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"Conversation at night with a cockroach"
 

I murmured to their riven hearts:
Yet blood must flow, a living flood
Bravely guarded, boldly split

Half-way up your grove of union
We watched you stumble-mere men
Lose footing on the peaks of deities.

A round table, board
Of the new abiding-man, ghoul, Cockroach,
Jackal and broods of vile crossbreedings
Broke bread to a loud veneration
Of awe-filled creatures of the wild.
Sat to a feast of love-our pulsing hearts!

No air, no earth, no loves or death
Only the brittle sky in harmattan
And in due season, rain to waken the shurb
A hailstone herald to the rouse
Of hills, echoes in canyons, pastures
In the palm of ranges, moss horizons
On distant ridges, anthill spires for milestones.

Spread its wings in a feeble sun
And rasped his saw-teeth. A song
Of triumph rose on the deadened air
A feeler probed the awful silence,
Withdrew in foreknowing contentment
All was well. All was even
As it was in the beginning

In that year's crucible we sought
To force impurities in nation weal
Belly-up, heat-drawn by fires
Of truth.

You lit the fires, you and saw
Your dawn of dawning yield
To our noon of darkness

…Death came

In the color of foul thoughts and whispers

Fouled intentions, color of calculations

A contrivance to erase the red and black

Of debt and credit, gangrene to discolor

Records for future reckoning, bile to blur

Precision of the mind to past exploitation

A scheming for intestate legacies

Conversions, appropriates, a mine

Of gold-filling in the teeth of death

A color blind of red standards

Which tomorrow shall uphold against

The horrors of today

Greed and Bloodshed
wars.jpg

Marxist View and "Conversation at Night with a Cockroach"

Marxism to put it shortly and bluntly was Marx's ideas of trying to better the working conditions and lives of the working class. This is something completely ignored by Capitalist thought. Marxist suggests our lives are better when we have things like social security, retirement plans, 401(k) s, IRAs, Medicare or Medicaid, unemployment benefits, public education, retraining programs, medical benefits for children and pregnant mothers, etc. The kind that a recent presidential candidate was accused of becoming if he won the 2008 Presidential election, by becoming a “Chief Re-distributor of Wealth,” in essence spreading the wealth around as it was explained.

Here in this poem Soyinka discusses the problem of stopping violence in his poem "Conversation at Night with a Cockroach" which is been brought on because the poor was despaired, angry and frustrated with the upper class for not sharing the wealth. This poem supposedly was written during the Nigerian Civil War when the election of 1965 erupted with violence and riots, followed by corruption in Nigerian politics. These setting all seem to fit well into the theme discussed in the particular poem.

In a Marxist world the poem evidently show a broad-based demand for reforms in view of the poverty among the majority of the people - farmers, workers, and the whole citizenry, for a redistribution of the nations' wealth from the upper class. These certainly are strong revolutionary measures viewed on positively by the Marxist.

We can fairly assume here that the speaker in the poem is the poet. The cockroach speaks for the encouragers of violence, it tells those involve in the atrocities to kill for profit and to continue the violence by using lies and treachery. The cockroach replies to the man's protest that too many have lives have been lost by saying:

I murmured to their riven hearts:

Yet blood must flow, a living flood

Bravely guarded, boldly split

 

From this stanza we notice that much of the violence in Nigeria during this time of writing by Soyinka was done in the name of disdainful causes such as the preservation of Yoruba identity; a tribe which the poet himself belong. The cockroach's argument represents these rationalizations for continuing violence. Marxism will point out that the upper class is driving this movement of violence to protect their wealth. In Biodun Jeyifo's book "Conversations with Wole Soyinka," Soyinka suggests that these are "stale deception, and Blasphemer's consolation." Soyinka suggests a force worse than anything humans could produce plagues his nation, thus he uses cockroaches to symbolize this evil. This evil is representative of what the Marxist will term act of suppression and repression against the lower class of this nation, by turning one group against another through the social stratification set in stone to maintain different levels of wealth.

