When you go to the Edinburgh College of Art near the Fire Station, you will enter a large hall that is dark, with limited, pale lighting. Once your eyes adjust to the darkness, you will see certain shapes – of erect nails standing firm, piercing through white sheets. You can imagine them as flags – white flags – but not of surrender, but of purity. There are words on those sheets. Words that survive.
Then there are microphones hanging from the ceiling. Mikes that are black. These mikes don’t let you speak: you can only listen, and what you listen isn’t the propaganda of a dictator, but the words of poets. Those same words, which are typed on those sheets, caught in a freeze-frame, as if fluttering. Words which have been pierced – someone powerful wants to obliterate them, but the words have survived, and passed along, in songs, in whispers, in silences.
There is light in the room, but only little. There is enough light to sense the shadows, the dim outline of figures walking around, like inmates in a cell, like prison wardens. But not enough to read. It is the light you see in that cell, where you are a prisoner without a name, in a cell without a number.
How loud is the noise when the doors are shut? It is loud. I think of Nelson Mandela’s cell in Robben Island. And those bare prison walls – Irina Ratushinskaya, who challenges Russian hegemony in Ukraine, wrote recently:
This century grows ever darker, and the next will not come soon; To wipe clean the names off yesterday’s prison wall.
There are many voices. Some voices are speaking over others. In Hindi and Chinese. Arabic and English. It is not the loud voices that you notice, but the whispers. When you can’t trust the written word, you believe the spoken word. Spoken words whispered in one’s ears. Those whispers are loud, the screams you can’t hear. The sounds follow you wherever you go.
The rest is silence.
The first political poem I remember well was Salaam, by Mangesh Padgaonkar, a noted Marathi poet who died in 2015. He wrote it as satire, challenging the timidity and docility of India’s intellectual class and middle class during the Emergency in 1975, when democratic rights were suspended.
Salaam Sabko salaam
This is the salute of fear, not awe, nor respect. That fear was real. Padgaonkar captured cowardice and lampooned it. It was a far cry from what Rabindranath Tagore once envisioned India to aspire towards:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free…
Into that heaven of freedom, my father,
let my country awake.
The end of the Cold War had created an illusion – that history, as we understood it, had ended, that we would now live in a world of unparalleled freedom.
We live in the post-truth world, where facts don’t matter. The world is turning binary, between us, and them. It is a very different world today. Rather than ushering in an era of freedom, we have reverted to an older form. Jailing poets was supposed to have gone out of fashion after the end of the Cold War. The sad reality is that it continues. Poets continue to be jailed – in Turkey, in Vietnam, in Saudi Arabia, in Iran, in Cameroon and in Kazakhstan. Old names are replaced by new ones. The phenomenal strength of Shilpa Gupta’s installation is to remind us that this is not new – that we have lived through silencing of poets for more than a thousand years.
These voices continue to rise, questioning assumptions, and challenging preconceived ideas, the way things are. It isn’t an easy journey. The idea remains, its standard-bearers change. And one day, the world may change. Recall Salman Rushdie in The Satanic Verses:
What kind of idea are you? Are you the kind that compromises, does deals, accommodates itself to society, aims to find a niche, to survive; or are you the cussed, bloody-minded ramrod-backed type of damnfool notion that would rather break than sway with the breeze? – the kind that will almost certainly, ninety-nine times out of hundred, be smashed to bits; but the hundredth time, will change the world.
New ideas must flourish, imagination must not get smothered. But new ideas can only arise out of an unfettered mind. New ideas help us connect strands of thoughts that might seem disparate, but which are nonetheless true. And that is the role poetry plays – as Robert Frost said, a poet has a lover’s quarrel with the world. The poet criticises what she sees because she loves what is being lost. Poetry is about truth, not facts – facts can be manipulated to serve the powerful, truth cannot. Poetry is about freedom, it is the truth staring back. It is about what cannot be valued in money or property.
Honouring Frost, President John Kennedy said: “When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence, when power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment. The artist becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state. The great artist is thus a solitary figure…if sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, make them aware that our nation falls short of its highest potential.”
We live in a time where the liberal imagination is under threat. There is an assault on our collective consciousness and memory. Truth is tying its shoe-laces, even as lies have already spread far and wide, because it wears imported sneakers and runs fast, like an idea on Twitter. And yet, poets – those canaries in our mines – continue to sing. They assert that in spite of the authoritarian forces at work, humanity survives. Milan Kundera said that the struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. Memory reminds us of what is being lost and it does not speak in absolutes.
Poets are constantly seeking to unravel the nuances, ambiguities and ironies, they look back in wonder. “Against the arrogance of power, wealth, and hierarchy, poetry proposes both humility and defiance,” Ashok Vajpeyi wrote recently. “Poetry offers an unannounced satyagraha against simplification, generalisation and totalisation…poetry is a form of dynamic resistance. Poetry vitalises, rejuvenates, strengthens and expands moral imagination and moral endurance. Poetry connects time and the timeless, history and eternity. Poetry is a republic of imagination – a site where humanity matters the most.”
