Corpses Have Grown | A Poem by Ken Saro-Wiwa

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Corpses have grown
And covered the land
The xylophone of the deceased chief
Is still, has forgot the past.
Ancestral spirits driven from home
Walk tearful abroad
The orphaned land weeps.

We have squatted before the shrines
Have bled our knees in pain
The morning libation is vain
In vain the loud name-call
At the feast of the new yam
The sacrificial cocks are dumb.

The old year is dead
And the new, unheralded
By shouts of laughing children
Seeps sadly into empty homes
And the mortar falls at dusk
In the empty bridal chamber
Where lovers twined like snakes
Made soft music to silences.

Earth echoes with alien sounds —
Stuttering rifles, weird moans —
And the harsh face of war
Fills the land with abomination.

— Ken Saro-Wiwa

Corpses Have Grown” engages the theme of war. It highlights the brutality of war and the aftereffects of war. The land is filled with sounds of “stuttering rifles” and “weird moans”. There is literally no place for peaceful coexistence: “mortar falls …/Where lovers twined like snakes”. There is no joy and happiness, justifiably due to the stillness of “the xylophone”, “weird moans” of death, littered corpses, and the all pervasive emptiness that go with war and chaos.

The poem explores the destructive capacity of war; of how it leaves people dead and their children “orphaned”, breaks the communal spirit, expunges every cause or trace of laughter and happiness, and cuts short marital bliss.

Divided into four stanzas, Ken Saro-Wiwa’s “Corpses Have Grown” no doubt is reflective of the ruin of a land and its people by an erosive war. The poetic persona is affected by the war too as evident in the use of first person plural pronoun “we” which suggests their inclusivity.

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The first stanza highlights the effect of war; the deaths and the stillness that accompany it, the abandonment of the land for safety, the corpses littered all around with no one to give them a decent burial. The first line of this stanza, “Corpses have grown”, titular as it is, accurately depicts how people are killed every minute, that the poetic persona loses count, and comes to see the corpses in the same way as grasses which “have grown and covered the land”. “The orphaned land” weeping is symbolic of orphaned children weeping.

The second stanza shows the warring people’s recourse, the poetic persona inclusive, to religion, the ways of their forebears. They “squatted before the shrines” in libation and “loud-name call”. They sacrifice cocks at new yam festival to placate the exiled “ancesteral spirits” (l. 5). But religion and sacrifices neither save them nor change anything. War is man-made and it takes reconciliation among men to revert this destructive anomy or to put an end to it.

The third stanza is pervaded by the atmosphere of death; which rings around desolation, the fall of mortars on mortals, the absence of children’s laughter, the conscious reminder every new year of human losses signified by “empty homes”. The interruption of lovers’ copulatory motions is another point of focus. Their snakelike motions are serene, ecstatic and life-induced and what should be in a time of peace. The interruption by “the mortar” is therefore suggestive of the incursion of war into the serenity of human existence.

The fourth stanza is reflective of the desecration of the land by the abominable “stuttering rifles”, the “weird moans” of death, and the “harsh face of war”.

Ken Saro-Wiwa’s “Corpses Have Grown” is more of a pictorial representation of the Nigerian civil war which the poet wrote much about. The poem is included in Ken Saro-Wiwa’s 1985 poetry collection, “Songs in a Time of War”, which describes in effect the 1967-1970 Nigerian/Biafran Civil War.

Ken Saro-Wiwa was a versatile writer, media entrepreneur, and eco-activist. He was sentenced to hanging alongside eight other Ogoni environmental activists by the dictatorship government of General Sani Abacha amidst pleas from the international community. He was hanged on November 10, 1995, what would go down in the history of Nigeria as Black November.


Image Credit: Casey Allen on Unsplash.

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