Poetry as Attention, Illumination and Acts of Resistance

Catherine Davidson

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

                                                over her

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

                        ten-year-old child

They drag

                        drag     drag her

to her husband’s stronghold

Do you want your doll?

                                    Your doll died!

Last night

Fairy tale giants

Mounted an assault

Murdered your father

Abducted your mother

Devoured your playmates

And your doll?

                        Crushed underfoot

                                                            died!

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

And maturity?

Like the trembling throes of ancient marshes

Where should she sleep

                                    To set her fearless dream        free?

She felt

Her breath withering the flowers

“I’m asleep

                        It’s a nightmare!

I’m asleep

            It’s a nightmare!

                                    Tomorrow…”

Tomorrow?!

Tomorrow’s dawn

                        pitch black

The city turned upside down

Your father is an ogre

Your mother is a vampire

Your husband?

                        He is the demon of fairy tales!

And the dust

Engulfed her so that

No one could see

The wind blowing her

                                    away

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 afar

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.