Monday, May 7, 2012

Wole Soyinka, hunger artist

Poetry Scores is hosting an Art Invitational to Wole Soyinka's poem "Ever-Ready Bank Accounts" at Mad Art Gallery (2727 So. 12th St.) 7-10 p.m. Friday, May 18. Soyinka is the Nobel Laureate in Literature from Nigeria.

Andrew Torch is guest co-curator for the invitational, which is also a silent art auction. We'll use our share of the proceeds from art sales to release bicycle day's score of Professor Soyinka's poem.

Soyinka wrote this poem while incarcerated during the Nigerian Civil War, a period also covered by his prison memoir The Man Died (1972), which I have been rereading, looking for clues to the poem and its imagery.

Ever-Ready Bank Accounts is a poem about poverty and greed. He takes greed all the way up to the abstract concentration of wealth in banks, and he takes poverty all the way down to child starvation. But this is not child starvation in the abstract; rather, Soyinka leaves us with unforgettable imagery (we might prefer to forget it) of children eating vermin to stay alive.

Rereading Soyinka's prison experiences in The Man Died, I could see why hunger was on his mind. Already a well-known and influential public intellectual, Soyinka was a political prisoner of the Nigerian military government, and he repeatedly employed one of the political prisoner's few tactical moves: He went on hunger strikes. Soyinka's prison diary is a hunger diary; indeed, it's as good as a how-to manual for engaging in and surviving a hunger strike.

He embarks on his first hunger strike the first time his legs are shackled:

Well, just in case it was real, just in case other realities such as going to the toilet, stretching out my legs in the middle of sleep or jerking them involuntarily at night from a mosquito bite, just in case all these other hazards of extistence would be manifested, would accentuate the feel of the pendants at my feet, I commenced without any internal debate a hunger strike. It was one obvious antidote to a mood which half-mocking, half-earnest raged: Ogun, comrade, bear witness how your metal is travestied!

Ogun, the Yoruba god of iron, war and politics, is Soyinka's tutelary deity. The leg irons -- iron used to shackle an acolyte of Ogun -- is a travesty that drives him to starve himself in protest.

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