A Winter Sun: Writing Against Torture
Part II: Speaking Freely: Poetry, Torture, and Truth
December 2005–January 2006
"But I suggest, gentlemen, that the difficulty is not so much to escape death; the real difficulty is to escape from doing wrong, which is far more fleet of foot."
Plato, "The Apology," The Last Days of Socrates
Part II. Speaking Freely: Poetry, Torture, and Truth
If there is one thing that poetry and democracy share, it is an embrace of uncertainty. Both the art form and the political system thrive on questions born of knowledge, intuition, and reflection, in the Whitmanesque spirit of actively seeking the truth. The heart and soul of the Socratic imperative, they invite us to conjugate words and deeds, and to hold up the results of our inquiry to the sun's light. At times, as Emily Dickinson reminds us, such questions offer no definitive answers; instead, they foster a healthy skepticism or doubt.
Lad of Athens, faithful be
All the rest is Perjury—
Honestly interrogating our perceptions, assumptions, attitudes, and beliefs, we each explore the characteristics and inner voices that compose our multi-faceted personality, that community of self. By looking inward and by acquiring knowledge, we also better understand our relationship to the concentric communities that widen outward to constitute nations and the natural world.
In contrast, torture erupts out of a utilitarian or technocratic sense of efficiency. It provides the illusion of certainty favored by totalitarian regimes, typically yielding information less reliable than government propaganda. It also exposes as superficial the courage of leaders who rationalize its breach of human dignity as necessary for safeguarding people's lives and their freedoms, their democratic values and prosperity. It deceives those who practice it and dehumanizes all involved. We may be tempted to ask how such utilitarian modes, in which a nation justifies doing the least bad thing possible in response to a threat, can effectively preserve the integrity of a republic built upon the principle of freedom and justice for all. How would that be possible with few restraints or standards other than the behavior of dictators or terrorists, and when the doctrine of pre-emption is susceptible to endless escalation? Were it possible to completely secure any society against terrorism, how many of us would wish to live in such a society? And for how long should citizens gifted with living in a representative democracy allow their intelligence agencies to torture in their names?
For the same reason that obfuscations and lies lead to further obfuscations and lies, and just as new wars sprout from bloody battlefields strewn with flowers, it is foreseeable that lowering our standards of justice will do more to perpetuate our peril than minimize it. "Of all the great principles and ideals, having the grace of poetry, and with the dizzying power of its blinding light, justice stands alone," reminds the late playwright August Wilson, in his Seattle Times article "Assaults on Justice Undermine Constitution." Mr. Wilson argues that since justice is the very foundation upon which the house is built, without it the house falls down. Without justice, neither peace nor prosperity is possible. The founding fathers understood this when they established "justice as the moral rule of law."
In and of themselves, our fears are not the problem. Fear, like pain, is information. Fear and pain exist to be interpreted, to be followed to their sources, understood and dealt with in a sensible manner. The rub is in an individual's or a people's conduct related to terror and travail. When our response precipitates a moral surrender in words and actions, the subsequent diminishment or even destruction of that which we profess to cherish makes us an enemy of others and of ourselves. This happens on an individual and a collective basis, in a symbiotic way, as it did in the days that led to the declines of ancient Athens and the Roman Empire. Robinson Jeffers, a poet less admiring of humanity and politics than any other of his generation, observes in "Teheran" an age-old metamorphosis of the body politic.
How rapidly civilization coarsens and decays; its better
qualities, foresight, humaneness, disinterested
Respect for truth, die first; the worst will be last.
Our humanity and the freedom to create a more perfect union, as the founding fathers did, are ours to uphold, to lose, or to give away. It also is worth noting that unless we willingly relinquish those blessings, any state or organization who would attempt to rob us of them through terror, torture, or warfare can never possess what they seek to extract.
