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Poetry in a time of terror

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WAR IN GAZA: The stuff that poems are made on.
WAR IN GAZA: The stuff that poems are made on.

KEKI DARUWALLA

Poetry has more than a significant role in the reconciliation of inner worlds with the complexities of the outer.

Without hangman and scaffold
A poet cannot exist in the world
Anna Akhmatova

How does poetry react to something terrible? To Sabra or Shatila, those refugee camps in West Beirut where the Palestinians were mowed down by the right wing Phalangists (the Qataib) in September 1982, or Ghaza today, or our own horrendous 26/11in Mumbai?

Does poetry take to breast beating, a cadenced ululation? Shouldn’t that be left to professional mourners, the type portrayed in Mahasweta’s “Rudaoli”? Should poetry resort to downright condemnation of the act? That’s what editors do, don’t they? Politicians too are not bad at it. We once had a Home Minister who hardly did anything else. Or we could have poetry extolling the heroism of the victims— martyrology… Pakistan and Middle East are good at that sort of thing. But shouldn’t this be left to citation-writers for gallantry medals? Then what are poets left with?

Does one take sides? Can one just lash out at Israel today? Or attack Hamas? I read in a paper that a Hamas terrorist instead of coming out in the open, stayed holed up in his room with his ten children and four wives till an Israelis bomb hit the room killing them all. The talk of four wives makes me ever so suspicious. Surely it’s no job of the poet to take sides. And yet what would poetry be without it?

Fiction, theatre and films score over the muse, while depicting terror or horror. (Dante’s “Inferno” is an exception.). Fiction can portray a family, children living happily, a wedding in the offing —and then suddenly comes this catastrophe. Cinema makes this more vivid as Mani Ratnam’s Bombay did or Schindler’s List. A documentary could steal the show and bring out all the horror. We saw that on 26th November onwards on the TV, except that it was too long drawn and some TV personalities couldn’t help walking down the terror ramp.

Defiance and courage

Personal poetry and political poetry stand at opposite ends of the spectrum. Some critics don’t consider political verse as poetry at all. During the flower power days it was rock singers, and the likes of Bob Dylan who wrote and sang songs which could be described as political. Poetry comes out better when dealing with state terror. Boris Pasternak wrote of the Bolshevik and Stalinist terror. So did Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova. Paul Celan wrote of gas chambers in a most original but affecting way. The styles differed. They depicted atrocities and more so the atmosphere of terror. Poetry has often responded with defiance and great courage.

One reaction is of pure lament, for instance Anna Akhmatova’s poem ‘Voronezh’ (1936). “But in the room of the poet in disgrace,/Fear and the muse keep watch by turns./And the night comes on/That knows no dawn.”

This was obviously written on Osip Mandelstam, who was exiled in Voronezh, and disappeared two years later. A few days after the execution of her husband, Gumilyov, she writes

Terror, fingering things in the dark,

Leads the moonbeam to an axe.

Why do we have to go to Russia for all this? Agha Shahid Ali is both subtle and strident in his book The Country Without A Post Office. “They make a desolation and call it peace,” he says, obviously referring to the Indian security forces. “Army convoys all night like desert caravans.” Talking of an interrogation he writes “Drippings from a suspended burning tire/ are falling on the back of a prisoner,/ the naked boy screaming, “I know nothing.”

Shahid Ali has love poems to Begum Akhtar, his mother, the Kashmir landscape. Poetry can’t be reduced to eternal railing against a regime or an ideology. The staple of poetry, as we know it today, deals with a poet’s inner life and how his soul deals with a complex world bearing down upon him. It will deal with his dreams, aspirations, and anxieties as they grapple with external reality. If that reality becomes even harsher because of bullet, bomb and shrapnel then we are talking of poetry in a time of terror.

Most such poems are a response against the metal-hard frost of state oppression. We have moved from lament to passages mapping the landscape of terror. There is a declaratory dimension to such poetry also, the defiant challenge, as we see in some Arab poetry today.

Take Mahmoud Darwish. I was with him in Struga in 2007. He died last year. He was once a member of the Israel Communist Party, then the PLO Executive Committee. The titles of some of his thirty books tell their own story—Diary of the Palestinian Wounds, (1969), Writing in the Shadow of the Gun (1970), Birds are Dying in Galilee. Though he can be both lyrical and subtle, it is the declaratory act that strikes the eye. Take his poem “Identity Card”1964)

Record

I am an Arab

And my identity card is number fifty thousand

I have eight children

And the ninth is coming after a summer

Will you be angry?

Record

I am an Arab

You have stolen the orchards of my ancestors

And the land which I cultivated

Along with my children

And you left nothing for us

Except for these rocks

The poem ends with the lines “ Beware/ Of my hunger/ And my anger.

Another dimension to such poetry is the defense of the terrorist. Buland al-Haidari, an Iraqi Kurd who lived in Lebanese exile because of his fear of Saddam Hussein, has the following lines in his poem “The Dead Witness.”

Who killed the last commando?

I know who

I know who blinded him and who

Cut his hands and who

Your Highness, shattered

His great dream

I know who

Because I looked after that child for years…

Before he lay in ambush at the bend of the road…

Before this young man

Became

A bleeding wound,

The blood of vengeance on the knife

We have come full circle, from lament to accusatory verse, to despair, to declaratory poetry and defiance, to lastly defending the so called ‘commando’. It’s a fairly long journey.


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