Edward Kamau Brathwaite: Limbo
This poem tells the story of slavery in a rhyming, rhythmic dance. It is ambitious and complex.
There are two narratives running in parallel:
the actions of the dance, and
the history of a people which is being enacted.
Going down and under the limbo stick is likened to the slaves' going down into the hold of the
ship, which carries them into slavery. In Roman Catholic tradition, limbo is a place to which the
souls of people go, if they are not good enough for heaven or bad enough for hell, between which
limbo lies; it has come to mean any unpleasant place, or a state (of mind or body) from which it is
difficult to escape. The story of slavery told in the poem is very easy to follow, yet full of vivid
detail and lively action.
The poem has a very strong beat, suggesting the dance it describes: where the word limbo
appears as a complete line, it should be spoken slowly, the first syllable extended and both
syllables stressed: Lím-bó. While the italics give the refrain (or chorus) which reminds us of the
dance, the rest of the poem tells the story enacted in the dance: these lines are beautifully
rhythmic, and almost every syllable is stressed, until the very last line, where the rhythm is
broken, suggesting the completion of the dance, and the end of the narrative.
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This poem is suited to dramatic performance - there is the dancing under the limbo pole (difficult
for most Europeans) and the acting out of the voyage into slavery. The poem can be chanted or
sung, with a rhythmic accompaniment to bring out the drama in it (percussion, generally, is
appropriate but drums, specifically, are ideal: in fact, the text refers to the “drummer” and the
What do you find interesting in
the way the poem appears on the page
sound effects in the poem
repetition in the poem
the way the limbo dance tells the story of slavery
Is this a serious or comic poem? Is it optimistic or pessimistic?
Tatamkhulu Afrika: Nothing's Changed
This poem depicts a society where rich and poor are divided. In the apartheid era of racial
segregation in South Africa, where the poem is set, laws, enforced by the police, kept apart black
and white people. The poet looks at attempts to change this system, and shows how they are
ineffective, making no real difference. Jackie Fielding writes:
“I had always assumed that the poem was written post-apartheid and reflected the bitterness that
knowing “one's place” in society is so deeply ingrained that the I-persona can't bring himself to
accept his new-found freedom under Mandela. I also find it interesting that the poet is not South
African and not black.”
“District Six” is the name of a poor area of Cape Town (one of South Africa's two capital cities; the
other is Pretoria). This area was bulldozed as a slum in 1966, but never properly rebuilt. Although
there is no sign there, the poet can feel that this is where he is: “...my feet know/and my hands.”
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Similarly the “up-market” inn (“brash with glass” and the bright sign ,“flaring like a flag”, which
shows its name) is meant for white customers only. There is no sign to show this (as there would
have been under apartheid) but black and coloured people, being poor, will not be allowed past
the “guard at the gatepost”. The “whites only inn” is elegant, with linen tablecloths and a “single
rose” on each table. It is contrasted with the fast-food “working man's cafe” which sells the local
snack (“bunny chows”). There is no tablecloth, just a plastic top, and there is nowhere to wash
one's hands after eating: “wipe your fingers on your jeans”. In the third stanza the sense of
contrast is most clear: the smart inn “squats” amid “grass and weeds”.
Perhaps the most important image in the poem is that of the “glass” which shuts out the speaker
in the poem. It is a symbol of the divisions of colour, and class - often the same thing in South
Africa. As he backs away from it at the end of the poem, Afrika sees himself as a “boy again”,
who has left the imprint of his “small, mean mouth” on the glass. He wants “a stone, a bomb” to
break the glass - he may wish literally to break the window of this inn, but this is clearly meant in
a symbolic sense. He wants to break down the system, which separates white and black, rich and
poor, in South Africa.
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The title of the poem suggests not just that things have not changed, but a disappointment that an
expected change has not happened. The poem uses the technique of contrast to explore the
theme of inequality. It has a clear structure of eight-line stanzas. The lines are short, of varying
length, but usually with two stressed syllables. The poet assumes that the reader knows South
Africa, referring to places, plants and local food. The poem is obviously about the unfairness of a
country where “Nothing's changed”. But this protest could also apply to other countries where
those in power resist progress and deny justice to the common people.
What does the poet think about change in his home country?
How does the poem contrast the rich and the poor in South Africa?
