Chinua Achebe is a Nigerian writer who would probably be familiar with the sight of vultures, which are scavenging birds, feeding on the carcass of a dead animal. This is the image that he explores in the first section of his poem entitled 'Vultures'. A miserable scene is set with grey weather, and Achebe uses alliteration in the phrase 'drizzle of one despondent dawn' to emphasise the depressing atmosphere. There is no sign of sun at the start of the day, as the phrase 'unstirred by harbingers of sunbreak' tells us (harbinger meaning a sign or announcer).
A pair of vultures are sitting together on the branch of a tree. Achebe uses both alliteration and metaphor in describing the branch as a 'broken bone', and the tree is dead. This reinforces the bleakness of the scene and reminds us that vultures are in the habit of feeding on dead creatures. The first suggestion of gentleness comes when Achebe tells us that the male vulture is 'nestled close to his mate', conveying the feeling that they are fond of each other's company. The description of the male vulture, however, is hardly flattering: 'his smooth / bashed-in head, a pebble / on a stem rooted in / a dump of gross / feathers'. The metaphor of the pebble is appropriate, as the vulture's head is indeed small in comparison to its body, and the adjectives 'dump' and 'gross' emphasise how ugly the bird is. Yet his head is 'inclined affectionately to hers', so the attraction between the pair of vultures is clear to see.
In the next few lines Achebe gives an extremely distasteful description of how the vultures had, the day before, fed on a dead animal. The phrases 'picked the eyes' and 'swollen corpse' are nothing if not disgusting, and Achebe goes on to relate that the birds ate the contents of the animals intestines too. They had then had their fill, or were 'full gorged' as the poet tells us, and settled on a branch. What remained of the corpse is described as a 'hollow remnant' which the vultures observed with 'cold telescopic eyes'. There is no inkling here, at the end of the first section, of any gentleness at all.
In the second section of 'Vultures', Achebe comments on the nature of the love, using personification. He begins with a single word, 'Strange', that attracts attention, appearing on its own in line 22. What Achebe finds strange is that love is usually 'so particular', fussy about appearances perhaps, but in this case exists in a 'charnel house', a building where bodies or bones are stored. This idea marks a shift in the poem's focus, away from the vultures. Achebe observes that love can be found in such a place, where she would tidy a little corner and 'perhaps even fall asleep' there. The second section ends, however, with the remark that if this happened, love's face would be 'turned to the wall', presumably to avoid the sight of skeletal remains.
In the third section of the poem, Achebe identifies the charnel house as Belsen Camp, which was a German concentration camp where many people were gassed during the Second World War. This section of the poem focusses on the Commandant of that camp as he leaves at the end of a day. Achebe's description of him initially stresses the thoroughly unpleasant side: 'with fumes of / human roast clinging / rebelliously to his hairy / nostrils'. The phrase 'human roast' seems particularly odious with its connotations of cooking, and the word 'rebelliously' suggests that the smell refuses go away even after the Commandant has left the camp.
In line 35, Achebe shows a different side to the Commandant, just as he demonstrated the affection between the pair of vultures. He describes how this seemingly repulsive man will stop at a sweet-shop on his way home to buy some chocolate for his children. The children are referred to as 'his tender offspring', and he is their 'Daddy'. Here, Achebe creates a feeling of a loving family; the children are probably blissfully unaware of what their father's work involves. They await his homecoming and he enjoys bringing them a treat at the end of the day.
In the fourth and final section of 'Vultures', Achebe presents us with two alternative conclusions to draw from the behaviour of the vultures and the Commandant. He suggests that we might 'Praise bounteous providence', and the fact that he includes the phrase 'if you will' perhaps infers that this is the alternative he would prefer us to choose. He is asking us to rejoice in the fact that an 'ogre' has 'a tiny glow-worm tenderness', using a metaphor to describe the element of love that lights up, like a glow worm, the Commandant's otherwise despicable life. This love is 'encapsulated / in icy caverns of a cruel / heart': Achebe uses metaphor once again, this time to convey how cold the Commandant's heart is.
The second alternative that Achebe presents us with is one of 'despair'; that we might choose to despair that within the tiny element of love or tenderness we find 'the perpetuity of evil'.
Even though we can see signs of affection and love, we fear that this might always be outweighed by cruelty, hatred or wrongdoing. 'Evil' is the final word of the poem, but Achebe is nevertheless giving us a choice. Do we look for the spark of goodness in a person no matter how repulsive their actions are, or do we overlook the tenderness and focus on the dark, evil side that appears to be dominant? Achebe has taken an example from the past in the Commandant of Belsen Camp, but in describing the habits of the vultures he shows that the existence of love and evil side by side is eternal.
The poem 'Vultures' is not divided into stanzas, but it is clear where one section ends and another begins through the use of ellipsis and the indentation of the first line line of the second, third and fourth stanzas. The poem is in free verse with lines of varying length that flow from one into the next. Although there are fifty-one lines in all, there are only six sentences. Achebe skilfully combines contrasting descriptions within one sentence to give a sense of love and evil existing together rather than separately.
'Vultures' is perhaps not the easiest poem to fathom on first reading, but it is worth taking the time to understand the examples and imagery that Achebe so skilfully presents here. It is up to each one of us to decide whether we wish to recognize and appreciate love or tenderness where it seems to be overshadowed by hatred, or whether we allow ourselves to be disheartened by the evil that finds its way inside every grain of love.