Rabindranath Tagore said that even a small candle illumines the world: poetry does that at this twilight hour.
In Gupta’s work we see the words of Osip Mandelstam, who was taken away to the Gulag from where he would not return. Mandelstam had begun as a supporter of the Communist Revolution, but revolutions tend to be cruel to its thoughtful followers. Mandelstam was no exception.
But even as he was taken away to the Gulag during Stalinist purges, he clung to his beliefs stubbornly, yearning for his nation to be free. He wrote in 1935:
You took away all the oceans and all the room. You gave me my shoe-size with bars around it. Where did it get you? Nowhere. You left me my lips, and they shape my words, even in silence.
Indeed, they can imprison the body, not the mind. Nazim Hikmet, another great poet, from Turkey, who Gupta remembers, spent many years in prison, and wrote a poem, Third Class Car 510, a reference to a train which takes prisoners and their captors in a compartment, and the prisoners are shackled. Hikmet writes about the prisoner Halil:
The prisoners and guardsmen occupy the first section The sergeant hasn’t smiled once Though the mausers have ben laid on the racks, The handcuffs remain locked. The two sides are in different worlds. The prisoner Halil opens a book. He has mastered turning the pages with cuffed hands. This is his fifth trip In thirteen years With books and handcuffs. With lines under his eyes And white at his temples, Halil may look a bit older But his books, handcuffs, and heart haven’t aged. And now, his heart more hopeful than ever Halil sits reading his book And thinking of his handcuffs: Handcuffs, we’ll bear your steel into plowshares. And he finds this idea so well put That he’s sorry He doesn’t know the art of writing poetry.
After sometime, Halil closes his book and breathes on his glasses to clean them. He looks at the orchards and recalls the ferry of the Bosporus, the sight of Istanbul, the lights along the bay, the Topkapi palace, the streetcars and a yellow geranium that he had grown once in prison.
The poet in prison is lonely. He awaits letters. Angel Cuadra, the Cuban poet, was sentenced to a 15-year prison term. He wrote in 1979:
Your letter is the poem brought by the dawn.
But sunlight that poets like Cuadra sought, is fleeting, and as is the dawn, because, he continues:
But the letter is intercepted, by falcons, and night falls like a curtain everything goes back to being like it was in front of my cell nameless endless days go by.
From Cuba to China. Seeing her beloved husband, the Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo being taken away to jail, his wife, the poet Liu Xia wrote:
Every year on July 15 of the lunar calendar The river would be covered with water lanterns But they could not call back your soul…The train heading for the concentration camp Sobbingly ran over my body But I could not hold your hand…Prisoners live with that reality of absences, shadows, and darkness.
The Iranian poet Reza Baraheni, who was imprisoned by the Shah, wrote in 1973:
The night is like a day on the other side of the bars On this side the day is like the night.
But there is beauty in that night too. Look at Yannis Ritsos, the Greek poet who was jailed by the Junta in the 1960s, who wrote:
Tall eucalyptus with a broad moon. A star trembles on the water. The sky white, silver. Stones, flayed all the way up. Near the shallow water you could hear A fish jump twice, three times. Ecstatic, grand orphanhood – freedom.
Another imprisoned poet was Kim Chi Ha, who challenged Right-wing military dictators in South Korea. In prison he missed his freedom – more important, he missed his mother. He wrote:
You wild geese flying up in the sky, Do you know how I feel? Can you tell me whether my mother is standing on the new road near our shack Waiting for my return? Is she weeping soundlessly, looking in the direction of Seoul, wearing her out-of-season clothes? Wild geese, tell my mother I will return, I will return even if I am dead –
I will break out through the walls of this jail, I’ll leap over the fence Even if I have to sell my soul to the devil. I will return, mother, whatever happens, I will return.
