NO COFFIN NO GRAVE
(A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF JARED ANGIRA’S POEM, ‘NO COFFIN NO GRAVE’)
BY OGHENERO EZAZA
In this discourse, we shall be having a critical appraisal of the poem ‘No Coffin No Grave’ by Jared Angira. My choice of this poem is timely. The poet has in this work addressed a very vital issue affecting most African countries even till this day.
About The Poet
In studying a work of literature, the poet or author’s background should be studied. The poet, Jared Angira, was born in 1947 in Kenya. He studied Commerce at the University of Nairobi. He once edited the journal, Busara. He had also worked in the Kenyan Civil Service. His poetry touched much on the social injustice prevalent in post-colonial Kenya, and he was very critical of the political and social development in Kenya.
Here is the full text of the poem:
NO COFFIN NO GRAVE
He was buried without a coffin
without a grave
the scavengers performed the post-mortem
in the open mortuary
without sterilized knives
in front of the night club
stuttering rifles put up
the gun salute of the day
that was a state burial anyway
the car knelt
the red plate wept, wrapped itself in blood its master’s
the diary revealed to the sea
the rain anchored there at last
isn’t our flag red, black, and white?
so he wrapped himself well
who could signal yellow
when we had to leave politics to the experts
and brood on books
brood on hunger
grumble under the black pot
sleep under torn mosquito net
and let lice lick our intestines
the lord of the bar, money speaks madam
woman magnet, money speaks madam
we only cover the stinking darkness
of the cave of our mouths
and ask our father who is in hell to judge him
the quick and the good
Well, his dairy, submarine of the Third World War
showed he wished
to be buried in a gold-laden coffin
like a VIP
under the jacaranda tree beside his palace
a shelter for his grave
and much beer for the funeral party
anyway one noisy pupil suggested we bring
tractors and plough the land.
The setting of the poem is post-colonial Kenya. That is Kenya after independence.
In the poem the ruler of Kenya is brutally murdered at the front of a night club. His death brings joy to the people of the country because the ruler had been a dictator who had oppressed the masses during his reign. After much research I couldn’t find any head of state or president of Kenya who died in this manner, hence the events recounted in this poem are products of creativity. However in recounting the circumstances surrounding the dictator’s death the poet has been able to address vital issues facing the society or country of Kenya as well as most African countries after the era of colonialism.
Now let’s take a stanza by stanza analysis of the poem.
Obviously after the dictator has been killed in front of the night club his corpse was not buried but was left there to rot, which is not good for a head of state. Well the poet-speaker in lines 1-2 claims that the dead dictator was actually buried but without a coffin and without a grave! Can you imagine that? Also when important persons die a post-mortem is usually carried out. Post-mortem is a medical operation meant to find out the cause of death. No post mortem is done for the late Head of State whose body was rather left to rot in the street. Well in lines 3-6 our poet-speaker disagrees and claims that a post-mortem is actually being carried out on the late dictator’s corpse. But this post-mortem is not being done by doctors rather it is by the scavengers i.e vultures that have come to feast on his corpse. The difference between this post-mortem and that done by a doctor is that these scavengers are not using sterilized knives i.e. those treated sharp objects used by doctors. Rather these vultures are using their claws to carry out their own post mortem as they tear the dead man’s skin. Also this post mortem is not being done on a hospital bed, but on the floor of the street in front of a night club!
Another honour given to a late Head of State that was not done for this our head of State is the gun salute. That is the point in the burial where soldiers will fire shots into the air. Our poet-speaker here however claims that while the killers shot at the Head of State in his car, they shot repeatedly. Hence the poet claims that those repeated shots that also took the dictator’s life were his gun salute as well. And since the gun salute was carried out, it means the head of state has been given a state burial like every other Head of State. Also nobody felt remorse over the dictator’s death, but the poet says the car in which he rode knelt for him. And the plate number which is now dripping blood is weeping over its master’s demise.
After the dictator’s death his diary is now made public. When most presidents of countries pass on their corpse or coffin is usually wrapped in the country’s flag during the burial. In this case such is not done; of course there is no burial at all. But our poet-speaker draws our attention to the fact that Kenyan’s National flag has the colours of red, white and black inclusive in it. Our late Head of State is apparently dressed in white shirt and black suit, then coupled with the red blood after the shots, hence he is after all wrapped in the country’s colours (flag). So the concept of a state burial befitting a Head of State continues.
Here, the poet-speaker says no one could ‘signal yellow’, i.e. give any warning when the masses had left politics for the ‘experts’. He then describes how the masses have been and are still suffering in hunger, torn mosquito nets, etc, then he goes on to contrast that with the affluent living of the late dictator while he was alive calling him the lord of the bar and women magnet.
He then says we, the masses, cannot say but only seek judgment on the late dictator on the other side of the world i.e. on the life after death.
The diary of the late dictator which had been discovered is here being opened and its content is being discovered as well. And the diary reveals that the dead dictator had actually narrated how he wanted his burial to be. He wanted to be buried like a VIP in a gold-laden coffin under a tree beside his palace and with plenty beer for the people at the funeral.
Here, at the end a pupil, whom the poet-speaker called noisy, suggests they bring tractor and plough the land. This means a call to start afresh. The poet calls the pupil noisy because the killing of the dictator is obviously a revolutionary act. Hence after he has been killed everyone knows a new turn of events is to follow so the pupil becomes ‘noisy’ by saying what everyone knows. However the poet has used the character of the noisy pupil to put more emphasis on his message.
- Theme of oppression and cruel leaders
- Theme of Uncertainty of the future: this is shown in the contrast between the kind of burial the dictator wished himself, which he wrote in his diary and the kind he actually got in reality
- Theme of Vanity: despite the luxury in which the dictator lived and despite his power, he dies like a fowl and does not get even the humblest of burials rather his corpse was left to rot on the street with vultures feasting on it.
- Theme of Revolution
- Theme of Plight of the masses: this is shown in the suffering masses.
- Theme of ‘Good Riddance’: nobody cares the least about the demise of the man who ought to be the number one citizen of the country.
Satire: The poem is a complete satire. This is where a writer uses humour to attack a concept and brings out the flaws of that concept.
Sarcasm: This is close to satire. In this case the writer uses irony to oppose, attack and speak ill of a concept e.g. ‘he was buried without a coffin/ without a grave’
Rhetorical Question: Line 14, Line 16
Metaphor: e.g. woman magnet,
his diary, submarine of the third world war (line 3)
Personification: The red plate wept
Ambiguity: The poet deliberately uses some words in context where their contextual meanings become unclear
Structure: Free verse
Tone: Satirical and sarcastic
Mood: Sorrow and hope
About the Reviewer
Oghenero Ezaza writes prose and poems. He has published a collection of poems: Reflections. His poems have also featured in various anthologies including: Black Communion, Who Shall I Make My Wife?, Wushapa (Beating the Drums of Peace). He is also a Spoken Word Poet and a Comedian with the stage name: Genza. He writes from Warri, Nigeria.