Many factors make a person and a nation a prisoner of fear, including the anger it engenders within. Is it not common to mistake anger for moral strength and righteousness, even as it insulates us from inadequately understood fears? The infamous Abu Ghraib photographs and videos, and the videotapes of military guards "horsing-around," are reminiscent of Dr. Philip Zimbardo 's experiments at Stanford University in the early 1970s. Dr. Zimbardo wanted to observe what would happen when people, who had no known history of abusive or violent behavior, were given complete power over others. He divided student volunteers into two groups, "guards" and "prisoners," in a mock but realistic prison environment. Dr. Zimbardo offered the guards a few guidelines but no formal training (which lack was cited as a cause of the Abu Ghraib scandal). The guards' treatment of their prisoners became so abusive and dangerous that Dr. Zimbardo was persuaded to end the experiment a week ahead of schedule. Today, many of the students who participated, particularly the guards, claim their lives were changed due to the self-knowledge gained under circumstances most will never have the misfortune to face. Dr. Zimbardo himself says that he "called off the experiment not because of the horror I saw out there in the prison yard, but because of the horror of realizing I could have easily traded places with the most brutal guard or become the weakest prisoner full of hatred at being so powerless."
The hatred generated in victims of calculated violence may be the single most important factor in torture's undistinguished record of eliciting reliable information. It and the self- hatred that inflicting the abuse incites in their torturers are symptomatic of a profound moral problem. Both hatreds issue from the twisted roots and illusory, primitive vines of fear that has successfully defied the person's attempts to assimilate or exhaust it. Terror is a psychological mechanism whose purpose is to exaggerate uncertainty and the negative consequences to a person or group. Terror confounds rationality by transmuting fear into some mythical perversion of man's best friend, a figure generated in our own imaginations. Fear becomes a kind of Cerberus that prevents us from arriving at a clear understanding of ourselves and thus from discerning reality. David L. Ulin, who has written eloquently about the fault line between reason and faith, comments in the Los Angeles Times: "Amid all the threats humans face, all the risks we bear, surely the most defeating are those we impose on ourselves. There is a high price to pay for allowing ourselves to live in terror, for taking every threat as prophecy. We lose sight of the moment, and fail to recognize things for what they are. In the process, we let our freedom…curdle into fear."
When our hearts and minds warp in the process, we are more readily taken in by well-crafted lies. Necessity—"the argument of tyrants" and "the creed of slaves," as William Pitt described the term two centuries ago—is "the plea for every infringement of human freedom." A paternalistic regime's skillful use of rhetoric and propaganda is often disturbingly successful at manipulating fear and confounding genuine patriotism and loyalty. It also can conceal what economists term "inclusive costs" that will be paid in democratic values developed over generations, and tested and protected on the battlefield. In "Found in the Free Library," Eleanor Wilner inventories some of the losses incurred in George W. Bush 's "war on terror."
For when they saw we were afraid,
how knowingly they played on every fear—
so conned, we scarcely saw their scorn,
hardly noticed as they took our funds, our rights,
and tapped our phones, turned back our clocks,
and then, to quell dissent, they sent
(but here the document is torn)
Benito Mussolini and Mao Zedong, like other past and present national leaders with perhaps more modest totalitarian proclivities, favored such an approach to governing. Mussolini created a fascist program largely through his adept manipulation of language, and enjoyed pointing out that people do not really need to be informed of their government's machinations or actions. He preached that it was imperative only that "the crowd" believe. "If…we can give them faith that mountains can be moved, they will accept the illusion that mountains are movable, and thus an illusion may become reality." Mao harnessed hearts and minds through the use of ever-changing political slogans that everyone was required to repeat again and again, and which sometimes changed by the week. Painted posters of happy peasants, confident factory workers, bright-eyed students, courageous and sometimes wounded soldiers, or of a friendly, ruddy-cheeked Chairman Mao, inundated people's consciousnesses. Particularly in periods permeated by mass hysteria or fear, as during the Cultural Revolution, images and slogans provided the populace with linguistic weapons or surgical tools—the former for use against coworkers, family, and friends, the latter for use on themselves. The objective was always to substitute belief for knowledge and emotion for thought.