Why does the poet write about two places where people buy food?
Comment on the image of the plate-glass window to show how poor people are shut out
of things in South Africa. What does the poet want to do to change this?
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Grace Nichols: Island Man
The subtitle really explains this simple poem - it tells of a man from the Caribbean, who lives in
London but always thinks of his home.
The poem opens with daybreak, as the island man seems to hear the sound of surf - and perhaps
to imagine he sees it, since we are told the colour. This is followed by simple images:
the fishermen pushing their boat out,
the sun climbing in the sky,
the island, emerald green.
The island man always returns to the island, in his mind, but in thinking of it he must “always”
come “back” literally to his immediate surroundings - hearing the traffic on London's North
Grace Nichols ends the poem with the image of coming up out of the sea - but the reality is the
bed, and the waves are only the folds of a “crumpled pillow”. The last line of the poem is
presented as the harsh reality.
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Many Afro-Caribbeans in Britain live a split existence. They may yearn for the warmth and simple
pleasures of the islands they think of as home, yet they find themselves, with friends and family,
in a cold northern climate. This poem neatly captures this division - between a fantasy of the
simple life and the working daily reality. But perhaps it is not really a serious choice - if one were
to stay on the island, then one would bring one's problems there, too. In fact, this man is like most
other British people - he does not relish work, but faces up to it.
After reading the whole poem, one sees that it is ambiguous - the island is both in the Caribbean
and Great Britain.
Grace Nichols also challenges us to think about where home really lies. Is it
the place we dream about,
the place where we, our friends and family live, or
the place where we do our work?
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The poem is written as free verse - it is a quite loose sequence of vivid images. The poet relies on
effects of sound - contrasting the breaking of the surf with the roar of traffic. There are a few
rhymes and repetitions. Grace Nichols also refers to colour - blue for surf (surely an error - the
surf is the white foam of the blue sea), emerald (green) for the island and grey for the traffic.
Is this poem about the Caribbean or London?
Why does the title have more than one meaning?
Is this poem about a real wish for sun and surf or just an escapist fantasy?
What do you find interesting in the images of this poem?
Imtiaz Dharker: Blessing
This poem is about water: in a hot country, where the supply is inadequate, the poet sees water
as a gift from a god. When a pipe bursts, the flood which follows is like a miracle, but the
“blessing” is ambiguous - it is such accidents which at other times cause the supply to be so little.
The opening lines of the poem compare human skin to a seedpod, drying out till it cracks. Why?
Because there is “never enough water”. Ms. Dharker asks the reader to imagine it dripping slowly
into a cup. When the “municipal pipe” (the main pipe supplying a town) bursts, it is seen as
unexpected good luck (a “sudden rush of fortune”), and everyone rushes to help themselves. But
the end of the poem reminds us of the sun, which causes skin to crack “like a pod” - today's
blessing is tomorrow's drought. The poet celebrates the joyous sense with which the people,
especially the children, come to life when there is, for once, more than “enough water”.
The poem has a single central metaphor - the giving of water as a “blessing” from a “kindly god”.
The religious metaphor is repeated, as the bursting of the pipe becomes a “rush of fortune”, and
the people who come to claim the water are described as a “congregation” (people gathering for
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The water is a source of other metaphors - fortune is seen as a “rush” (like water rushing out of
the burst pipe), and the sound of the flow is matched by that of the people who seek it - their
tongues are a “roar”, like the gushing water. Most tellingly of all, water is likened to “silver” which
“crashes to the ground”. In India (where Ms. Dharker lives), in Pakistan (from where she comes)
and in other Asian countries, it is common for wealthy people to throw silver coins to the ground,
for the poor to pick up. The water from the burst pipe is like this - a short-lived “blessing for a
few”. But there is no regular supply of “silver”. And finally, the light from the sun is seen as “liquid”
- yet the sun aggravates the problems of drought.
The poem is written in unrhymed lines, mostly brief, some of which run on, while others are end-
stopped, creating an effect of natural speech. The poet writes lists for the people (“man
woman/child”) and the vessels they bring (“. ..with pots/brass, copper, aluminium,/plastic
buckets”). The poem appeals to the reader's senses, with references to the dripping noise of
water (as if the hearer is waiting for there to be enough to drink) and the flashing sunlight.
