It’s always been about words. Words that were fertile and fecund. Words that were Promethean. Words that were elegiac and resplendent. Words that were dispiriting, imitative, menacing, disconsolate. Words. Words. Words. Throughout humankind. Always. Always. Always.
And words are not cheap. They carry, sometimes, an outsize price for the bearer of the words. For some, the ones I think of today, the price is leviathan. As if they paid that monstrous price so that I would remember that words have value.
Irving Howe writing about Primo Levi, who was in Auschwitz, recalls an instance that Levi wrote of:
“Levi recalls a day when he and other prisoners were put to work scraping an underground gasoline tank. They worked in almost total darkness, and the work was very hard. Then from the same inner fold of memory, Levi began telling young French prisoners about Dante’s great poem, reciting the lines
Think of your breed, the brutish ignorance
Your mettle was not made; you were made men
To follow after knowledge and excellence.
Coming “like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God,” these lines flood the hearts of the prisoners, so that “for a moment I forget who I am and where I am” and the wretched might suppose they are still human beings.
Raif bin Muhammad Badawi, Saudi blogger, has been in prison with a sentence of 8-10 years and a thousand lashes, of which 50 have been administered for insulting Islam through electronic channels. Words.
Varavara Rao, Telugu poet, 82, who is currently imprisoned in India on a charge of inciting riots, has been arrested numerous times, 25 to date in the past 50 years. He wrote:
When the order is amiss
And billowing pitch-clouds of time
Strangle the throat
Neither blood trickles
Nor tears drop
Lightening swirls into thunder,
Drizzles surge into deluge, and,
Absorbing mother’s tears of agony
Purl out from prison grills
Voice of the poet’s missive.
When the tongue pulsates,
Tone manumits the air, and
Song turns missile in battle
The foe fears the poet;
Incarcerates him, and
Tightens the noose around the neck
But, already, the poet in his notes
Breathes among the masses
Like a gravitating balance
Disseminates into earth
Challenges to death
And hoists the paltry
(Translated from Telegu. Source: Poetry International Archives)
(Photo credit: Author)
Chinese poet Wang Zang has been tortured and imprisoned for protesting in Hong Kong. Words.
Gauri Lankesh, an independent journalist, was gunned down on the porch of her house in India. Her crime? Words, of course.
“. . . [t]oday anybody talking in support of human rights and against fake encounters is branded a Maoist supporter. Along with that, my criticism of Hindutva politics and the caste system, which is part and parcel of what is considered ‘Hindu dharma’, makes my critics brand me as a ‘Hindu hater’. But I consider it my constitutional duty to continue – in my own little way – the struggle of Basavanna and Dr. Ambedkar towards establishing an egalitarian society.”
Virila Chirappad is a poet from Kerala, India, who writes in Malayalam. She’s a Dalit and her themes are of the double oppression of caste and gender that’s alive and virulent in many parts of India. Words
chandrika chechi of the Wasteland
about the homes one enters
only through the back door.
of the flats
where one enters
through the front door —
the ones with the porch light on.
returning daily from the marketplace
both the fish and she share
the same path —
the one through the back door.
entering through the very same route,
while hearing the television
blare the pledge aloud on August 15 —
all Indians are my brothers and sisters.
And from Pakistan, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, beloved on both sides of the border on the subcontinent, drew a death penalty for plotting a coup against a prime minister, was imprisoned and then the sentence commuted. His words are still sung and recited by activists in South Asia.
Only a few days, dear one, a few days more.
Under oppression’s shadows condemned to breathe,
Still for a time we must bear them, and tears, and endure
What our forefathers, not our own faults, bequeath:
Fettered limbs, each impulse held on a chain,
Minds in bondage, our words all watched and set down
Courage still nerves us, or how should we still exist,
Now with existence only a beggar’s gown,
Tattered, and patched every hour with new rags of pain?
Yes, but to tyranny not many hours are left now;
Patience a little, few hours of lamenting remain.
In this parched air of an age that desert sands choke
We must stay now — not forever and ever stay!
Under this load beyond words of a foreign yoke
We must submit for a while — not for ever submit!
Dust of affliction that clings to your beauty today,
Crosses unnumbered that mar our few mornings of youth,
Torment of silver nights, a pain with no cure,
Heartache unanswered, the body’s long cry of despair —
Only a few days, dear one, a few days more.
