Background information: Imtiaz Dharker lives in India, in the city of Bombay. During the dry season, the temperature can reach 40 degrees. The poem is set in a vast area of temporary accommodation called Dharavi, on the outskirts of Bombay, where millions of migrants have gathered from other parts of India. Because it is not an official living area, there is always a shortage of water. In an interview, the poet says: 'But when a pipe bursts, when a water tanker goes past, there's always a little child running behind the water tanker getting the bits of drips and it's like money, it's like currency. In a hot country in that kind of climate, it's like a gift. And the children may have been brought up in the city and grown up as migrants, but the mothers will probably remember in the village they've come from they would have to walk miles with pots to get to a well, to the closest water source. So it really is very precious. When the water comes, it's like a god. '
Blessing The skin cracks like a pod. There never is enough water. Imagine the drip of it, the small splash, echo in a tin mug, the voice of a kindly god. Sometimes, the sudden rush of fortune. The municipal pipe bursts, silver crashes to the ground and the flow has found a roar of tongues. From the huts, a congregation: every man woman child for streets around butts in, with pots, brass, copper, aluminium, plastic buckets, frantic hands, and naked children screaming in the liquid sun, their highlights polished to perfection, flashing light, as the blessings over their small bones.
The poem starts with a simple statement, 'There is never enough water', and shows what it is like to be without water. The skin cracks like a pod. There never is enough water. Imagine the drip of it, the small splash, echo in a tin mug, the voice of a kindly god. When the poet imagines water, it is so special it is compared to a god.
When a water pipe bursts, we are shown how the community responds: they collect as much water as possible. Sometimes, the sudden rush of fortune. The municipal pipe bursts, silver crashes to the ground and the flow has found a roar of tongues. From the huts, a congregation: every man woman child for streets around butts in, with pots, brass, copper, aluminium, plastic buckets, frantic hands, provided by the local council
Children enjoy playing in it and naked children screaming in the liquid sun, their highlights polished to perfection, flashing light, as the blessings over their small bones
Structure The poem is structured in four stanzas of different lengths. • Why has the poet organised her thoughts in this way? It is significant that short stanzas (with short, abrupt sentences) express what it is like to be without water, and longer stanzas (with flowing sentences) show what it is like suddenly to have water.
Structure Look at the full stops in this poem. How many full stops are there in the first half of the poem (up to line 11)? How many are in the second? What is the effect of this?
Language Stanza 3 refers to 'men, women and children', but stanza 4 focuses on the children alone, as the water pours over 'their small bones'. Look at the different reactions of the adults and the children to the pipe bursting. Why did the poet choose to end her poem in this way?
Imagery The poem opens with a striking image of dryness: 'The skin cracks like a pod. '. How does a pod crack? What sort of skin/pod do you imagine here? What effect does this simile have on you?
Imagery The sound of a drip of water is described in a metaphor as 'the voice of a kindly god', while water itself is referred to as fortune, as silver, and as 'the blessing'. What do these words have in common? 'Blessing' is a religious word: blessings come from gods. A congregation can just mean 'a crowd of people', but its main meaning is 'a crowd of worshippers'. What does this imagery suggest about the importance of water? Why did the poet choose Blessing as the title of her poem?
Sound Can you find any words in this poem which rhyme? For example, note pod/godand ground/found/around. What is the effect of these words? Can you find any alliteration? Try 'the flow has found' (line 10), 'polished to perfection' (line 20). What is the effect of this?
Sound When the water appears, we get words like rush, burst, crash, flow, roar. What do these words have in common? What's the effect of putting them close together?
Tone How should the poem be read? In a pitiful voice, sympathising with the poor of India? OR Excitedly, celebrating the blessing of the pipe bursting?
Ideas The main idea in this poem is that water - so essential to life - comes to be seen by people in a hot, dry country as supremely precious, a divine gift - a blessing.
Quotation Commentary The skin cracks like a pod. This image of the effect of drought refers to the skin of the earth, which cracks when dry and becomes useless for growing things, and the skin of a seed-pod, which dries up and becomes brittle once it has fallen to earth. But it also reminds us of the pain we feel when our own skin splits. . . silver crashes to the ground. . The rushing water, shimmering in the bright sun, shines like silver; but the word also suggests its value to the villagers - like an outpouring of precious metal, which will make them rich. From the huts / a congregation. . . Congregation, like blessing, suggests that the outpouring of water is a kind of holy communion, a religious event - 'the voice of a kindly god. '
Background information: Nissim Ezekiel was born in India in 1924 to an Indian Jewish family. He studied in Bombay and in London. Over the past fifty years, he has written eight collections of poetry. He won the Akademi Award for a volume called Latter Day Psalms. He is also a renowned playwright, art critic, lecturer and editor. He is credited with beginning the modernist movement in India and has become one of India's best known poets.