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We have a clear sense of the writer's world - in her culture water is valued, as life depends upon
the supply: in the west, we take it for granted. This is a culture in which belief in “a kindly god” is
seen as natural, but the poet does not express this in terms of any established religion (note the
lower-case “g” on “god”). She suggests a vague and general religious belief, or superstition. The
poem ends with a picture of children - “naked” and “screaming”. The sense of their beauty
(“highlights polished to perfection”) is balanced by the idea of their fragility, as the “blessing
sings/over their small bones”.
How does this poem present water as the source of life?
“There is never enough water” - do readers in the west take water too much for granted?
Why does Imtiaz Dharker call the poem Blessing?
Why might the poet end by mentioning the “small bones” of the children?
Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes
The poem's title alerts us to the simple contrast that is its subject. “Beautiful people” is perhaps
written with a mild sense of irony - as this phrase was originally coined by the hippie movement in
1967 (maybe earlier) to refer to the “flower children” who shared the counter-culture ideals of
peace and love. The couple in the poem are not beautiful people in this sense but wealthy and
The poem is deceptively simple - in places it is written as if in bright primary colours, so we read
of the “yellow garbage truck” and the “red plastic blazers”, we get exact details of time and place,
and we see the precise position of the four people: all waiting at a stoplight and the garbage
collectors looking down (literally but not metaphorically) into the “elegant open Mercedes” and the
matching couple in it. The details of their dress and hair could be directions for a film-maker.
Ferlinghetti contrasts the people in various ways. The wealthy couple are on their way to the
man's place of work, while the “scavengers” are coming home, having worked through the early
hours. The couple in the Mercedes are clean and cool; the scavengers are dirty. But while one
scavenger is old, hunched and with grey hair, the other is about the same age as the Mercedes
driver and, like him, has long hair and sunglasses. The older man is depicted as the opposite of
beautiful - he is compared both to a gargoyle (an ugly grotesque caricature used to decorate
mediaeval churches, and ward off evil spirits) and to Quasimodo (the name means “almost
human”) the main character in Victor Hugo's novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
The poem moves to an ambiguous conclusion. The two scavengers see the young couple, not as
real people, but as characters in a “TV ad/in which everything is always possible” - as if, that is,
with determination and effort, the scavengers could change their own lifestyle for the better. But
the adjective “odorless” suggests that this is a fantasy - and their smelly truck is the reality.
The poem also considers the fundamental American belief that “all men are created equal” - and
the red light is democratic, because it stops everyone. It holds them together “as if anything at all
were possible/between them”. They are separated by a “small gulf” and the gulf is “in the high
seas of democracy” - which suggests that, with courage and effort, anyone can cross it. But the
poet started this statement with “as if” - and we do not know if this is an illusion or a real
possibility. The form of the poem is striking on the page - Ferlinghetti begins a new line with a
capital letter, but splits most lines to mark pauses, while he omits punctuation other than hyphens
in compound-words, full stops in abbreviations and occasional ampersands (the & symbol).
The poem challenges the reader - are we like the cool couple or the scavengers? And which is
better to be? Of which couple does the poet seem to approve more? TV ads may be “odorless”
but without garbage collectors, we would be overwhelmed by unpleasant smells - especially in
the heat of San Francisco. The garbage truck and the Mercedes in a way become symbols for
public service and for private enterprise.
How does this poem show the gap between rich and poor?
Does the poet really think “everything is always possible”, or is this an illusion?
Why does the poet call the couple in the Mercedes “beautiful people”? How does he use
this phrase in a different sense from what it originally meant? Does the poet approve
more of the scavengers or the beautiful people?
What do you think of how the poem looks on the page? Does this help you as you read
Perhaps a modern society needs both architects and street-cleaners. But is it right that
we should pay them so unequally? Which would you miss the most if they stopped
Nissim Ezekiel: Night of the Scorpion
In this poem Nissim Ezekiel recalls “the night” his “mother was stung by a scorpion”. The poem is
not really about the scorpion or its sting, but contrasts the reactions of family, neighbours and his
father, with the mother's dignity and courage. The scorpion (sympathetically) is shown as
sheltering from ten hours of rain, but so fearful of people that it “risk(s) the rain again” after
stinging the poet's mother.
