Notes about the poem “Limbo” from the English Department
The poem limbo is about the hardships that African slaves had to endure on the
journey from Africa into slavery. The title of the poem could be referring to the
dance but also to the religious idea when a person’s soul is stuck between heaven and
hell; just like the slaves. The poem itself describes how the slaves were beaten; the
word stick is constantly repeated to suggest this. However the stick and the poem
also refer to the limbo dance where dancers compete to dance under a progressively
lowering stick. This is thought to be a symbolic reminder of the cramped conditions
on the slave ships. The harsh and depressing conditions are also evoked by the
repetition of phrases to do with the dark and silence. The silence is also a metaphor
for the unknown future the slaves faced. There is also imagery of rape in the lines
describing knees spread wide though this could also refer to the limbo dance itself.
The repetition throughout the poem of the words limb like me not only suggests that
the dance is going on but also the oppression. The last lines reinforce this idea of
ongoing suffering as the slaves step onto the burning ground. The limbo dance has
only been a temporary relief.
One of the major methods or techniques the poet uses in this poem is contrast;
contrast between dark and light (meaning despair and hope), silence and the
drumming and hope and despair. This makes it ideal to compare with many other
poems which use contrast such as Island Man (the dream island and the reality of
London life, what were they like (before and after the war) Two Scavengers (rich and
poor). It also tells us about a culture (slavery) and traditions (the dance) so could be
compared with Night of the Scorpion. What other links can you make?