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First They Came for the Poets – Bishnupriya Chowdhury

Jan 15, 2021 | Front And Center, Non Fiction | 0 comments

One month into the civil war, he was hunted down by the military. They said, the poet did more damage with his pen than one man with a gun. He was shot immediately after. Thirty years would pass before this death would get reported by the government.

The body of Federico Garcia Lorca was thrown into a narrow, unmarked grave. This grave that was unmarked, and matter of fact, and rushed and without a parting ” Flower of sunlight/ Flower of water” opened and closed surreptitiously, as if just to swallow the poet and has not been found.

Somewhere in the soils of Granada, or the earth that gets soaked every so often by waters, tears, salts and blood, beneath the dirt, damp and all miseries, Lorca lies lost but not alone.

If you believe in the secret ways of things such as the unmarked graves, you will know that in there, Lorca hasn’t been alone. Those who invoked the power of poetry into the voices of protests, to spell out unjust and speak up on the face of tyranny have had “Them” come after.  Way more times than you can keep a count of, bullets have entered poets with equal zest and urgency as their words into people’s hearts. Unmarked graves appeared on the ravines and streets to save them from the autocrats and military, Kings and tyrants alike. Only weeks before his own execution, Pearse, one of the three poets who signed the proclamation of the Irish Republic had joked that one of the outcomes of a rebellion could be to “rid Ireland of three bad poets!” Excerpts from his poem ‘The Rebel’ goes like –

I am come of the seed of the people, the people that sorrow;
Who have no treasure but hope,
No riches laid up but a memory of an ancient glory […]
And I say to my people’s masters: Beware.
Beware of the thing that is coming, beware of the risen people
Who shall take what ye would not give.
Did ye think to conquer the people, or that law is stronger than life,
And than men’s desire to be free?
We will try it out with you,
Ye that have harried and held,
Ye that have bullied and bribed.
Tyrants… hypocrites… liars!

What does poetry do when it is fed fire? It becomes fire. Which is probably why, the form among so many other expressions of human spirit and creativity, became the most potent vessel. And Poets, the angels cursed with the power of poetry, were found throwing themselves into the heart of hell time and again as their art– songs of wound and pain, of protest and courage rose and spread among the people, leaped beyond borders and nations and often outran Time itself. Probably all poetry is born with a rebel’s soul. And they find ways to reach others of the tribe. Lorca waited at the station for Pablo Neruda, the young Chilean consul as he arrived in Madrid in 1934.

Beyond the horror of a friend’s assassination that shook Neruda deeply, Lorca’s death became a metaphor. A massacre of poetry itself by the demonic force of fascism. It unleashed a transformation. Neruda’s poetry shifted axis as it emerged, reborn, as if crying to act.

You will ask: And where are the lilacs?
And the metaphysics laced with poppies?
And the rain that often beat
his words filling them with holes and birds?
I’ll tell you everything that’s happening with me.

I lived in a neighborhood
of Madrid, with church bells,
with clocks, with trees.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

My house was called
the house of flowers, because everywhere
geraniums were exploding: it was
a beautiful house
with dogs and little kids.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Federico, you remember,
from under the earth,
do you remember my house with balconies on which
the light of June drowned flowers in your mouth?
Hermano, hermano!

And one morning everything was burning

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

and ever since then fire,
gunpowder ever since,
and ever since then blood
Bandits with airplanes and with Moors,
bandits with finger-rings and duchesses,
bandits with black friars making blessings,
… kept coming from the sky to kill children,
and through the streets the blood of the children
ran simply, like children’s blood.

You will ask why his poetry
doesn’t speak to us of dreams, of the leaves,
of the great volcanoes of his native land?

Come and see the blood in the streets,
come and see
the blood in the streets,
come and see the blood
in the streets!

Nazrul Islam, a Bengali poet, composer and revolutionary from the state of Bengal in India was incarcerated for his life-long dissent of religious orthodoxy and separatist politics. An active agitator against the British rule, he was a part of the socialist political movement of Bengal and was committed to the service of the peasant masses. His poetry is a testimony of the form itself.

I am the burning volcano in the bosom of the earth,
I am the wildfire of the woods,
I am Hell’s mad terrific sea of wrath!

[…]

I am the rebel eternal,
I raise my head beyond this world,
High, ever erect and alone!



In the decades following the formation of Pakistan, General Zia-Ul-Haq attempted to transform the country into a repressive Islamic state machinery functioning under Martial Law. Faiz Ahmad Faiz, a communist and a poet, opposed this and the abysmal violation of human rights and violence inflicted on the then East Pakistan as they wished to break through the shackles of Pakistan using his art as his overreaching weapon. He was accused by the state for being a political conspirator and imprisoned.

Hum Dekhenge  is one of poems that shone through the fall of Zia.

Lazim hai hum bhi dekhenge,
Hum dekhenge
Wo din ke jiska waada hai,
jo louh-i-azl pe likha hai,
hum dekhenge 

(We shall bear witness to the promised day written into the canvas of eternity)

Jab zulm-o-sitham ke koh-e-giran,
Rui ki tarah ud jaayenge
Hum mahkoomon ke paaon tale,
Yeh dharti dhad dhad dhadkegi

(When the gigantic hills of tyranny get blown away like cotton, the earth will shake under our (oppressed) feet)

In the struggle for racial equality in the US, the mid 1960s were a turning point. The civil rights era, 1955 – 65, had produced legislation against segregation, but in  everyday life racism and economic deprivation continued to blight African American life.

Finally, during the late 1960s and 1970s as people rose against institutional racism in the United states, demanded obliteration of racial segregation and injustice an unprecedented body of powerful, politically driven poetry was born. A large portion of this had ingrained in them, the rhythm and lilt of a lost soil. These poems were asked for bodies to move, drums to beat…they were not to be laid submissive on the neatness of papers and binds but were to be spoken out loud, performed with voices, bodies and pulsating beats of conga drums as a tribe.

Even after the iron bars and unmarked graves catch up with the poets, even after thousands of them are lost to the oppressor’s gun– Lorca is consumed by a darkness and the body of Varavara Rao gets beaten and blue in the jail, their voices reverberate as they crack the ceilings and grave soil and soar high, through time and space.  The ‘Caged Bird’ knows no silence.

A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

 

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

-The Caged bird,

Maya Angelou

Bishnupriya Chowdhury

Bishnupriya Chowdhury

Bishnupriya is a Bengali artist and writer trying to find her roots across continents and oceans. She weaves hybrid pieces about memory, women and bodies using what is often awkward if not an unsavory tangle of Bangla and English. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Central Florida. She is a collector of girl-names, pretty pebbles and family-recipes. Her address keeps changing

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