Vultures is a poem by Nigerian poet Chinua Achebe. It is a dark, sombre piece that focuses on the concentration camp Belsen and a Commandant that works there. It is a gritty poem that is hard to read due to the harrowing subject matter.
The vultures are described in such a disparaging and grim fashion that could be construed as a metaphor for the people responsible for the atrocities in Belsen and in particular the Commandant. It is the longest part of the poem and I don’t think is a coincidence. The first stanza is a metaphor for the Commandant’s predominant personality traits and this is why it dominates so much of the poem’s content. The third stanza, the scene with his child, represents a far smaller portion of the poem and this, I think, is a metaphor for his spark of humanity. The form of this poem is very clever as it creates a grim image, creates a glimmer of hope in the second and third Stanza, and then ends on a dour note emphasizing the futility of the situation. You can read Vultures in full here at mahmag.
The poem is written in four stanzas, in free verse with no rhyming pattern. It contains lots of enjambment lines giving the poem a fast pace, but with a jarring rhythm that mirrors the dark tone of the poem. The first stanza is considerably larger than the other three taking up twenty-three lines that are all very short. The other three stanzas are eight, eleven, and eleven lines respectively.
In the greyness
and drizzle of one despondent
dawn unstirred by harbingers
in easy range of cold
This first stanza begins with a relentlessly long sentence filled with dark, sullen descriptions. He uses alliteration in the second and third line “drizzle of one despondent dawn” but this is an enjambment line and so doesn’t give the ebb and flow usually associated with alliteration. This helps to emphasize the bleak tone Achebe is trying to achieve. He uses the description of the vultures seating position “perching high on broken bones of a dead tree” It is unclear whether he is describing the tree as being bone-like or if the vultures are actually perched upon a mound of bones. Achebe then continues to describe the birds themselves and paints a grim image of them, having already described them as harbingers, a word closely associated with the bringing of death he describes them as having “bashed in heads” and “gross feathers” and later in the final line he describes them as having “cold telescopic eyes” giving the birds an almost mechanical feel, suggesting they shouldn’t even really be classed as an animal. He then continues to describe their actions, again this is very grim as they peck at the eye of a corpse. And he further describes the vultures eating the corpse’s bowel. (I hope you’re not reading this whilst eating!)
indeed how love in other
even fall asleep – her face
turned to the wall!
In this stanza, Achebe skillfully contrasts the “light” of love with the “dark” of death by mentioning that in this darkest of environments, the “charnel-house”, a storage place for corpses, there is the presence of love. He personifies love itself. He uses an exclamation point on the phrase “her face turned to the wall” because love can’t stand to look at the atrocities contained within. It may also be a reference to people being lined up against walls before being gunned down by firing squads, but that’s purely speculative on my part!
…Thus the Commandant at Belsen
Camp going home for
waiting at home for Daddy’s
This Stanza throws the poem on its head somewhat. It cleverly constructs the character of the Commandant. His description is not particularly flattering. His only physical description describes his “hairy nostrils” but his actions are kind and very human. He brings chocolate home for his child. A kind gesture and not actions you would probably associate with a war criminal. Achebe makes us see that even this horrible man has a soft side and that is represented by the description of his interactions with his child. It is almost as if his child represents his “good side” and the vultures represent his “bad side” Achebe also produces the harrowing image of the smell produced by Belsen, the smell that lingers on the Commandant himself being described as “human roast” considering the man smelling this way and then hugging his “tender offspring” this is a very powerful piece of imagery.
providence if you will
lodged the perpetuity
In this final stanza, Achebe brings the poem to a close-by describing how even the “ogre” that is the commandant has a soft side, which was shown in the preceding stanza. He emphasizes the solace that should be taken in this small mercy “praise bounteous providence” his language here is particularly emphatic and evokes fantastic contrasts, describing the Commandant’s humanity as a “tiny glow worm” which is encapsulated in a “cruel, icy cavern” even the word encapsulated isn’t accidental, suggesting that his warmth is trapped. It gives a picture of an evil man that would be rid of that warmth if possible. This is further emphasized by the line “the very germ of that kindred love” this is not the voice of the narrator but rather a peek into the psyche of the Commandant and showing the narrator’s omniscience. This is a chilling thought, the idea that the Commandant views his softer side as a curse, or a “germ” Achebe closes by using the phrase “perpetuity of evil” suggesting that evilness is enduring, everlasting. This leaves the poem on a very bleak note.
About Chinua Achebe
Chinua Achebe was a contemporary Nigerian Poet who spent part of his life living in his native Africa and part of it in the United States. He was a highly educated man who is one of Africa’s most famous writers producing not just poetry but novels as well. He dabbled in politics, but left that endeavor behind, allegedly due to frustration with corruption. His poems dealt largely with his own culture, but one of his more famous pieces of poetry was this piece, about Belsen, although even this was tied to his own culture using the imagery of vultures.