Parroting " America, love it or leave it!" or accusing dissenting citizens of hating America encourages a similarly false, self-obsessed patriotism. Despite the hundreds of thousands of American soldiers and civilians alone who have given their lives for the individual's right, his obligation, to question government's actions and speak honestly, pseudo-patriots remain tolerant only of acquiescence or silence. This is particularly true in wartime—as the tortured gag and scream, as the blood flows and communities burn. It may be that their sad isolation, possibly imposed by abstracted fears, blinds them to the traditional roles of patriotism and loyalty in a liberal democracy. In such a democracy, the mutual goal of upholding the founding principles of truth and justice creates a sense of community that accommodates wildly divergent world views. This is the case even when sincere voices stand apart from others of their own political or ideological persuasion to hold an ally accountable. When the steadfastly leftist Kenneth Rexroth, in his poem "Thou Shalt Not Kill," asks, "How many died of prefrontal / Lobotomies in the Communist Party," he is being a patriot. When the traditionally conservative columnist George F. Will suggests that House Republicans' symbol—"the dignified elephant"—be replaced by "the stegosaurus," with "its walnut-size brain," he is putting his allegiance to democratic principles ahead of any ideological or partisan considerations. Mr. Will goes on to observe that, in Washington, D.C., concerns for survival are often "confused with and substitute for moral epiphanies."
True democratic community is always a casualty of governance by propaganda and lies. Language is hammered into an isolating wedge and emptied of its power to bind and bring together, to create a heterogeneous whole. Such misuse of public language encourages us to live as victims, to remain in the safely agreeable corners of our victimhood, replete with the "moral authority" it seems to confer. But living in those "safe" corners pacifies the visionary and moral character of the imagination, which in turn exacerbates the natural human inclination to abstract one's own words and actions from their real-world consequences for and upon others. As we live in denial of the consequences of our government's actions in Iraq, particularly in regard to torture—the grief, suffering, and hatred, the loss of humanity and dignity, and the deaths of so many—what precisely is it we fail to imagine? Alternative courses of action, ones that might have been more successful overall? Our squandered feelings of national unity and global goodwill, after having received the compassion much of the world extended to the United States immediately after 9/11? Is that failure of the imagination indicative of the failure of our courage as a society to refuse to be manipulated and divided by our leaders' isolating rhetoric and actions? In times of war, should we not imagine all the more?
When our government accuses editors, journalists, and bloggers of being unpatriotic for posting photographs of soldiers' coffins, tortured detainees, or tiny villages decimated by missiles launched from unmanned Predators, it is arguing that the media's job is not only to disseminate but also to reinforce the abstractions it perpetuates via propaganda and silence. When uneasy citizens exercise their freedom of speech to argue that the media ought not to question or controvert the administration's line, they are demanding that American media follow policies akin to the People's Daily and the now defunct Pravda. National boundaries then become a kind of reflecting lens in which the viewer perceives himself as larger and other societies as more distant spiritually, morally, and diplomatically than they really are. Presumably it is enough for a democratic people to read about the sanitized mayhem, the miniaturized and simplified consequences, in a few lines of black-and-white newsprint.
Considering that few of us will ever be publicly recognized as heroes, it is curious that so many are willing to sacrifice their constitutionally and legally enshrined freedoms and rights for murky assurances of greater protection from terrorists. Few people want to hear of the innocent people killed, and far fewer willingly become a terrorist's or an occupier's collateral damage themselves. And who would argue that a nation should not take reasonable steps to protect its people from those who would kill the innocent and, for whatever reason, have little compunction about dying themselves? But the administration's cynical politicization of "homeland security"—invoking it so as to justify torture, in flagrant disregard of the Geneva Conventions and under the pretense that torture is legal—has turned the commonsense concept of security into a political commodity.
When we fall back on the solipsistic argument that the world is so different today and willingly trade away our rights, the pact we make raises the specter that more of us than we might have imagined will inadvertently wind up as self-sacrificing heroes or martyrs in the "war on terror." Such a pact requires that we accept the increased risk that we ourselves, particularly if we are dark-skinned or practice Islam, will be among those who will lose their privacy, hear the cell door clang shut, be tortured or killed. History demonstrates that, by nature, slopes are slippery. Gravity often takes the form of a bloated appetite for power or the willingness to be an enemy of one's own citizenry. But, as a people largely inexperienced in the loss of freedoms and rights, we are more likely to rationalize away the possibility that we will be drawn down that slope—in the same way that we rationalize the odds against dying in a car wreck when driving too fast and talking on a cell phone.