— Faiz Ahmad Faiz
(Trans. by Victor Kiernan)
Avijit Roy, Bangladeshi-American blogger who was hacked to death in Dhaka. An atheist and a rationalist his words were:
If one considers Qur’an as a scientific book then, they should be able to show us at least one scientific principle that is disclosed in the Qur’an without using any mumbo jumbo words and hocus pocus boring tricks of difficulty with confusing translation of the Qur’an… Moreover, if a perfect book written by a perfect God having intention to reveal a scientific idea, it should not have been so vague and metaphoric, but accurate and scientific enough that it can be put in a physics /chemistry/biology textbook without the need of any change. Not a single verse in the Holy Books contain even one scientific term, like atom, electron, cloning, theory of relativity, uncertainty principle etc.
Victor Jara, whose fingers were mutilated in the stadium in Santiago, Chile, in 1973 during the US-backed coup for writing songs.
Song is like the fire that washes the stones, the wind that cleans us, like the fire that joins us together and it lives within us to make us better people.
And Octavio Paz, a Nobel winner, who resigned as the Mexican ambassador to India, after the Mexican government fired on student activists in 1968. I remember it well.
Listen to me as one listens to the rain,
not attentive, not distracted,
light footsteps, thin drizzle,
water that is air, air that is time,
the day is still leaving,
the night has yet to arrive,
figurations of mist
at the turn of the corner,
figurations of time
at the bend in this pause,
listen to me as one listens to the rain,
without listening, hear what I say
with eyes open inward, asleep
with all five senses awake,
it's raining, light footsteps, a murmur of syllables,
air and water, words with no weight:
what we are and are,
the days and years, this moment,
weightless time and heavy sorrow,
listen to me as one listens to the rain,
wet asphalt is shining,
steam rises and walks away,
night unfolds and looks at me,
you are you and your body of steam,
you and your face of night,
you and your hair, unhurried lightning,
you cross the street and enter my forehead,
footsteps of water across my eyes,
listen to me as one listens to the rain.
Words. Audacious, brash, poignant, impertinent, reckless, spirited, spunky. Words.
And George Orwell “Why I Write”:
And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.
So, to me it’s not a surprise that on January 20th, 2021 at around the noon hour it was Amanda Gorman’s words that soared above the wretched past, embraced us all for six real minutes and for eternity.
The Hill We Climb
When day comes we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry,
a sea we must wade
We've braved the belly of the beast
We've learned that quiet isn't always peace
And the norms and notions
of what just is
Isn’t always just-ice
And yet the dawn is ours
before we knew it
Somehow we do it
Somehow we've weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn’t broken
but simply unfinished
We the successors of a country and a time
Where a skinny Black girl
descended from slaves and raised by a single mother
can dream of becoming president
only to find herself reciting for one
And yes we are far from polished
far from pristine
but that doesn’t mean we are
striving to form a union that is perfect
We are striving to forge a union with purpose
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and
conditions of man
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us
but what stands before us
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside
We lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms
to one another
We seek harm to none and harmony for all
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew
That even as we hurt, we hoped
That even as we tired, we tried
That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious
Not because we will never again know defeat
but because we will never again sow division
Scripture tells us to envision
that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
And no one shall make them afraid
If we’re to live up to our own time
Then victory won’t lie in the blade
But in all the bridges we’ve made
That is the promised glade
The hill we climb
If only we dare
It's because being American is more than a pride we inherit,
it’s the past we step into
and how we repair it
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation
rather than share it
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy
And this effort very nearly succeeded
But while democracy can be periodically delayed
it can never be permanently defeated
In this truth
in this faith we trust
For while we have our eyes on the future
history has its eyes on us
This is the era of just redemption
We feared at its inception
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs
of such a terrifying hour
but within it we found the power
to author a new chapter
To offer hope and laughter to ourselves
So while once we asked,
how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?
Now we assert
How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?
We will not march back to what was
but move to what shall be
A country that is bruised but whole,
benevolent but bold,
fierce and free
We will not be turned around
or interrupted by intimidation
because we know our inaction and inertia
will be the inheritance of the next generation
Our blunders become their burdens
But one thing is certain:
If we merge mercy with might,
and might with right,
then love becomes our legacy
and change our children’s birthright
So let us leave behind a country
better than the one we were left with
Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest,
we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one
We will rise from the gold-limbed hills of the west,
we will rise from the windswept northeast
where our forefathers first realized revolution
We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the midwestern states,
we will rise from the sunbaked south
We will rebuild, reconcile and recover
and every known nook of our nation and
every corner called our country,
our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,
battered and beautiful
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid
The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it