The poem addresses the last survivor of a group of five men who are being executed in Soyinka's prison. It is a more specific development of the introductory prose piece "Chains of Silence," which describes the five men as they walk to their deaths: "Five men are walking the other way, five men walking even more slowly, wearily, with the weight of the world on each foot, on each step towards eternity. I hear them pause at every scrap of life, at every beat of the silence, at every mote in the sun, those five for whom the world is about to die" (32). "Last Turning" moves forward in time to address the moment when four of the men have already been executed, and only one remains, "the last among the five " (47). It attempts to comfort this last man's fears, to quiet his terror as he awaits his turn to be killed.
Soyinka portrays death in "Last Turning" as a mental and physical journey. It is a time for contemplation, when "self/ Encounters self" (47), but also a moment when all is made clear, when men can "read the earth in tremor [and]/ Pierce the day's elusive blindfold" (48). Death thereby becomes an action, rather than a reaction as it is in Western cultures. In the poem one dies actively rather than passively.
Death offers the "Night's/ Enlightening potion" that the dying "drink clear headed" (48). Once having crossed the "last turning in the road" (47), the person who dies completes their understanding of their life, or traverses the "steps on the ascent/...to the sum of seekers' questions" (48). The references to "awakening" and "waters of insight" (48) imply death to be an answer to life. The "passage" from birth to death entails the gathering of "Puns, fables, riddles of the lone" (47), this combined with the above images leads the reader to believe that life is a riddle or a joke that is solved by death. In other words, death is life's punchline.
Death in the poem is more fruitful than life. The living are mere weeds that await the fruits at life's end:
Passionate gleaner, a path of weeds
Comes to time's orchard - on beds of vines
Press lenten hands (47)
The "passionate gleaner" is the living person who is dying, attempting to gather all that life has to offer before he loses it forever. He is the dying man who drags his feet on the way to the execution, who staves off as long as he can the inevitable moment when his life must end. Soyinka claims that life is not as valuable as that. The journey to death is compared to a "path of weeds," a road full of barren plants. When the living die, they reach "life's orchard," where fruit is plentiful; after feasting on the fruit, the dead may, in Bacchanal fashion, "lie on a bed of vines." There is a contradiction here, however. Life is a weed-choked farce that people desperately cling to, but death, despite being a fruit-laden paradise, still causes the dead to "press lenten hands." Soyinka seems to be suggesting by this that neither death nor life is a completely positive experience.
Soyinka exalts death by connecting it to particularly important phenomena in Yoruban belief: hills, the earth, rain and paths. Each pack special power as they are, with the exception of the path, particularly potent factors in the ethnic group's theology. Hills were traditionally honored as the homes of gods, for several reasons: they offered superb protection during wartime, they were of an awe-inspiring size and covered with dense, mysterious vegetation thought to be the home of wild animals and spirits, and thirdly they maintained "an eternal presence" as they were known to outlast generations of humans (Ojo, p. 159). Soyinka's mention of "where the peaks fine needles have embossed/ Missals on the heart" (Soyinka, p. 47) is thereby a religious image connecting death to the holy hills and to Catholicism, which had been an influence in Yorubaland since the late nineteenth century (p. 187). Other hill images permeate the text, such as the mentions of the "weathered face of cliffs" (48), the "rockface" (47), the "mountain-top" and the "fingers of thorn on stony hill;" they stress the religiosity of Soyinka's concept of death.
The earth also held a highly significant role in Yoruba religion; it was "worshipped probably everywhere without exception" (Ojo, p. 168). In 1966 worship of the earth had become transformed into a cult called the Ogboni, who offered sacrifices to the land as giver of food, trees, cash crops and most of the requirements for human sustenance. The first portion of everything that came directly from the land was given back to the land's deity "in the form of libations" (p. 168). The earth maintains significance for the Yoruba also as the home of their ancestors' remains, anscestors who were worshipped by the group. Any offerings that were made to the earth were thought to make those ancestors more comfortable in their abode. Soyinka's mention of the living as "lulled in earthquake" (47), versus the dead as being able to "Read therein the earth's tremor" (48), suggests that the dead may understand the earth, while the living may not. The dead are closer to the holy earth than the living, and as the earth is a religious power, they are also more religiously significant. This portrayal fits in with Yoruban ancestor-worship, as the dead ancestors were certainly religiously significant and close to the earth.
The rain is a third phenomenon that holds great importance in Yoruba religion. The rain-making rituals were the most formal rituals in Yorubaland, as they were often performed and their success was very important to all members of the society. "Rain was eagerly awaited" (Ojo, p. 214) and if it did not fall in the dry season lasting from March to April, the rain-maker was called to perform a dance and chant charms around a boiling pot that contained a secret concoction. If rain did not fall for seven days after this ritual was performed, a state of emergency was declared, and all untethered domestic animals were slaughtered "to propitiate the favor of the goddess presiding over the rainy season" (p. 216). Usually, however, the rain arrived in time, and in the years leading up to 1966, the ceremonies were not performed every day of a drought as they had been in the past. Nevertheless, "rain still dominates the thought of the people" (p. 216). Soyinka therefore refers to a very special phenomenon when he invokes the image of rain. In the poem it serves as a medium of understanding:
Linked by drops shared in evil
To a chrysalis of cairns shall come
Rain's awakening, to heirs of sandals
Waters of insight (Soyinka, p. 48)
The rain gives knowledge to the living as they die. The "awakening" associated with the rain is actually a part of the "ascent...to the sum of seekers questions" (48) that is Soyinka's metaphor for death (see above). As the rain of understanding falls upon the dead, it is thus another device for sanctifying death over life.
Finally, the images of paths in "Last Turning" carry a strong double meaning. The path is a highly symbolic nonreligious image for Soyinka as a Yoruba: it represents death. A traditional Yoruba riddle asks "Which is the very long coffin that can accommodate 1,400 corpses?" (Ojo, p. 227). The answer is a path, which is seen as a long casket capable of containing many "bodies" end to end in single file. The riddle arose from the crowded condition of the paths in Yorubaland between six and eight o'clock in the morning and five and six o'clock in the evening, when hundreds of farmers went to or returned from their farms respectively (p. 228). Soyinka's mention of "pathways narrow on the mountain top/ A sheath for the wanderer" (Soyinka, p. 47), "a path of weeds" (47), and of course "the last turning of the road" after which the poem is named (47) thus all serve as symbols for death. The images of paths are doubly potent in that they not only depict the road which the dying follow to death but represent death itself as well.
Ojo, G.J. Afolabi. Yoruba Culture. London: University of London Press Ltd., 1966.
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