Some of these poems on prison walls are more familiar than others to me. Nazim Hikmet, a great Turkish poet, who was also a playwright, novelist, screenwriter, director and memoirist, spent much of his adult life in prison, or in exile because of his communist beliefs. In 1949, a number of major figures such as Pablo Picasso and Jean-Paul Sartre campaigned for his release. He shared the International Peace Prize with Pablo Neruda in 1950.
I became acquainted with his poetry in the oddest way. A friend was browsing in one of those pavement bookshops that stretched from Churchgate to Flora Fountain, and he picked up the Nazim Hikmet book. Much to his surprise, he found it once belonged to Adil Jussawalla, who had written his name inside the book. I told Adil about this. He was shocked and couldn’t imagine how it had ended up there. I took the book home and decided to give it to Adil when I met him next, but the poems were so good, I couldn’t bear to part with it. Eventually, of course, I had to.
Here is Hikmet’s poem about being let out of solitary confinement after a long time, Today is Sunday, translated by Talat Sait Halman.
“Today is Sunday.
For the first time they took me out in the sun today.
And for the first time in my life I was aghast
That the sky is so far away
And so blue
And so vast.
I stood there without a motion.
Then I sat on the ground with respectful devotion
Leaning against the white wall.
Who cares about the waves with which I yearn to roll
Or about strife or my wife right now
The soil, the sun and me.
I feel joyful and how.”
Taps on the Walls: Poems from the Hanoi Hilton was written by Major General John L Boring. Boring was imprisoned in North Vietnam for six years and eight months. “How did he survive?” asks a commentator, and answers, “By writing poetry.”
Without pencil or paper? He memorised the poems, then shared them with his fellow prisoners using only the secret tap code. Here are some lines from Sonnet for Us.
“Here, months and years run quickly down dim halls.
But days, the daze, the empty days come hard.
I used to count a lot, count everything.
Like exercise and laps and words of prayer.
What hurt that hunger, thoughts and that thirst can bring…
I’m told that steel is forged by heavy blows.
If only men were steel, but then, who knows.”
And, here is a poem written in Angel Island Immigration Station, in the San Francisco Bay area, between 1910-1940, where 1,75,000 Chinese immigrants were detained and processed. Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, we are told Angel Island was less a processing centre, more a detention and deportation area. Some were kept in prison-like quarters for “weeks, months, years.” A collection of these poems was published by the University of Washington Press, Seattle. One of the detainees writes:
“This is a message to those who live here not to worry excessively.
Instead, you must cast our idle worries
To the flowing stream.
Experiencing a little ordeal is not hardship.
Napoleon was once a prisoner on an island.”
Vint Martinez spent 27 years in prison on various criminal charges. In San-Quentin-shu he writes a poem about “yard time.” Being let out into the yard suggests, ironically, a kind of “freedom,” and he is glad when he finally hears “keys on my tier.” Around the middle of the poem, Martinez writes,
“The gunner, mini-14 rifle at the ready, walks the gunwalk with terrible purpose. And I wonder, how much violence can a human heart hold?
Keys on my tier! Boots Walking, voices talking It’s yard time once again In San Quentin-shu. Who will be stabbed and/or Shot today?!?”