A poem can be an act of attention, a distillation of language, a private prayer, or a pair of glasses to help see the world anew. When the noise of our “getting and spending” culture fell silent last spring, poetry came out of the clear blue skies – like bird song, both necessary and vital. People joined poetry sharing circles; attendance at on-line poetry events grew.
More than ever, poetry is the “news that stays new.” It can pierce through the untruths and distractions that muddle our current era. This column will be a place to bring poems to the attention of the reader of Society Today. To borrow a phrase of James Ragan’s, there will be “world-shouldering” voices along with those hidden in the corners that are worthy of attention, starting with the global local of the poets of Exiled Writers Ink.
Exiled Writers Ink is a London-based literary and activist organisation that supports the work of refugee and asylum-seeking writers. It often campaigns for those persecuted for their writing, because poetry can also be a threat to authoritarian regimes. How can a butterfly bother a rhino? Somehow those in power know poems can be dangerous. They can emerge out of dark times and survive long after the current Ozymandias has fallen into the sand.
EWI celebrates poetry as an act of resistance, and even titled its twentieth anniversary anthology with Palewell Press Resistance. Each chapter represents a different year in its history and aspect of its work: from 2002’s collection of poems from Afghanistan to 2014’s focus on European refugee camps.
As Dr. Jennifer Langer, the Founder and Director of Exiled Writers Ink put it in her Introduction: “To be an exiled writer is to use writing as a tool to speak out against continuing injustice and abuse in the country of origin.”
Resistance contains poems from those starting out – like a collective of young women from Afghanistan living in Athens who write under the name of the “Moria Girls” – to writers who are multiply published and award-winning in their own languages. Two of them illustrate the way the seventy- six writers who contributed have not been crushed by the rhino but continue to send their butterflies to readers.
Mehrangiz Rassapour is a renowned poet who writes in the Persian classical tradition. She has published four collections in her native language and has been translated into many others. While living in the UK, she has continued to publish the literary magazine Vajeh (Word) in Farsi. Rassapour’s work often speaks in a prophetic voice, full of wrath at human failings yet often enjoining the reader to fly into the cosmos, like a modern feminist Rumi.
Her poem, The Ten-Year Old Bride speaks as much to the practice of forced marriages of children in Iran as it does to continued violence against women around the world:
The Ten-Year-Old Bride
Forced into her starry dress
It was as if they had shaken the night
And her murky tears
Suppurating from fear’s sores
In a tribe with its mummified laughter
And quadruped hoff prints
On their sludge of imagination
The ten-year-old bride
drag drag her
to her husband’s stronghold
Do you want your doll?
Your doll died!
Fairy tale giants
Mounted an assault
Murdered your father
Abducted your mother
Devoured your playmates
And your doll?
But isn’t she the ludicrous lineage of her mother?
A long, wearisome chapter
An agonising likeness
taking refuge in inner turmoil
The bludgeon of inherited mores
on her head
The bludgeon of inherited fear and superstition
on her head
The bludgeon of inherited silence
on her head
Like the trembling throes of ancient marshes
Where should she sleep
To set her fearless dream free?
Her breath withering the flowers
It’s a nightmare!
It’s a nightmare!
The city turned upside down
Your father is an ogre
Your mother is a vampire
He is the demon of fairy tales!
And the dust
Engulfed her so that
No one could see
The wind blowing her
Amir Darwish is a poet and writer born in Aleppo of Kurdish origins who came to Britain as an asylum seeker in 2003. Since then he has published the poetry collections, Don’t Forget the Couscous and Dear Refugee with Smokestack press, and the memoir From Aleppo without Love. He holds advanced degrees in history, international relations and creative and life writing.
His poem is from the 2015 chapter on Syrian writers but it speaks to all who flee a country with the hope of transplanting themselves into a new body politic that often rejects them. In its very expression, the poem becomes an act of solidarity that transcends our false separations.
Where I Come From
From the earth I come
To the earth I come
From the heart of Africa
From the kidneys of Asia
From India with spices I come
From a deep Amazonian forest
From a Tibetan meadow I come
From an ivory land
From everywhere around me
From where there are trees, mountains, rivers and seas
From here, there, from everywhere
From the womb of the Mediterranean I come
From a mental scar
From closed borders
From a camp with a thousand tents
From shores with Alan the Kurd I come
From a bullet wound
From the face of a lone child
From a single mother’s sigh
From a cut in an inflatable boat about to sink
From a bottle of water for fifty to share
From frozen snot in a toddler’s nose
From a tear on a father’s cheek
From a hungry stomach
From graffiti that reads, ‘I was here once’
From another one on a tree that says ‘I love life’
From a missing limb
Like a human with everything I come to share the space.
The Resistance anthology is available on-line through Exiled Writers Ink and via Palewell Press, and all profits go to furthering the work of other refugee and immigrant writers.