be both the patronizing wisdom of the bank clerk, as well as the reality behind Soyinka's financial situation.

Soyinka uses color throughout "Ever Ready Bank Accounts" for different meanings and effects. Red, the predominant color in the poem, first appears as a pun on the word "read," since Soyinka is reading his bank statement; it is also a play on the word "ready," which appears in the title. A "red" bank account calls to mind the the phrase "in the red" and thus the idea of debt. The reader later discovers that the ink of the bank statement is red, and Soyinka's balance is "that figure etched in red." Red signals embarassment or anger, too, when Soyinka says "I go red beneath/ My black deceit." He has become angry because "they're-late-again-with-that-cheque," and perhaps he feels embarassed about his own concern with money in light of the material poverty of most Nigerians. Red hints at blood throughout the poem, especially in the last image of the "great/ Grandmother arched in pain." The color white appears on "the white-shirt guardian," the bank clerk, who remains physically clean in his bank job; he may also be white-skinned, or perhaps he works for a white-dominated institution. Soyinka contrasts himself with the clerk by quickly referring to his own black skin. But the color black is a more complicated symbol than a simple indicator of the good Nigerian people; black modifies both "deceit" and "despair." Thus, the color black seems to represent both the evil traditionally associated with it as well as the African race and Soyinka himself.

The number seven appears as another recurrent image in "Ever-Ready Bank Accounts," although its significance is not apparent. Interestingly, there are seven verses in the poem, but this hardly seems a reason for the number's repetition. Perhaps Soyinka is referring to an actual Nigerian political situation, the "seven-year plan," or he may, in fact, own a "seven-tiered" home; he gives, however, no concrete reason within the poem for choosing the number seven. This seemingly unaccountable repetition of a number reminds the reader of the importance of precise quantities when dealing with money and bank accounts.

Soyinka leaves "Ever Ready Bank Accounts" on an ambiguous note. He is sad that children eat slugs for "stores of high protein," aggravated with people's greed, and frustrated with his own confinement. Yet there is no simple solution to either Soyinka's or NIgeria's problems, and he ends the poem with "A loaded question mark?"

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