What follows is an account of various superstitious reactions:
the peasants' efforts to “paralyse the Evil One” (the devil, who is identified with the
the peasants' belief that the creature's movements make the poison move in his victim's
their hope that this suffering may be a cleansing from some sin in the past (“your
previous birth”) or still to come (“your next birth”).
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The poison is even seen as making the poet's mother better through her suffering: “May the
poison purify your flesh/of desire and the spirit of ambition/they said”. The poet's father normally
does not share such superstitions (he is “sceptic, rationalist” - a doubter of superstition and a
believer in scientific reason). But he is now worse than the other peasants, as he tries “every
curse and blessing” as well as every possible antidote of which he can think. The “holy man”
performs “rites” (religious ritual actions) but the only effective relief comes with time: “After twenty
hours it lost its sting”.
The conclusion of the poem is its most effective part: where everyone else has been concerned
for the mother, who has been in too much pain to talk (she “twisted...groaning on a mat”) she
thinks of her children, and thanks God the scorpion has spared them (the sting might be fatal to a
smaller person; certainly a child would be less able to bear the pain).
Ezekiel's poetic technique is quite simple here. The most obvious point to make is the contrast
between the very long first section, detailing the frantic responses of everyone but the mother,
and the simple, brief, understated account of her selfless courage in the second section. The
lines are of irregular length and unrhymed but there is a loose pattern of two stresses in each line;
the lines are not end-stopped but run on (this is sometimes known as enjambement).
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Instead of metaphor or simile the images are of what was literally present (the candles and the
lanterns and the shadows on the walls). The poem is in the form of a short narrative. One final
interesting feature to note is the repeated use of reported (indirect) speech - we are told what
people said, but not necessarily in their exact words, and never enclosed in speech marks. The
poem may surprise us in the insight it gives into another culture: compare Ezekiel's account with
what would happen if your mother were stung by a scorpion (or, if this seems a bit unlikely, bitten
by an adder, say).
Some comments about Nissim Ezekiel that you might find helpful in relation to Night of the
Scorpion are these: he writes in a free style and colloquial manner (like ordinary speech); he
makes direct statements and employs few images.
The title of the poem seems more fitting almost to an old horror film - do you think it is a
suitable title for the poem that follows?
How do the people try to make sense of the scorpion's attack, or even see it as a good
Are scorpions really evil? Does the poet share the peasants' view of a “diabolic” animal?
How does the attack bring out different qualities in the father and the mother?
What does the poem teach us about the beliefs of people in the poet's home culture?
In what way is this a poem rather than a short story broken into lines?
How does the poet make use of what people said, to bring the poem to life?
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Chinua Achebe: Vultures
This is one of the most challenging poems in the anthology. The vultures of the title are real birds
of prey but (like William Blake's Tyger) more important, perhaps, for what they represent - people
of a certain kind. Chinua Achebe is a Nigerian writer, but has a traditional English-speaking liberal
education: the poem is written in a highly literate manner with a close eye for detail.
The poem introduces us to the vultures and their unpleasant diet; in spite of this, they appear to
care for each other. From this Achebe goes on to note how even the worst of human beings show
some touches of humanity - the concentration camp commandant, having spent the day burning
human corpses, buys chocolate for his “tender offspring” (child or children). This leads to an
on the one hand, Achebe tells us to “praise bounteous providence” that even the worst of
creatures has a little goodness, “a tiny glow-worm tenderness”;
on the other hand, he concludes in despair, it is the little bit of “kindred love” (love of
one's own kind or relations) which permits the “perpetuity of evil” (allows it to survive,
because the evil person can think himself to be not completely depraved).
We are reminded, perhaps, by the words about the “Commandant at Belsen”, that Adolf Hitler
was said to love children and animals.
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The poem is in the form of free verse, in short lines which are not end-stopped and have no
pattern of stress or metre. Achebe moves from
images of things which are actually present,
to the imagined scene of the commandant picking up chocolate for his children,
to the final section of the poem in which appears the conventional metaphor of the “glow-
worm tenderness” in the “icy caverns of a cruel heart”.
In studying this poem, you should spend a lot of time in making sure you understand all of the
unfamiliar vocabulary. Look out, also, for familiar words which are used in surprising ways,
because of their context. For example, we read of the commandant “going home...with fumes of
human roast clinging rebelliously to his hairy nostrils” - it is as if he wants to get rid of the smell
(put it out of nose and mind) but the smell refuses to go away, rebelling against his authority:
something he cannot command.
