Wole Soyinka's "Wailing Wall"

Kathy Szoke '92, English 32

The section of A Shuttle in the Crypt titled "Bearings" consists of five poems that describe, literally and metaphorically, the four walls and the center of Soyinka's prison cell. One of these is the "wailing wall." In a preface, Soyinka notes,

I named it that, because it overlooks the yard where a voice cried out in agony all of one night and died at dawn, unattended. It is the yard from which hymns and prayers rise with a constancy matched only by the vigil of crows and vultures.

Already, in this name and description, implications exist for two of the world's major religious groups. Christians will recognize the allusion to Christ's agony on the cross, where he cried out in fear and pain, and died surrounded only by thieves, and, perhaps, vultures. Jews can claim the actual Wailing Wall of Jerusalem and the custom of singing and praying there as their own. One of Soyinka's main points in "Wailing Wall" is to remind his readers that what went on in his tiny individual jail cell does not concern only himself, or Nigeria, or even all prisoners of conscience -- it should be everyone's problem, everywhere.

Soyinka uses religion to symbolize politics. The Nigerian government is represented by a vulture, always hovering around the collection plates, stripping the people of their money and their flesh, their freedom and their lives. The vulture's surplice, or ecclesiastical robe, is "tattered;" this is reminiscent of Soyinka's poem "Joseph," in which he bitterly criticizes the "tattered pieces of your masquerade of virtue" upheld by the powerful, hypocritical Mrs. Potiphar, the master's wife.

Soyinka goes on to describe the crows. These birds, dressed in black with "white collars" like priests (also, symbolic of middle-class workers), are the people who support the government, perhaps not willingly, but out of a desire for survival or comfort. If they did not, they would be worn down slowly; already they have "legs of toothpick dearth" with which they desperately grasp their "salvaged morsel[s]." They are Soyinka's choirmasters, who conduct when told to, leading false praise ("dry prayers") to a God who must also be "broken" to let such a situation occur. Simply praying for changes in the political situation is futile, for "evil feeds upon the wounds and tears of piety," and the well-behaved who quietly wish for change will be "preyed upon" by vultures at this wall. Soyinka is not a crow: he would rather starve. In the preface, Soyinka notes that the walls of his cell were topped with broken glass, a standard method of preventing people from climbing over them. In "Wailing Wall," these fragments of color become the "stained-glass wounds" of all the wall's martyrs.

The religious references, which form the middle part of the poem, are framed, albeit rather unevenly, by the first line and the last two stanzas, which refer to the sky and the stars. Soyinka begins by noting that the wailing wall points in the direction of Polaris, the North Star. A common method of locating this star, employed for centuries by sailors, escaping slaves, and other travelers, is to use Ursa Major, the Big Dipper. Two of the stars in the bowl of the dipper are directly in line with Polaris and can be used as "pointers." The last part of "Wailing Wall" discusses death and Ursa Major.

In Britain, and thus in the Commonwealth nations as well, this constellation is not called a dipper but "the Plough" (or "plow"). Watching the patch of sky in the ceiling of his cell, Soyinka sees this plough dig "graveyards . . . for a mass burial." The coffin at this funeral is his cell, and the stars are "mourning candles." When a cloud covers the stars, the plough seems to sink into the black "earth" of the sky, and all hope ends.

Perhaps Soyinka intended the word "ploughshares" to bring to mind tthe famous verse from the Bible: "They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war any more." (Isaiah 2:4) Ironically, the plough in the sky is not used for peaceful purposes, but only to clear away the aftermath of the sword. To a man whose pleas for peace between Nigeria and Biafra resulted only in his being turned, himself, into a prisoner of conscience, the timeless words of Isaiah must have seemed yet another example of the "broken Word" of God and humanity.

In another poem, Soyinka asks, "And What Of It, If Thus He Died?" In "Wailing Wall," "what of it" is something very important: clearly, the corpse in the coffin is not just Soyinka, but all people. The sky is an important part of many of the world's religions, Eastern, Western, African, and Native American, ancient and modern. It is the home of the gods. For centuries, it was considered to be constant, unchanging, otherworldly. It transcends all of the artificial geopolitical and social boundaries of the earth. Therefore, to use the sky as the graveyard (not the heaven) of the wailing wall's dead connects them with all deaths everywhere and with the part of each person that every cruel and savage act kills. As John Donne wrote,

No man is an island, entire unto itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main . . . And therefore send not to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. ("Meditation 17")

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