Night of the Scorpion I remember the night my mother was stung by a scorpion. Ten hours of steady rain had driven him to crawl beneath a sack of rice. Parting with his poison - flash of diabolic tail in the dark room he risked the rain again. The peasants came like swarms of flies and buzzed the name of God a hundred times to paralyse the Evil One. With candles and with lanterns throwing giant scorpion shadows on the mud-baked walls they searched for him: he was not found. They clicked their tongues. With every movement that the scorpion made his poison moved in Mother's blood, they said. May he sit still, they said. May the sins of your previous birth be burned away tonight, they said. May your suffering decrease the misfortunes of your next birth, they said. May the sum of all evil balanced in this unreal world against the sum of good become diminished by your pain.
Night of the Scorpion May the poison purify your flesh of desire, and your spirit of ambition, they said, and they sat around on the floor with my mother in the centre, the peace of understanding on each face. More candles, more lanterns, more neighbours, more insects, and the endless rain. My mother twisted through and through, groaning on a mat. My father, sceptic, rationalist, trying every curse and blessing, powder, mixture, herb and hybrid. He even poured a little paraffin upon the bitten toe and put a match to it. I watched the flame feeding on my mother. I watched the holy man perform his rites to tame the poison with an incantation. After twenty hours it lost its sting. My mother only said Thank God the scorpion picked on me And spared my children.
What is the poem about? The poem is about the night when a woman (the poet's mother) in a poor village in India is stung by a scorpion. Concerned neighbours pour into her hut to offer advice and help. All sorts of cures are tried by the neighbours, her husband the local holy man, but time proves to be the best healer - 'After twenty hours / it lost its sting. ' After her ordeal, the mother is merely thankful that the scorpion stung her and not the children
Structure The poem is written in free verse with varying line lengths and no rhyme. The first part is long and full of activity - the scorpion's bite and the reaction of the villagers. The second part, the mother's reaction, is just three lines long. Sometimes you will see this poem printed as if it were prose. What differences does it make when it is set out in lines? What, if anything, do the lines and the breaks between them contribute?
Language Night of the Scorpion I remember the night my mother was stung by a scorpion. The poem starts off in the first person - Ezekiel describes an event that really happened. However, he does not give his own feelings or reactions: we realise he is merely the narrator. Most of the poem is in the third person, as Ezekiel reports on what other people do and say. The poet uses language to convey his ideas. The title is in some ways deceptive. It leads us to believe we are in for a frightening and dramatic tale about a scorpion. However, the poem is not about the scorpion, but the reactions of different people to its sting.
Language Ten hours of steady rain had driven him to crawl beneath a sack of rice. Parting with his poison flash of diabolic tail in the dark room he risked the rain again. Ezekiel does not show the scorpion as a villain: it was driven to shelter 'beneath a sack of rice' (line 4) after ten hours of rain. It probably stung the poet's mother instinctively as a warning to her when she approached its hiding place, rather than harming her on purpose; and having delivered the sting, scared of the people indoors, ' he risked the rain again' (line 7
Language The peasants came like swarms of flies and buzzed the name of God a hundred times to paralyse the Evil One. With candles and with lanterns throwing giant scorpion shadows on the mud-baked walls they searched for him: he was not found. They clicked their tongues. With every movement that the scorpion made his poison moved in Mother's blood, they said. May he sit still, they said. May the sins of your previous birth be burned away tonight, they said. May your suffering decrease the misfortunes of your next birth, they said. However, the villagers are more superstitious and link the scorpion to 'the Evil One' (line 10). They claim that the poison will help in many ways, for example by burning away the sins of the woman's former life - 'her previous birth' (line 19) and ease her life after this one - 'her next birth' (line 22). Perhaps this is their way of making sense of the event: if 'good' comes out of it, it is easier to bear.
