Rigor Samsa

I remember an Afghan friend, somewhat miserable in the Chicago winter, trying to explain to her American husband that to a refugee, a country is not just land, it is a perpetual longing for an impossible return. Being without a country is perhaps like a compass without a needle or a cinema of sense-memories whose shadows will forever remain untouched even as they swim in front of your eyes endlessly. Its outwardly realm is limned by language—the sound of closeness, of remaining in a place unquestioned, “undenied”.

Later, I remember thinking about the word “ambedo” which means a vivid nostalgic trance like state where one is acutely aware of every sensory nuance. Imogen Heap played in my earphones on a quivering loop—“Meantime is a quarantine.”

The closing lines to Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s headlong subversive poem “ID card” are as follows:

Write down on the top of the first page:
I do not hate poeple
Nor do I encroach
But if I become hungry
The usurper’s flesh will be my food
Of my hunger
And my anger!

Darwish, a Palestinian refugee whose family was displaced by the Israeli occupation, was apparently 23 when he wrote this poem. The foam of rage explodes through the length of its whiplash. Empire enforces obedience as ethics. To disobey is to confirm your breath as yours. The speaker of this poem could be any nameless, faceless exile whose endurance was punished to the extent of its holding capacity and who is now charged by a resolute fearlessness that has replaced obedience. A voice like this unsheathes when people are tired of being reduced to statistics and bylines in a flux of violent erasures. It is not a surprise then, that this poem became the primer for Assam’s Miyah poets while they currently run the risk of being interrogated and arrested for the most incendiary of acts—writing poetry.

Originally a polite way to address one another as “gentleman” among the Muslim community in South Asia, the word “miyah” somehow deformed into a pejorative tag for immigrant Bengali Muslim transplants in the eastern and north-eastern parts of India. A population that has suffered abject castigation, classism, bigotry and detention camps; the people who are now reneging the obloquy of being denominated as “Miyah” have suffered both covertly and visibly steered deracination for a considerable amount of time. The poorest of them picked up and harassed without warrant, left to languish in dirty cells or worse, disappeared without trace. This is living testimony to James Baldwin’s prophetic statement, perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.

In the face of institutional tyrannies which include political leaders promising to exterminate immigrants whom they refer to as “termites” and daily intimidations towards marginalized identities by own neighbours, one of the last outlets for self-expression that won’t neatly fit into sectarianism’s paltry boxes is through art and writing.

Miyah poetry flares its tongue in the light of its creator’s local dialects. A language roving along the sandbars of Brahmaputra. A language bellowing against its wilt. A language of submerged paddy fields where bodies stay curved into dark commas. A language both antediluvian and nascent in its risen vein. Language is practical magic. Why else would we say we aspire to “spell” words in order to communicate their (our) legibility? I say rose and your brain petals up in a burgundy profusion. You say rose and mine considers the ruminatory patterns of everyday living because in Urdu “rose” (roz) means daily while in English it names a flower. This power to conjure and reclaim scatterings of self in more than one direction of time is one of the last few liberties remaining to any itinerate. Poetry is how we organize our spells; our escape away from these flightless bodies.

In Stigmata: Escaping Texts, Hélène Cixous entreats the illimitable—”To write by shreds, by storm clouds, by visions, by violent chapters, in the present as in the archpast, in pre-vision, in the true chaos of verbal tenses, crossing over years and oceans at a god’s pace, with the past on my right and the future on my left—this is forbidden in academies, it is permitted in apocalypses. What joy it is.”

In Greek, apocalypse literally translates to ‘lifting of a veil’. Poetry then progresses as an act of un-eclipsing. The poet offers self in a Promethean mea culpa! The First Information Report (FIR) filed against the 10 Miyah poets claims that their writing can incite hatred against the local populace by being ‘xenophobic’. Nevermind that on close inspection, the poems are more about stressing the oppressions perpetrated against the Miyah community and the bigotry they are forced to swallow regularly. It is almost amusing how the colonial prehensile tail of prim Indian English calls it “courting arrest”, as if someone was trying to engage in a long-term affair. Rao has indeed been fighting the powers that be for several decades. The masterminds who engineered the catastrophic clashes remain free and safeguarded by the state while a poet languishes behind bars.