At PEN, we forge solidarity with these poets and writers. We had success in 2015 when the Cameroonian poet Emoh Meyomesse was released. While he was in jail, the French writer Alain Mabanckou wrote a letter to him, which is illuminating because it shows that when a government jails a poet, it jails much more than an individual. Mabanckou wrote:
Well, you are not alone in this captivity, because when writers are thrown in prison, they are followed in their cells by an army of readers and the loud footsteps of their outraged colleagues. It is with this optimism in mind that I am writing this letter to you, to remind you that we will never cease to speak your name and to denounce, from every rooftop of the world, the injustice that befell you and the contempt shown by the justice system towards you. By imprisoning a writer, they are playing with fire: how could they build walls around our imagination, when they know it has a pair of giant wings and that it sings, in every season, its hymn to freedom? At a time when the world is opening up, your country remains on the sidelines because of its backward practices. Your appeals in court are postponed, as if your words, once delivered to the public, would undermine the foundations of your country’s regime. I believe it to be true, and those words are now in all of us. We are spreading your words to the four corners of the earth, to remind the enemies of free speech that an invisible and invincible army is on its way, using words to tear down every one of the barriers keeping mankind from progress. When a government jails a poet, it is not merely the poet that the government has sought to silence – it has also tied its own hands. Consider the story of my dear friend, Ma Thida, a Burmese writer who used to be Aung San Suu Kyi’s aide in 1988. When the government cracked down on demonstrators, she was among the first to be jailed. Her health deteriorated during her incarceration. The jailors thought they’d wear her down and make her succumb by getting her to confess after long interrogation sessions. But Thida had nerves of steel. The interrogators would be tired, and she would insist that they carry on questioning her. Exasperated, one officer told her: you are in prison but you are free; we are supposed to be free but we feel imprisoned.
The poet Ken Saro Wiwa, who was among nine Ogoni environmental and human rights activists executed in 1995 by the Nigerian military, wrote this powerful poem about what freedom is, and isn’t:
The True Prison
It is not the leaking roof Nor the singing mosquitoes In the damp, wretched cell It is not the clank of the key As the warden locks you in It is not the measly rations Unfit for beast or man Nor yet the emptiness of day Dipping into the blankness of night It is not It is not It is not
It is the lies that have been drummed into your ears for a generation It is the security agent running amok Executing callous calamitous orders In exchange for a wretched meal a day The magistrate writing into her book A punishment she knows is undeserved The moral decrepitude The mental ineptitude The meat of dictators Cowardice masking as obedience Lurking in our degenerated souls It is fear damping trousers That we dare not wash It is this It is this It is this Dear friend, turns our free world Into a dreary prison.
Governments find many reasons to jail poets. Aron Atabek has been jailed for wanting to write in his language:
My throat, unable to speak, will die For the sounds of my homeland. My ancestors’ patter will vanish Like water into sand. I am a storyteller of immortality In Semitic and Etruscan tongues; I am the dust of Turkic dialects Writing in Russian.
Take occupation: the Israeli Government has jailed Dareen Tatour, a Palestinian poet, because she calls for resistance and supports the intifadah. Israel however says she is inciting violence and supports terrorist organisations. Resist, my people, resist them, she says in a video available on YouTube, which shows her poem set to music against a backdrop of video images of Palestinian young men throwing stones at the Israeli army.
I interrogated my soul during moments of doubt and distraction: “What of your crime?”
The charge has worn my body, from my toes to the top of my head, for I am a poet in prison, a poet in the land of art. I am accused of words, my pen the instrument. Ink – blood of the heart – bears witness and reads the charges. Listen, my destiny, my life, to what the judge said: A poem stands accused, my poem morphs into a crime. In the land of freedom, the artist’s fate is prison.
Who imprisons poets? They act with impunity, but they face the relentless gaze of the world. The poet Caroline Forche defines what she does as the poetry of witness: “The poetry of witness reclaims the social from the political and in so doing defends the individual against illegitimate forms of coercion.” Here she is, recounting an encounter with a general in El Salvador in 1978:
WHAT YOU HAVE HEARD is true. I was in his house. His wife carried a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English. Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his hands to lace. On the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We had dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of bread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said. As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck themselves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.
Poets are those ears to the ground, the eyes that see even when blindfolded, the tongues that speak long after they have been lacerated, and the minds that can’t be caged. Poetry is the umbrella in Hong Kong, the cell phone in Cairo, the man in front of the tank in Tiananmen. Albert Camus comes to mind: “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”
Poets are murdered. They get killed. They die. Their words don’t.
To end, let me read a poem I wrote when Liu Xiaobo died.
How to erase a man
They were warned that if they buried him deep he would return in spring as a flower because he was a seed.
And they were worried that if they placed his ashes in an urn and attached it to a rocket and fired it in the sky and programmed the rocket to release the urn which would scatter the ashes in space then each particle of his ashes would become a star because he was a seed and parents would name their sons after those stars
So they lowered the urn into an ocean, hoping that fish would swallow the ashes and the ashes would disappear and no longer flow
But they had no idea that the ashes would dissolve in the water and in time the water from beneath would rise to the surface and evaporate and reach the skies and seed the clouds and rain on the vast land, this good earth....
And a hundred flowers will bloom And sway to the lilt of the flute –
It was not quite what they had planned.
We cannot let ephemeral events silence our voices. We take inspiration from the poet Baal, as imagined by Rushdie in The Satanic Verses:
A poet’s work? To name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.
Let us stay awake.
Gupta’s profound meditation on art reminds us how.
Salil Tripathi, chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, gave this talk at the Edinburgh Art Festival in support of the exhibition by artist Shilpa Gupta.
This article first appeared on PEN International.