What He’s Reading: Wole Soyinka’s ‘Prisonettes’

In 1967 Wole Soyinka was imprisoned for twenty-two months, a large part of the time in isolation.  He has said that the prison is meant to “break down the human mind”, and yet, without much opportunity to write, and often having to memorize in large part, he constructed, A Shuttle in the Crypt, a book of poems which he terms ‘prisonettes’.  A ‘prisonette’ is not a poem of or about prisons, but what can come out of the prisons given that they are not the constructions in which anyone can occupy such a space.  The prison is the specific expression of the prisoner; the prison was made for the prisoner—it is the natural expression of poetics of place.

‘Prisonettes’, though, are not ontological, though, in the sense of producing a certain kind of being—”a new kind of man, a Negro”.  They are the expressions of those beings for whom prison is their ‘natural end’.  In other words, a ‘prisonette’ is the expression of what Abdul R. Jan Mohamed terms, in his description of Richard Wright, as a death-bound subject.  A ‘prisonette’ addresses the question posed by Etheridge Knight, “can there anything/good come out of/prison”

                “We sought to cleanse the faulted lodes

                To raise new dwellings pillard on crags…

                …Forge new realities, free our earth 

                Of distorting shadows cast by old

                And modern necromancers.” (Excerpt from “Conversation at Night with a Cockroach”)

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Filed under African Lit, What We're Reading

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