Escaping to Soyinka’s market
Peek into Wole Soyinka’s poetry, and ancient West African wisdom
It’s been exactly 1 year since I moved back home to Toronto from what was three-year whirlwind of an adventure between Lagos, Johannesburg, and Washington DC.
One piece of writing that left a impression on me when I was in Lagos, and that I have been recently remembering, is Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known by Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka. It’s a 5-part book, part 1 of which I find particularly memorable.
In it, Soyinka describes a timeless and fantastical market of commercial, cultural, and spiritual diversity.
Ultimately, much like reality, the market is not perfect.
Finally and powerfully, the poem recalls the wisdom of the ancient West African religion to cope with ignorance and loss.
The publishing rights of the full 5-part book are owned by a local Nigerian publishing house, so it’s hard to get a hold of outside of the country. At time of writing, a new copy will cost… are you ready… CAD $780 (!) here on Amazon, but there are used copies available for cheaper.
Below is publicly available part 1 for your reading as a preview.
A market is kind haven for the wandering soul
Or the merely ruminant. Each stall
Is shrine and temple, magic cave of memorabilia.
Its passages are grottoes that transport us,
Bargain hunters all, from pole to antipodes, annulling
Time, evoking places and lost histories.
A market is where Samarkand invades
Johannesburg, and, as the shutters close,
Departs without regrets or trace
Until its next reincarnation. A market is
Where London’s Portobello spells
Caracas and Yoruba, Catalan or Khourassan,
And though hard currency is what changes hands,
It lets you drift in fluid channels where
Sensations thrive on trade by barter.
Chimes of faith assail the market place–
The muezzin’s prayer alert, a shrine with the warren,
A lean-to church dispenses chants at war
With handbells. White-robed dervishes in trance
At crossroads of Spices Row and Fabric Lane
Swirl, oblivious to slender saffron files
Meandering, equally oblivious to the world.
Fairy-bells in counter points to cosmic ooms–
Hare Krishna’s other dervishes in slight
Ethereal motion through the firewood stalls.
Deep in the maze of Isale-eko, Bhuddist mantras?
The Orisa faithful wait their turn. In season,
Ogun’s iron bells, Sango’s Ayan drums
Oya’s chalk and coral maids reclaim
This borrowed space. Ancestral voice ascendant,
Masks of wood and webbed visors, indigo and camwood
Presences unfold their mats of invocation.
These are the markets I have known,
Tibetan souls on pilgrimage to shrines
In heartlands of Dogon, Baule or Zululand.
Leaflets of salvation for the unwary
Barefoot evangelists of every faith
Tuned to bared moments of the vacant soul.
Let all contend. Let a hundred thousand
Flowers diffuse exotic incense and a million
Stars perfume the sky, till the infant cry of Truth
Resound in the market of the heart,
And warring faiths
Reconcile in one immensity of Being.
Trade and holy places, saints and salesmen
Have ever lived as soul companions, caterers
For the needs of flesh and spirit–bread
And wafer, wine and holy water, homilies,
Talismans and rosaries, the blessed
Pouch of the earth or magic mantras, locks
And lockets of painted mystics
Reliquaries and tourist souvenirs around
A healing spring, a spot of revelation–
The pilgrim trade is evenly sanctified.
Still, here and there, one lashes out– recall
The prince of peace turned manic in a synagogue
Turned market place? Lashed trespassers
With tongue and whip? That lash, in retrospect,
Was kind. I envy the usurers of old
The wages of their sin and mine. Our seasons’
Lesser desecration–a face unveiled,
An ankle bared, a keepsake, a taste or thought
Of foreign taint–feed Grim Reaper Purity
From lethal thrusts, not the symbolic lash.
They pierce the heart, not touch the soul within.
Go to the Orisa and be wise. Ifa
Shuns the excluding tongue, unveils
Uncharted routes to knowledge, truth
and godhead. Man is restless seeker,
What follows six, says Ifa, transcends the bounds
Of seven–there are not final rites to numerology.
Let who can, count the motes in a sunbeam
Or weigh the span of grief from voice to voice
In the homeland of the immolated.
Go to the orisa. None but fools
Claim guardianship of the final gateway.