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As you think or write about the first part of the poem, you should try to describe in your own words
the different things on which the vultures feed, while looking for the evidence of the birds' love for
each other. Like William Blake's Tyger, the vulture is a creature about which we will have ideas
before we read; because it feasts on corpses, it has come to symbolize anyone or anything that
benefits by another's suffering. (The vultures here are shown far less sympathetically, for
example, than the scorpion in Nissim Ezekiel's poem.)
Is this poem really about vultures at all or does the poet use them only to make
comments on some kinds of people?
How does the poet try to make the reader feel disgust towards the vultures? Is this fair?
The ending of this poem is highly ambiguous - the poet recommends both “praise” for
“providence” and then “despair” (because the little bit of goodness in otherwise evil things
allows them to keep going, in “perpetuity”). Which of these conclusions do you think the
poet feels more strongly, if either?
Chinua Achebe refers to Belsen, the Nazi death camp - do you think this is a powerful
way of suggesting evil, or might readers now and in the future not know what Belsen is or
what happened there? (Some younger readers may know of it mainly because Anne
Frank died there, at the age of 15.)
Denise Levertov: What Were They Like?
This is a famous poem, written in 1971, as a protest against the Vietnamese War (1954-1975.
This was originally a civil war between communist North and capitalist South Vietnam; the south
received support from western countries, notably the USA. In 1973 President Nixon withdrew the
US forces, in 1975 the armies of North Vietnam were victorious, and the country was reunited the
following year. More recently, Vietnam has adopted democratic government and opened itself up
to visitors from the west.) Denise Levertov protested in public against the war, and spent time in
jail. In the poem, inspired by the violence of the US bombing campaign, she imagines a future in
which the people have been destroyed and there is no record or memory of their culture. (In the
light of the Nazis' genocide of European Jews, this was not an unreasonable fear.) In fact, the
people and culture of Vietnam are thriving today but attempted genocide (now we call it “ethnic
cleansing”) has devastated Cambodia, Ruanda and Burundi and the former Yugoslavia.
The poem is in the form of a series of questions, as a future visitor might pose them to a cultural
historian. The questions are mostly straightforward, but the answers are quite subversive.
Together they create a sympathetic portrait of a gentle, simple peasant people, living a dignified if
humble life amid the paddy fields. This contrasts with the violent effects of war, as children are
killed, bones are charred and people scream as bombs smash the paddy fields. The final lines of
the poem show how utterly the people have been forgotten - the report of their singing (of which
there is no record) is hopelessly vague - it resembled, supposedly, “the flight of moths in
moonlight” - but no one knows, since it is silent now. Happily the reader today can readily find
examples of Vietnamese song, and we can satisfy ourselves that it is nothing like the flight of
moths in moonlight.
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The poem shows the Vietnamese as rather childlike, innocent and vulnerable - a way of seeing
them that seemed to be confirmed by some events in the war, lie the destruction of the forests
with napalm, and by the notorious photographic image of a naked burning child running from her
devastated village. But the people of Vietnam eventually proved more resilient than in this well-
meaning but rather patronising western view. On the other hand, it was protests like that in the
poem that changed US public opinion, so that President Nixon withdrew their forces from combat
- which helped the Northern Communist forces win the war, and reunite Vietnam by force.
This poem became very well-known when it was first published - but the poet's fears for
Vietnam have not come true (though things that are perhaps just as bad have happened
in Cambodia, Ruanda-Burundi and the former Yugoslavia). Does it still have anything to
say to us or has history made it irrelevant?
What do you think of the question and answer format in the poem?
Do you think that Vietnamese people would like to be depicted as gentle peasants who
know only “rice and bamboo”? You may have some Vietnamese friends - so you could
ask them. Is it ever a good idea for people from one culture to try to describe another, or
is there a risk of stereotyping and patronizing?
How might singing be like “the flight of moths in moonlight”? Does this mean anything or
is it pretentious and misleading? You might check this by finding out what traditional
Vietnamese music is really like.
This poem is not about individuals but about big political events. What do you think of the
way the poet presents history and politics here?