NEXT……. May the sum of all evil balanced in this unreal world against the sum of good become diminished by your pain. May the poison purify your flesh of desire, and your spirit of ambition, they said, and they sat around on the floor with my mother in the centre, the peace of understanding on each face. More candles, more lanterns, more neighbours, more insects, and the endless rain. My mother twisted through and through, groaning on a mat. The events of the night are described in rich detail - we know about the mud hut and the candles and lanterns, yet we know little about the individual neighbours: Ezekiel lumps them together as they. What effect does this have?
My father, sceptic, rationalist, trying every curse and blessing, powder, mixture, herb and hybrid. He even poured a little paraffin upon the bitten toe and put a match to it. I watched the flame feeding on my mother. I watched the holy man perform his rites to tame the poison with an incantation. After twenty hours it lost its sting. My mother only said Thank God the scorpion picked on me And spared my children. Ezekiel's father is usually a sceptic and a rationalist - in other words, he does not believe in superstitions and is not religious. Yet when his wife is suffering, he tries 'every curse and blessing' (line 37) to help her. The final, simple 'After twenty hours / it lost its sting' (lines 44 -5) is a put down: nothing worked, after all. The final three lines are important. We hear Ezekiel's mother's exact words, her simple speech contrasting to the gabbling neighbours. She doesn't show any bitterness over her ordeal: she is just grateful that it was she who was hurt rather than her children. (Children are more vulnerable to scorpion bites than adults. ) She thanks God (line 47).
Imagery Ezekiel uses a simile, comparing the villagers to 'swarms of flies' (line 8). It is striking that he uses an insect image to describe the people's reaction to an invertebrate's sting. He develops the simile in the following line: 'they buzzed the name of God' (line 9). What does the fly simile suggest about Ezekiel's attitude to the neighbours? • There is a contrast between the neighbours' 'peace of understanding' (line 31) and the mother who 'twisted. . . groaning on a mat' (line 35). It is ironic that they are at peace because of her discomfort. • The neighbours' candles and lanterns throw 'giant scorpion shadows' on the walls (line 13). We know that the scorpion has already fled, so are these images of the people themselves? (A scorpion has eight legs, so the shadow of a small group of people standing together could look like a scorpion. ) If so, what does this show about Ezekiel's attitude to the neighbours?
Sound There is alliteration throughout the poem which helps to link or emphasise ideas: the scorpion is seen 'Parting with his poison' (line 5), Ezekiel's father tries 'herb and hybrid' (line 38), Ezekiel sees 'flame feeding' (line 41) on his mother. Underline other examples of alliteration. Can you explain their effect? • There is a lot of repetition so that we 'hear' the villagers' prayers and incantations. Ezekiel uses direct speech, May. . . , to dramatise the scene and the echoed 'they said' is like a chorus.
Tone Should this poem be read: In a factual tone, like a report, narrating the events of the night? In a mystic tone, to contrast the different calls to gods and God throughout the poem? Reverently, to show Ezekiel's pride in his mother?
Ideas The ideas in this poem concern our difficult feelings toward aspects of the natural world which seem to threaten us - the frightened insect becomes the Evil One! - and the complex ways in which individuals and communities respond when disaster strikes one of their number
Quotation Commentary flash / of diabolic tail in the dark room -It is hard to know whose opinions this is Ezekiel's or the neighbours'. Ezekiel initially sees the scorpion quite sympathetically, but here it is linked with the devil. Thank God the scorpion picked on me. . By using direct speech, Ezekiel shows his mother's selflessness. He chooses her simple words to end the poem to highlight his love and admiration for her. More candles, more lanterns, more neighbours, Ezekiel seems irritated. More and more peasants are arriving with their lamps and nothing can help his mother. The repetition of more shows how frustrated he is.
Background Chinua Achebe was born in Nigeria in 1930, where his father worked for the Church Missionary Society. After university, he worked in Lagos for the Nigerian Broadcasting Service, after studying broadcasting at the BBC. He is one of the most admired African writers in English. His novels trace Africa's transition from traditional ways to modern ways. He also writes poetry and essays.
Vultures In the greyness and drizzle of one despondent dawn unstirred by harbingers of sunbreak a vulture perching high on broken bone of a dead tree nestled close to his mate his smooth bashed-in head, a pebble on a stem rooted in a dump of gross feathers, inclined affectionately to hers. Yesterday they picked the eyes of a swollen corpse in a water-logged trench and ate things in its bowel. Full gorged they chose their roost keeping the hollowed remnant in easy range of cold telescopic eyes. . . Strange indeed how love in other ways so particular
Vultures will pick a corner in that charnel-house tidy it and coil up there, perhaps even fall asleep - her face turned to the wall!. . . Thus the Commandant at Belsen Camp going home for the day with fumes of human roast clinging rebelliously to his hairy nostrils will stop at the wayside sweet-shop and pick up a chocolate for his tender offspring waiting at home for Daddy's return. . . Praise bounteous providence if you will that grants even an ogre a tiny glow-worm tenderness encapsulated in icy caverns of a cruel heart or else despair for in every germ of that kindred love is lodged the perpetuity of evil.