Even as we acknowledge the inadequacy of language to describe torture—or, for that matter, love—language remains our best tool for sharing with one another the complexity that underlies reality. For millennia, poetry has risen to the challenge of illuminating the nexus of political violence and the individual—which manifests in the person who gives the order, in the torturer, in the tortured, and in the most distant bystander whose votes, taxes, and silence have enabled the conditions for the abuse. The poem that witnesses and explores torture, like any poem endowed with sincerity and honesty, is a message from Eros interpreting and conveying a reality never directly experienced by most of us. Nearly everyone has known love, however, and so it is interesting that the young Russian poet, translator, and mother, Irena Starodubtseva, charts how the experience of love and its absence can help us to understand torture from which we are physically distant.
Love…what is it?
Some sort of mental illness?
That bothers you, that clings to you with claws…
So sharp and tender…blood so sweet and bitter…
Runs all along your ragged and tortured soul
Depression grows day by day the deepest…
State of it—you are transparent like a ghost…
Reality is dark…and day light can reveal…
Your nothingness, futility and weakness…
Without one for whom you really feel…
Even a distant relationship to torture changes us, who live in the shadow of consequences and events that will eventually be reincarnated as the future.
Brutality, whether the terrorist's or the torturer's, is like an underground vine that breaks through the soil in unexpected places. When it sprouts within "us," we often disavow or otherwise fail to identify its true source. At times even the most honest among us find it difficult to remain sufficiently steadfast to discover the elusive truth within themselves, in that place where war and torture begin. We all want to believe in ourselves, in our goodness, in our chosen leaders and in our emperors alike; we all want to be right. What's more, we find it unthinkable that our leaders would send our sons and daughters, husbands and wives, to die in an unnecessary, illegal war. Perhaps that is why it can be tricky to recognize leaders who perpetuate brutality for who and what they are, and to be skeptical of claims to moral authority and shifting rationales for torture and invasion. After all, a respectful Socrates was condemned for asking what it is that brutality could represent. What could it be other than a bloated desire to preserve oneself, one's own power, an illusion of the historical moment and a facade of competence and wisdom indistinguishable from the true self?
In his poem "Ogres," W.S. Merwin confronts the same problem that Hannah Arendt famously described as the "word-and-thought-defying banality of evil." Mr. Merwin looks inside himself for conditions that lead to war and torture.
and then I
think of the frauds in office
at this instant devising
their massacres in my name
what part of me could they have
come from were they made of my
loathing itself and dredged from
the bitter depths of my shame
Torture becomes a part of the character and the legacy of any country that employs it as policy, just as a nation's poetry represents and bears witness to that culture's collective imagination, to its character and bearing in the world. As surely as torture and excessive secrecy align our elected leaders with the dictatorial class, as surely as torture and its denigrated language negate the historical lessons upon which democracies are built, poetry indubitably provides an antidotal, binding force. It perpetuates among people and cultures, far and near, common understanding and exchange. Across the globe, torture is increasingly viewed as a bankrupt proposition, its denomination based more on self-deceit than on self-preservation or justice. On the other hand, poetry crosses national boundaries to pose honest questions that encourage the humanistic impulse to live moral and ethical lives, to retain authority over our own perceptions and keep our dignity.
Truth, in the written arts, is based on recognition. What makes poetry true is not the words in themselves, but how the poem constellates experience and matter in sequences of images, intuitions, thoughts, narrative, argument, texture and sound—myriad relationships made corporeal in language and its musical rests. The poem coheres as an experience unto itself, emerging to its own organic rhythms and chords. As such, it is remembered in the body and the mind. It defies paraphrase, as do torture and love. Denis Brutus, who was imprisoned and tortured in South Africa, evokes this property of poetry in lines contrasting love and death.
Your face gleams up
Beneath me in the dusk
A wounded dove
Beneath the knife of love.
