Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Night of the Scorpion

Nissim Ezekiel's 'Night of the Scorpion' is the poet's personal account of his memory of his mother being stung by a scorpion when he was a child. He begins by explaining that the scorpion had come in because of heavy rain and had hidden under a sack of rice. Ezekiel uses alliteration to describe the moment of the sting: 'Parting with his poison'. He alludes to evil in the phrase 'diabolic tail', comparing the scorpion to the devil.

The scorpion departed and, on hearing the news of the deadly sting, villagers came to the house. Ezekiel uses the simile 'like swarms of flies' to describe their number and behaviour. He states that they 'buzzed the name of God' repeatedly, the onomatopoeia enabling us to 'hear' the constant noise they made. The scorpion is again seen as the devil in line ten: 'the Evil One'. We can imagine the fear of the child observing the scene, as the peasants' lanterns created 'giant scorpion shadows' on the walls of his home. Onomatopoeia is used again as the poet says that these people 'clicked their tongues' whilst searching for the scorpion. They believed that whenever the scorpion moved, its poison 'moved in Mother's blood'.

Line eighteen is the first in a fourteen-line section which recounts the words of wisdom voiced by the peasants in the hope that the woman would survive. Five of the lines begin 'May ...' and are clear examples of the religious beliefs held by these villagers. They refer to past and future lives, absolution of sins, the lessening of evil and the hope that the poison will 'purify' the woman's flesh and spirit. Ezekiel describes how they surrounded his mother; he saw 'the peace of understanding' in their facial expressions.

Lines thirty-two and thirty-three form a repetitive pattern in which Ezekiel remembers the arrival of 'More candles, more lanterns, more neighbours, / more insects' as the rain continued to fall. In line thirty-four he makes the first direct reference to his mother's suffering, telling us that she 'twisted through and through' and was groaning in pain. He then turns to the reaction of his father, not a religious man but 'sceptic, rationalist'. On this occasion, however, the man resorted to 'every curse and blessing' accompanied by various herbal concoctions, such was his desperation. Ezekiel describes in detail that his father actually set alight to the toe that had been bitten. It must have had a profound effect on the poet as a child; he describes how 'I watched the flame feeding on my mother', personifying the fire. Ezekiel then watched and listened to a 'holy man' carrying out certain rites to 'tame' the poison. The poison lost its sting the following night.

The first forty-five lines form one continuous stanza relating the event from start to finish. The poem concludes with a short three-line stanza in which Ezekiel recalls his mother's reaction to her frightening and painful experience. She spoke of it only briefly, thanking God and saying how glad she was that the scorpion had chosen to sting her rather than her children. This was the boundless, selfless love of a mother, and these were words which Ezekiel never forgot.

One of the interesting points about the poem is that Ezekiel narrates it from the point of view of a child who was purely an observer, not involved as the adults were in taking any action. This allows him to relate the actions and words of the peasants and his father whilst being detached from them. It is an insight into the behaviour of a small community in India where everyone becomes involved in one family or one mother's suffering, and all gather to witness the event and contribute a prayer. To the child it must have seemed as though there was a huge number of people, and the night must have been interminable. His comparison of the peasants to flies suggests that he would rather they had left the family in peace.

The structure of the poem is very free, with lines of varying lengths and no rhyme scheme. The second stanza that ends the poem attracts attention for its brevity and emphasises the words of the mother and their effect on the son.

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