Protest poetry has been the lifeblood as well as the scar tissue of several revolutions. Etched deep into the my brain-pit is a graffiti from a dilapidated wall on a Syrian street that read—Once the war is over, I will go back to my poem. Poems are boats we send out hoping someone shores them, hoping that they won’t be capsized or intercepted for removal. In our lived time, it is nearly impossible to persevere in a state of apolitical tractability. This is particularly resonant when writing from the heartland of surging conflicts. It is not mere effrontery, it is a pair of mirrors positioned to replicate a reckoning. Sufi poems, for instance, are often fetishized in the West as merely vehicles for unrequited love or spiritual platitudes dissociated from their Islamic roots, but there is an inherent ethno-political tangent to all of Sufism, including the poetry it has birthed. Its complex, multi-valent structures including the dubious alliance between dynastic politics and certain Sufi orders as well as the role of Sufi poets in speaking truth to power are often under-discussed. The Muridiya/Mouride Sufi order in Senegal provided leadership for nonviolent resistance against French colonial forces while its members actively composed poems against the sycophancy to ruling classes. Bulleh Shah, Punjab’s own lyrical hermit, was in permanent opposition to prevalent orthodoxy.

Iron Moon: An Anthology of Chinese Worker Poetry edited by Qin Xiaoyu and translated by Eleanor Goodman was released in 2017. It contains the works of 30 Chinese poets; factory workers, mostly immigrants from small villages who moved to big cities in order to find employment. The most forlorn of voices in it is that of Xu Lizhi, a Foxconn dagong (migrant-worker) who wanted to work in a bookshop or a library but ended up on the assembly line for an exploitative tech giant and eventually jumped off  to his death from the terrace at his workplace. The title of this anthology materializes from Lizhi’s most circulated poem “I swallowed a moon made of iron” that cracks the veneer of China’s economic ascendancy with its first few words–“I swallowed a moon made of iron / They call it Screw”

These poems are burning postcards. The volume maps heavy censures, desolate fragments and some stories occasionally choral in melancholia; all of them shaped into place so we know that the assembly line is not just a schedule of numbered hands.

We don’t speak of those who can’t be fitted as convenient fixtures of MFA pantheons and academic canons. There wasn’t much support or even a basic conversation on any social media platform about the impending arrest of Miyah poets. Just as there really has never been any intransigent attempt to focus on the lives and works of black and brown poets writing outside of US and the UK apart from some token issue once every bomb blast, mass murder or a newsworthy coup. There is a price to be paid for harping on singularity co-signed by geopolitical location, for assuming that gesture is action or that prescriptive empathy alone has the capacity for improving the impact we intend via our poetics. Artists, writers, poets vanish daily, are taken out by state-sponsored terrorism. We must know of them. We must speak of them. Comfortably exclusionary “radicalism” that tires itself out in a few tweets is insufficient because it labours at reimagining hierarchies not bankrupting them.

In the attention economy, we are all willing mayflies. Poetry, on the other hand, is how we extend the possibility of presence, of having been here even when unnoticed through our days. When this possibility is silenced for one, in some invisible way it carries the smirking threat of how easy it is to silence us all.

Title: Noun. A kind of psychological exoskeleton that can protect you from pain and contain your anxieties, but always ends up cracking under pressure or hollowed out by time—and will keep growing back again and again, until you develop a more sophisticated emotional structure, held up by a strong and flexible spine, built less like a fortress than a cluster of treehouses.

(Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows)


Scherezade Siobhan is a psychologist, writer and a community catalyst who founded and runs The Talking Compass — a therapeutic space dedicated to providing mental counseling services and decolonizing mental health care. She is an award-winning author and poet whose work is published or forthcoming in Medium, Berfrois, Quint, Vice, HuffPost, Feministing, SPR, Jubilat, DATABLEED, Nat Brut, Winter Tangerine, Cordite among others. She is the author of “Bone Tongue” (Thought Catalog Books, 2015), “Father, Husband” (Salopress, 2016) and “The Bluest Kali” (Forthcoming, Lithic Press). Find her @zaharaesque on twitter. Send her chocolate and puppies — nihilistwaffles [at] gmail [dot] com. Tweet at her @zaharaesque.
Photograph by gualtiero via Flickr (cc).

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