Whether a poem is ecclesiastical to a lover or an injustice, whether it renders a fleeting paradise or exquisite bodily pain or the nature of the everyday street, its composition is a political act and an act of redemption. Poetry removes the veil from our faces to reveal the mystery of our nakedness; it tears down the light blue curtain that once concealed the sublime horror of Picasso 's Guernica in the United Nations. It stands against ideological propaganda and its proofs of necessity, the abstraction of consequences and a false certainty. When poetry is vital and engaged—that is, when the poet composes from that broken whisper rising from the depths—it nourishes our moral and visionary imaginations. It composes an open doorway, a calligraphic emptiness that invites us to participate in spatial and aural perceptions of the life around us. Even if we are physically distant, we recognize the life that becomes the poem, a life we are a part of, and we gain intellectual and emotional insight. In that way, poetry never abandons us to the darkness or to the fear that accompanies the sometimes risky decision to unleash language in a responsible way—clearly, consciously, honestly.
The poet composes by inquiry; the citizen of a representative democracy fulfills his duty in a similar way. We the People are the keepers of our language, of its rich, varied, and living expression. The poet's role is to keep public language healthy and vibrant, a natural articulation of what it is to be in intimate relation to the human and natural world. The very antithesis of the apologist for torture or of the torturer himself, whose abuses of language serve as justifications for violence, the poet can ill afford to flee or turn away. He or she cannot afford to abdicate an artist's hard-earned sense of proportion in an era of hyperbolic plaint.
The Kurdish poet Dilshad Abdullah documents the fear of imprisonment, torture, and execution that he and millions of others experienced on a daily basis under Saddam Hussein.
The war has begun
My belongings I'll put in a suitcase,
Put a heavy lock on my door,
And take off one early morning
On a journey of death
Forever turning my back on war.
It is not discomfort or death that Mr. Abdullah aims to escape, but instead the senselessness and brutality of war. In a desperate place, he seeks to keep his humanity, to do to others no harm, no wrong. Presumably Mr. Abdullah could have availed himself of Saddam's generosity toward poets who wrote in praise of the Iraqi military and its campaigns against Iran and Kuwait, to say nothing of Saddam's "beneficent" rule. But then he would have aligned himself with a tyrant, betrayed his own people and implicitly turned his back on such poets as Fawzi Karim, a fiercely independent and, by disposition, nonpolitical Iraqi Shiite. Mr. Karim let his negative opinions of Baathist censorship and other lack of liberties be known in cafés and other public places. Forbidden to publish as one consequence, he wrote a book of essays on the need for political freedom and eventually fled into exile, knowing that prison and torture awaited him.
Each sail not counted as yours, oh policeman of the border,
Sailing not in useless search for The Meaning
But fleeing from all those black meanings,
Know that it is mine.
In a more recent poem, Mr. Karim writes with an exile's longing and sense of belonging still to the people he left behind. He speaks of the Karkh neighborhood of Baghdad where he grew up, and particularly of friends who refused to cooperate with Saddam's regime and died too soon.
And I cloister myself in my past,
in an alley at the Karkh of the dead.
Shall I enter it,
vanish into it, and dwell there in every house?
The novelist Elena Lappin, writing in Slate, quotes Mr. Karim commenting on the changing conditions of poets and writers in post-Saddam Iraq: "We should now learn to treat political ideologies not as secular religion to be subscribed to blindly and used as weapons, but as interesting books; we should study them, and then put them back on the shelf, where they belong. For this, we will need a lot of time, and patience. But I am an Iraqi poet: my time is like water."
