Fire in the Soul: 100 Poems for Human Rights, Ed. Dinyar Godrej,
New Internationalist (supporting Amnesty International), 192pp, £9.99

When I opened the book my first reaction was: How do you begin to read and do justice to a book of poems on this theme? Where and how do you begin to separate compassion and good poetry?

So I decided not to start on page 27, with the first poem, and work my way through the book but to leaf through the pages and read at random. I made a conscious decision not to look at the name of the poet or read their biographical details until after I had read the poem and had had time to dwell on it. The book is made up of poems by established poets, both past and contemporary, and also by people who have been compelled to write by adverse circumstances, in many cases months and years of imprisonment for speaking out against the state.

It is important that each poem can stand alone and speak for itself. It is also important to understand the circumstances from which the poet speaks, but only after the poem has been allowed the space to develop itself. It is, however, worth noting that sometimes a poem arrested me for the skill of its execution and then I found that it had been written by Celan or Simic for example. Their poems with those of some of the lesser known poets will stand the test of time.

Poets such as Anna Akhmatova, Margaret Atwood, Paul Celan, Nazim Hikmet, Pablo Neruda, Adrienne Rich, Wilsawa Szymborska and many others of international fame are represented here.

The book, not only a rich resource as a reminder of man’s inhumanity to man involving acts of collective witness, also bows to the testimony of the power of a good poem to stand alone. Ingeborg Bachmann writes in her poem, ‘Everyday’:

The outrageous has become the everyday…

The first two lines hold the reader up by their startling truth:

War is no longer declared/But rather continued.

Bachmann, an Austrian poet who died in 1973, had a doctorate in philosophy and was greatly concerned in her writings with the problem of establishing the truth.

…the order of merit is the wretched star/of hope over the heart.

The collection works for its variety of voices and countries. There is a moving poem that uses repetition similar to a child’s nursery rhyme. The poem is taken from a film script written in 1997 which was the first film to be made after Bosnia Herzegovina became a sovereign state. The poem is in the voices of a mother and child:

With voice that I lost in the
language that I lost I sing a song
I sing a song mother,
about the house that I lost.

In contrast we have a poem by another academic, Fatiha Morchid, who has not followed a literary tradition. She is a paediatric physician for whom writing has become a vital sideline in order to communicate. She has a direct voice – one that is uninterested in obscurity. From ‘A Will’:

…I silenced
The sad laughter
I drowned
The ecstasy of scents
I buried
When my youth wandered away.

It is evident that the editor has worked hard to find poems where the translators have also done their work well in order to preserve the authentic original feeling of the first language of the poem.

The reader might question whether some of the poems have a place in a book of poetry about human rights but each one is about injustice of one sort or another. In the introduction it is stated that the poems are placed here to make the reader think. Rita Ann Higgins’ poem is about the injustice of poverty she experienced in Ireland in the 1950s. One of thirteen children, she left school at fourteen.

Some people know what it’s like

to be called a cunt in front of their children
to be short for the rent
to be short for the light…

and the list is more poignant as it goes on and ends with the line:

and others don’t

In ‘A Memory’ Yunna Morits opens the poem:

They threw the children
from the burning train
out onto the grass.
I slithered and swam
in a bloody trench
of bone, gristle, guts.

Morits, a Russian poet born in 1937 whose early years were marked by hardship, wrote the poem based on the memory of being evacuated from Kiev when the train she was in was bombed.

The book is well presented on recycled paper and I was glad that the poets were represented in alphabetical order so that no priority was given to one voice over another. It also makes it easier for the reader to find a specific poem.

All of the works in this fine collection tell individual stories and together the poems make up a picture of a world where nations and individuals still live in terror. Their stories have to be told and the so-called civilised world has to listen and act. It is a start to this process of listening if we respond to the skill and craft of the poets and their translators. We must give credit to the voices of the fine men and women who have made space for this to happen. Poetry is an exploration of being.

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