In this poem the human speaker claims the things that fall upon them were not of human attributes and does not befit humans.  Undoubtedly the man and the cockroach are aware that the violence is unstoppable due to the cockroach's actions, and the weaknesses of the poor which has been baited into this violence. The Marxist will be quick to record that these are intentionally planned violence to distract the citizens from the main causes of wealth disparity.

The poem opens with the man addressing the cockroach and lamenting the fact that all of his people's plans for peace have been ruined by the cockroach, referring to the upper class by a Marxist interpretation.  The upper class - cockroach acknowledges its fault and laughs at the useless attempts by the lower class to fix their land, by indicating that:

Half-way up your grove of union

We watched you stumble-mere men

Lose footing on the peaks of deities.

 

But for the poor to survive, corruption must erupt from the hands of the upper class by handing rewards to those who will come to their side. Here the poet says the poor has given into and joined with evil. We further notice that although the human speaker condemns the cockroach's falseness, many have believed in it and allowed it to continue. From a Marxism approach, this is exactly how the rich and affluent bring the weaker but rebellious groups into their quarters to maintain their affluent status. This example was seen in Rwanda when the Hutu and the Tutsi were paired against each other by their rich colonial powers. Although the Hutus account for 90 percent of the population, the Tutsi minority was considered the aristocracy of Rwanda and dominated Hutu peasants for decades and massacred them for seeking change.

 A third voice which enters the poem becomes unbiased as the narrator describes it that:

A round table, board

Of the new abiding-man, ghoul, Cockroach,

Jackal and broods of vile crossbreedings

Broke bread to a loud veneration

Of awe-filled creatures of the wild.

Sat to a feast of love-our pulsing hearts!

 

Throughout the poem, the poet uses imagery and symbolism to express his ideas and emotions. In addition to the symbols of the image, Soyinka uses images of the land to help establish the ideas in the poem. The non-cockroach speaker describes the land as

No air, no earth, no loves or death

Only the brittle sky in harmattan

And in due season, rain to waken the shurb

A hailstone herald to the rouse

Of hills, echoes in canyons, pastures

In the palm of ranges, moss horizons

On distant ridges, anthill spires for milestones.

 

This image reveals the sadness of the country as well as the mindset of its citizens. The typical result of what Marxism warns of larger upper class societies. The poor are despaired and weak are forgotten. For example, the phrase "anthill spires for milestones" shows both the flat barrenness of the land and suggests that anthills may be made mentally into milestones. The poem ends when the cockroach

Spread its wings in a feeble sun

And rasped his saw-teeth. A song

Of triumph rose on the deadened air

A feeler probed the awful silence,

Withdrew in foreknowing contentment

All was well. All was even

As it was in the beginning

 

Essentially, the most prevalent symbolism in "Conversation at Night with a Cockroach”, is the cockroach. At once it brings up feelings of treason, determined survival, and disgust, all of which are appropriate associations for the oppression and evil the upper class inflict on its lower class to stay up. Another symbolism is Fire in the poem, which evidently stands for the attempt by the lower class to purge the land of upper class corruption. The non-cockroach speaker claims

In that year's crucible we sought

To force impurities in nation weal

Belly-up, heat-drawn by fires

Of truth.

 

As the Marxist will again observe, that with all groups that control power, they are not relinquished by just the ushering of gestures at their face or at the thrown they occupy without some times resorting to a revolution. Thus one can view the elections of 1965 in Nigeria when the poet wrote this poem, as a reflection of the first free elections held in Nigeria in several years, or it may stand for the collective attempts to purify Nigeria’s upper class. The cockroach picks up on this symbolism and states

You lit the fires, you and saw

Your dawn of dawning yield

To our noon of darkness

 

One of the most remarkable symbols in the poem is "a mine Of gold-filling the teeth of death". This personification refers to the continuous nature of violence for personal gain by Nigerian leaders and elite.

 

Thus Soyinka's poem "Conversation at Night With a Cockroach" reveals a depressing image of what happens to oppressed societies and why it becomes important to recognise the benefits of Marxism to curtail the upper class from running wild.

 

 

Artist-Poet-Activist-Dramatist-Author-NobelPrize Winner