For many Chinese poets and writers of the second half of the twentieth century, extreme fear was ubiquitous, and imprisonment and torture were the norm. The novelist Ba Jin, who died in October 2005 at age 100, was formerly a staunch anarchist who, after his early rejection of the Communist Party, inspired a generation of youth to join the revolution. He publicly renounced his earlier beliefs and accepted the Chinese Communist Party's program of remolding writers and intellectuals with the aim of purging them of corrupt, bourgeois influences. He then bowed to the pressure to denounce popular leftist writers whose impact Mao wanted to neutralize or reverse, and he became an ideological voice in support of The Great Helmsman. When Mao turned on him during the Cultural Revolution, however, Ba Jin's wife was severely beaten by Red Guards that ransacked their home; he was "struggled" against for two hours on live television and labeled an enemy of the dictatorship. Resuming his writing after the Cultural Revolution, he spent much of the 1980s coming to terms with the pain and guilt he felt over betraying his principles and beliefs. Having been deceived and himself having deceived, having been a victim of cruelty and having himself been cruel, Ba Jin concluded that the only salvation available to a writer is honesty. "When I say speak the truth, I don't mean an absolute truth or correct words," he wrote in 1982. "What you think is what you say—that's speaking the truth." Ba Jin 's epiphany was supported by the Chinese writer and intellectual Liu Binyan, who at 80 died two months after Ba Jin. Liu Binyan, stranded in the United States when Chinese authorities barred his return after the pro-democracy uprising in Tiananmen Square in 1989, wrote in his memoirs that there "are two kinds of loyalties in this world. One is exposed to risks, while the other is safe."
The deleterious effects of living with fear and violence on a daily basis should not be underestimated, whether in a totalitarian state or in a representative democracy where fear of terrorism is manipulated for political gain. To differing degrees, a person's sense of reality slips its moorings, and commonsensical questions upon which democratic societies thrive become, in any language, the desaparecidos of public discourse. Repression and silence attack society's collective ability to think clearly. In "Don't Sleep, Take Notes," the Polish poet Piotr Sommer describes the disorienting nature of daily fear in lines that balance between humor and horror.
At four in the morning
the milkwoman was knocking
in plain clothes, threatening
she wouldn't leave us anything,
at most remove the empties,
if I didn't produce the receipt.
It was somewhere in my jacket,
but in any case I knew
what the outcome would be:
she'd take away yesterday's curds,
she'd take the cheese and eggs,
she'd take our flat away,
she'd take away the child.
If I don't produce the receipt,
if I don't find the receipt,
the milkwoman will cut our throats.
Writing a poem clandestinely in a climate of repression or, as in Mr. Sommer 's case, during a movement toward political and economic reform, can be a daunting task. Many poets feel a strong sense of responsibility and often question their role in speaking not only for themselves, but also for those who were severely wounded or died in war or from torture. Chilean Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda, in exile, and the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, a revolutionary hero imprisoned and tortured, come readily to mind. Such poets seek to honor the lost and the diminished by building for them houses of sound and sense that will withstand the attacks of reactionary politicos and leaders, politically pliant critics, and frightened citizens alike. Czeslaw Milosz, in The Witness of Poetry, relates the story of fellow Polish poet Anna Swir's (or Swirszczynska's) struggle to reconstruct the terrible violence wreaked by the Soviet Red Army on the people of Warsaw during the 1944 uprising. Ms. Swir, a military nurse, destroyed her own manuscripts when her first attempts proved "too wordy, too pathetic" to convey the physical and emotional reality. Thirty years later, in Building the Barricade, the poet developed an organically appropriate style in which to speak the unspeakable. The effect of those brief, simply stated poems might best be described by Mr. Milosz 's comment on poetic innovation: "In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot."
Poetry composes a new voice by which we can speak our truths. With this power, it preserves the mental and emotional integrity of those subject to degradation and physical abuse, and it also assists the healing processes of those struggling with unshakable memories and other aftereffects of torture. In Tucson, Arizona, poet Nancy Mairs has worked extensively with Owl and Panther, one of many organizations that use poetry as a tool to assist torture victims. Ms. Mairs acknowledges the divide between "they" who have experienced torture and"we" who have not.
Words scour and stitch and soothe them and us.
Words become spears of light piercing all our shadows.
The ones who have come to us must live with their wounds forever,
but no longer only with their wounds.
They write themselves into life.
We can offer compassion and assistance, but only the victims can purge themselves of absolute certitude in their victimhood and reclaim their dignity, their richness and fullness as human beings.
