Wole Soyinka's "Space"

Adam G. Wenger '92, (English 32 1990)

In the preface to A Shuttle in the Crypt, Wole Soyinka's collection of poems written while imprisoned for his actions against the ruling government of Nigeria, the writer describes a particular type of caged "weaver-bird", the shuttle, which is a "restless bolt of energy." Soyinka writes of his self-identification with the shuttle, an identification that was necessary to his mental survival during nearly two years of solitary confinement; however, he adamantly insists that this identification was "never a mere poetic conceit." Rather, it is an identification which absorbed Soyinka's entire existence while in captivity.

Nowhere is this shuttle-identification more evident than the poem "Space", a piece which perfectly describes Soyinka's mental escape from physical confinement. In addition to this technique--the word "technique" used for lack of a better word, not in trivialization of Soyinka's primary survival method--Soyinka also uses biblical comparisons, contradictory phrases, and a series of poetic landscapes to convey his dream flight to freedom.

The primary aspect of "Space" remains Soyinka's identification with the shuttle, or, in this case, what the shuttle represents. The impossibility of a physical release, and the resulting frustration and depression, spurred Soyinka, in order to maintain his sanity and hope, to find some sort of freedom. This resulting freedom is mental, and the subsequent image of Soyinka is that of a willing schizophrenic. The necessary projection of his self into the form of the shuttle assumes such porportions that, in "Space", the main character which Soyinka calls "He", is actually the spirit of Soyinka; the spirit which "was boundless when out He flew."

In "Space", the shuttle shooting through the "loom of the immeasurable" represents the dove which journeys from Noah's ark in search of land. In the biblical story, the dove returns to the ark after discovering a landing place, and brings back an olive branch as a symbol of hope; however, in Soyinka's poem, the bird fails to return. On analyzing this final modification of the biblical story, the reader is forced to re-evaluate the entire poem up to that point. The bird first leaves the "matrix of an ark", the ark being the sole survivor--the "one among the perished all"--of God's wrath and God's "first, unbroken Fiat." Finally reaching "cobalt sands", the bird plucks a date to take as a symbol to the ark, and begins its return; however, as it approaches the isolated ark, it deviates from its biblical model. Sometime between its departure and its return, the bird, in what is undoubtedly the crux of the poem, sees "newsprung Dust interstices to measure space!". This revelation results in the bird's failure to return to the ark.

This biblical allusion, along with its significant alteration, acts to convey Soyinka's sense of isolation and abandonement. Like the ark, Soyinka remains alone, the victim of an authoritative decree from a higher power. Just as the ark sends a dove in search of salvation, so does Soyinka send the shuttle--his spirit--in search of hope and promise. However, whereas the dove returns to the ark, Soyinka's spirit, on returning to the prospect of solitary confinement and mental torture, chooses to remain free "on crosswinds." Soyinka does not lament the betrayal, but, of course, asks "Is it a wonder he will not return?" The answer is a resounding "No!" The only question that remains is: what does Soyinka mean by the revelatory line "he saw--newsprung Dust interstices to measure space!" Perhaps, by measuring the vast expanse of space in terms of tiny holes in dust, Soyinka is relaying the way he himself, as a result of his constant "Sixteen paces by twenty-three" prison ("Live Burial", 60), had come to view space by such exact, unaltering measurements. His spirit-bird, on leave from its body, has seen "newsprung" holes of dust, a welcome change from the confinement-cell precision, and therefore chooses not to return.

Another method Soyinka uses to describe this spiritual exodus is frequent contradiction, including oxymoron. Just as Soyinka represents the ark--his physical being--as both an isolated being and a rescued man "among the perished all", so does he create an ambivalent portayal of God--and therefore government--as both a destroting entity punishing mankind with a "shrouded estuary of wrath" and a creating diety working his "ghost fingers on the enamoured loom" of life. Oxymorons such as "true mirages", "white shadow", "fiery oasis", and "Wingless it flew" also heighten the sense of contradiction. The contradictions contained in the poem serve to reflect Soyinka's own contradictions; among which are those of body/spirit, life/death, and Christian belief/Yoruba Myth.

The series of poetic landscapes which Soyinka employs acts in two distinct ways. First, by creating a landscape with a beginning, middle, and an end, Soyinka catches the reader's attention and draws him into and through the poem, allowing him to trace the poet's thought process, his "map of the course trodden by the mind." (Preface, vii) Secondly, the landscape technique allows the poet to create a vivid picture in the reader's mind. Soyinka begins "Space" with the departure of the bird, traces its path away from the ark, follows its path to the land and back to the ship, and then relates, from the bird's point of view, the revelation causing its retreat.

Finally, from an omniscient point of view, the action of the bird is examined and justified. Like the loom, an image which Soyinka so often employs to illustrate the construction of life and history, this poem builds a story strand by strand, with quick, detailed movements of the spirited shuttle.

Just as Shelley, Radcliffe, and Austin often used words to construct a picture, beginning with one visual point and working to a final, comprehensive point, so does Soyinka create, from the darkness of a prison cell, a vivid panorama. By tracing the bird's flight and describing the setting at each sight, he creates an incredibly brilliant picture in the mind of the reader, while also stimulating a beautiful, vital picture in his own prison-impoverished mind. From a "shrouded estuary" through a "web of fireflies", past a "white tent laid On cobalt sands" to "An oval robe of moonlight paling", Soyinka creates an indelible, dream-like landscape. Indeed, these images were the "true mirages" which helped him to survive the agony of his imprisonment. In the preface to A Shuttle in the Crypt, he writes:

The landscape of the poems is not uncommon; physical details differ, but finally the landscape of the loss of human contact is the same.

It is a testimony to the power of vivid landscapes such as "Space" that the author survived his twenty-one months of solitary confinement and mental torture with his sanity intact.

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