Vocabulary charnel-house (line 26)a vault where dead bodies or bones are piled Belsen Camp (line 30)Bergen-Belsen was one of the most notorious concentration camps of World War II. It was founded in 1943 and used by the Nazis to exterminate 50, 000 Jews - including Anne Frank - and other political 'undesirables'. It was liberated in 1945. kindred (line 49)related by blood, close family perpetuity (line 50)going on for ever
What is the poem about? The poem begins with a graphic and unpleasant description of a pair of vultures who nestle lovingly together after feasting on a corpse. The poet remarks on the strangeness of love, existing in places one would not have thought possible. He goes on to consider the 'love' a concentration camp commander shows to his family - having spent his day burning human corpses, he buys them sweets on the way home, The conclusion of the poem is ambiguous. On one hand, Achebe praises providence that even the cruelest of beings can show sparks of love, yet on the other he despairs - they show love solely for their family, and so allow themselves to commit atrocities towards others.
Structure The poem is written in free verse, with lines of different lengths. The lines are short so we read the poem slowly and can appreciate its full horrors. It is divided into four sections. Each is marked by an indented line rather than a new stanza, perhaps to emphasise the logical flow of ideas. There is minimal punctuation - why?
Language The title is in some ways deceptive, like Ezekiel's The Night of the Scorpion. Although the poem begins with a cold and repulsive portrait of the vultures, we realise that they are a symbol of evil and their main purpose is to introduce us to theme of the poem. The description of the vultures is in the past tense but the Belsen Commandant is described in the present tense, perhaps to remind us that evil is all around us now. The concentration camp Commandant cannot escape the evil deeds he has spent the day performing - the fumes of human roast [cling] rebelliously to his hairy nostrils (line 32). The word roast makes us think of food, so it is doubly repulsive that he then buys chocolate for his tender child (or children) on the way home. Which of the two conclusions in the fourth section of the poem is stronger? How do you feel Achebe wants us to leave the poem - with hope because love can exist in even the most evil creatures, or with despair because, despite that love, they cannot stop committing evil?
Imagery • There are metaphors of horror and death: the dead tree (line 6) branch on which the vultures are roosting is described in as a broken bone (line 5), while the male vulture's bashed-in head is a pebble on a stem (line 9) and its body is a dump of gross feathers (line 11). • We see the Belsen Commandant - a mass murderer - as Daddy. Why does Achebe use a child's name for him rather than 'father'? • In the fourth section the poet again uses metaphors: the evil Commandant is an ogre (line 43) with merely a spark of love - a tiny glowworm tenderness (line 44) in the icy caverns of a cruel heart (line 46). These are fairly clichéd images, perhaps because Achebe wanted to suggest that what he is describing is nothing new: there will always be love and evil in the world.
Sound • There is some alliteration in the poem, but otherwise Achebe concentrates on visual images rather than sound effects to present his ideas.
Tone Should the poem be read: In a nightmarish tone, as in a horror film? In a cold, dead tone, to emphasise all the horrors described? In a warmer tone, to celebrate the love that does exist?
Ideas The ideas in this poem concern the relationship between evil and love. In the first part the vultures are used as a symbol for the paradox that evil and love can co-exist; in the second part Achebe uses the Belsen Commandant as an actual example of this. Have a look at the quotations below, and our suggestions about how they fit in to this theme.
Quotation Commentary Strange. . Strange is isolated in a single-word line. This makes us dwell on the word and prepares us for the image of love settled in an evil place. By the end of the poem, Achebe shows that even the most evil people experience kindred love, but that love is not powerful enough to halt the evil. . . they picked / the eyes of a swollen / corpse. . Achebe picks the most gruesome images he can find when describing the vultures to emphasise their evil. This prepares us for the human evil he goes on to explore. for in the very germ. . . is lodged the perpetuity of evil. It is poignant that Achebe concludes the poem with the idea of the predominance of evil. Evil is lodged within love - and evil is the haunting final word of the poem.