Poets who have themselves endured torture describe the hours spent composing poems in their cells as having provided a feeling of control, even as they struggled to overcome the tyranny of the literal experience of their suffering. In August of 1974, Muriel Dockendorff Navarrete was a 23-year old poet, lyricist, and economics student when she was arrested by the DINA in Santiago, Chile, for her organizing activities. Her husband of one year and her family never saw her again. She wrote this poem on the inside of a package of cigarettes, for " Sandra," a fellow torture-center detainee.
I remember when I met you in the house of terror, of what you gave me and surrendered to me.
In those moments in which the light was a dream or a miracle. However, you were the light amongst the darkness.
We were as one in our misfortune. Today, after thousands of
misfortunes more, I can see you, as I did then, always looking forward.
We will see each other again through the fog that we will disperse.
Do not forget me comrade.
Many who have experienced torture state their aim as having been to defeat the helplessness of being victimized by beings devoid of mercy. Former torturers have testified to feeling somewhat helpless themselves, without any real choice—pouring water, flipping switches, or turning screws to the screams of their victims. The tortured, and at least some of their torturers, try to preserve an internal space where senses of volition and dignity remain intact. Such is the testament of another Chilean poet, María Eugenia Bravo Calderara, whose book Prayer in the National Stadium includes a poem of sympathy for one of her guards.
Poetry does not lend itself to romantic or hubristic expectations of cause and effect. Writing with the objective of inspiring love or change, humanizing a justice system or tenderizing a tyrant, stopping torture or ending war, noble intentions all, is a naiveté usually disabused by experience. All that poets can legitimately and effectively intend is to bear witness. The poem itself confounds intention, and, in collusion with unpredictable, meteoric forces and musical time, reaches people far and wide to sometimes make things happen. While neither poetry nor the law, for that matter, are likely to end torture, poetry counters the inhumanity of torture—the calculated but more often haphazard use of physical violence to inflict pain, accompanied by violent language meant to terrorize and shame. Poetry articulates the honest and sincere findings of one whose daily practice opposes the deceit of propaganda in the pursuit of ever-elusive truth.
Poetry is a source of hope, even as we, at the advent of the 21st century, are witness to so much unnecessary pain. In the words of another Chilean poet, Raúl Zurita, who survived political repression and interrogation, the emotional pain is sometimes so great that "all history seems to fail, and with it all the great models for making poetry, art, literature." Even so, after one interrogator threw a suitcase full of the young Zurita's poems into the ocean, the poet went on to create an impressive body of work. His is the poetry of one who, for many years, navigated hostile waters; it is complex, nuanced, enigmatic, and at times self-effacing. It is the work of one who avoided dying but never compromised his essential truth. Even in the worst of times, poetry helps us to assimilate fear and to supplant it with intuitive, emotional, and reasoned understanding, even as the objective source of the fear persists. With poetry, we can learn how not to give up when confronting what is monstrous within human beings.
Our exile is distant and deep as a river.
But we will never drown,
believing that everything will in the end turn out well…
Iraqi-born poet and exile Fadhil Al-Azzawi has also done his best to live humanly amid grief and pain, as this fragment from his "On Half-Deserted Streets with Prufrock" demonstrates. He, too, has never stopped writing.
If we are to successfully fight terror and other forms of violence, we cannot rely on habitual patterns of torture and warfare. Instead, we must solve far more problems than we create. To solve problems, we must be willing to imagine and to be the change we wish to see. If we emerge as a stronger nation, with an ever more vibrant and exciting culture, it will be because we will make the conscious choice to keep our humanity. It will be because we embrace some measure of uncertainty and adhere to the principles of courage and imagination that kept alive the promises of the Magna Carta and made a nationwide Bill of Rights an American reality.
This brief poem, "New Year Manifesto," celebrates that visionary spirit of renewal.
Here, and hear, words unite,
as the sun's lance comes to rest
on the precise spot, verbally. Though
it's a winter sun, with commitment and love
change will come…and the seasons
will once again speak freely.
Poetry can help us to see, hear, and act out of knowledge of ourselves and humanity. Humility will come naturally then, and we will be better prepared to participate in the light.