We hide in our smile, the way we hide in our pockets
a photograph of someone we love
Tomorrow maybe they will kill us.
Tomorrow maybe they will kill us.
this smile, and this sky, they cannot take from us
This smile, and this sky, they cannot take from us
Yannis Ritsos, detained 1949, 1967
The old museum of fire is in darkness. Opening the door, I screech daylight across the tiled hall and a flurry of slaps responds within. Wings, I think, then hands, the syncopated rhythm of a hundred handclaps, a swarm taking flight from the many papers I can see curved onto spikes in the gloom. It takes me a while to spot the old-style mic dangling above each spike, poised to speak. The breathy notes of a distant song return the room to stillness as the door scrapes shut behind me.
Socrates is wary. In ‘the ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy’ he—or at least the ‘he’ that is echoed and animated by Plato in Book X of The Republic—chooses the whip-hand of reason over poetry’s unruly lies. All poets are imitators, he says, ‘thrice removed from the king and from the truth’, casting shadows deep in the cave. The worst sort of fraudsters, he says, the kind that stir up passions to overrule dry rationality, creating a deluge of effeminised citizens ruled by ‘pain and pleasure’ alone. Unless poets restrict themselves to ‘hymns to the gods and praises of famous men’, Plato’s utopia can do without them. Freedom of expression doesn’t come into it. It is the potency of their affect alone that banishes them. He doesn’t mention what happens when a writer transits from the metaphysical dark to corporeal confinement, the violent silence of arrest, censorship, torture or death; but Shilpa Gupta’s newly commissioned work, For, in your tongue I cannot hide, does. She has it said in a hundred voices, a hundred ways, spanning more than a thousand years in just one hour. So I sit in her placeless, timeless garden of the dark, and listen.
The first thing is the spikes. Visually and literally striking, each page is pierced at its centre, the edges arched back into pained parabolas that flutter in the air as we pass. When I try to steady one in my hand to read it in the faint light, the paper shudders down the metal to the floor. Rebalancing it, dragging it up until the wound regrips the metal, I lock eyes with another visitor and she stares at me in anger. I focus on the text. Up close it looks typewritten, lending each sheet a nostalgic feel—although that could be a digital font choice. The soft press of ink is easy to fake, but not the words. Not the devastating brevity of each piece caught mid-utterance. ‘A forsaken file in an archive am I’ reads one, the rupturing spike casting a shadow over the name: ‘Mehdi Mousavi, Detained 2013’. Later on, in the light, I will shamefully google his name and unfurl the links that tell me he’s an Iranian poet, a maker of radical post-modern Ghazals. I will find the line nesting inside his collection called The Little Bird Was Neither a Bird nor Little (2010) and feel again, it was waiting there to talk to me:
To defy shattering I petrified like a rock.
Now the cranes lift me away.
To a deity that we are not being,
All the reasons are proving what is not.
Deploring a wasted bygone, we wait
For a future modeled after the fossils.
My honor trashes me; my friends and my land, too;
Even they trash me now: my own lines of verse.
A forsaken file in an archive I am;
Come read me out of this layered text.
The lighting is faint. Visitors sink into the dark as they navigate page to page. Sometimes I have to walk right up to a page before I realise the glyphs are mandarin, Cyrillic, or other languages beyond me. I presume these are the ones being voiced in their original tongue, but sometimes a familiar line, such as Allan Ginsberg’s call for ‘an orgy of the flesh’, finds a strange new hunger in the South East Asian accent voicing its demands. I try to photograph a few papers, but the words shudder into incomprehensibility. Later when I find the image unreadable, unsearchable, a strange sadness falls over me, as if the illegibility mimics the death of these words into forgetfulness, the death of these words in censorship, the death of these words inside bodies inside jails and camps, inside poverty and addiction, inside madness.
For now, the mics crackle a multitudinous lamentation: ‘my only audience / silence’. The sibilance ripples round the room, hissing the word ‘silence’ back and forth across the speakers to the no-place of this piece, until it is both transfixed and transcended by this brutal choral geography of detention. Later, when I finally find those words of ‘silence’ written down on another sheet of paper, I discover they come from Huang Xiang, detained 1958, 1965 and 1978. ‘I am not asking about places’ interrupts Faraj Bayrakdar in my ear.
I map across the room in this way, hearing one poet and reading another, caught in the intercourse of spike and mic, persecution and liberation, silence and release, reading and listening, interruption and routing, seeking and guessing, like the earth waiting for lightning to strike. I read and hear pleas for sexual liberation, revolution, bread, democracy, nationhood, freedom from imprisonment, the right to speak. Always, the dangerous, glorious right to speak, to utter words to another living being. Sometimes the speaker mics hang so close to me in the dark their whispers move the hairs of my inner ear like a tickle of breath. Dislocated, the eddies and flows of these visual and verbal persistences find a strange solace in their caught possibility. What led them to speak out? What happened to them after?
Later on, when I learn more about Faraj Bayrakdar, detained in Syria in 1987, his release after a long campaign by PEN International, I read in his statement: ‘I must remind you that this has allowed us to escape the grasp of forgetfulness, this symbolic death that so menaces prisoners.’ The no-place of this work, exhibited so far only in Azerbaijan and Edinburgh, offers a fragile afterlife of sorts. I read later that Gupta hopes for more funding to publish these texts. I hope that this happens. I hope for the future to bring these poets more readers, more listeners.
‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ said Shelley famously in A Defense of Poetry, ‘.. compelled to serve that power which is seated on the throne of their own soul. […] the electric life which burns within their words, the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves.’ Forgive them, they know and they do not know what they do, but doing it will electrically persist as long as it connects.
Perhaps the strangest feature is the last thing I notice, that the microphones have been turned into speakers. Listening has become a kind of speaking, speaking a kind of listening. The greatest silence here is that of the invisible authorities judging these expressions to be transgressions. The malign muteness of the metal spike; the line you know you’ve crossed when it impales you. To misquote poet Diane di Prima, when you realise ‘that the stakes are yourself’, freedom is what you risk. Here, these isolated sacrifices find themselves together.
Audre Lorde’s poem, Litany for Survival, was not one of the works on show but it’s one that came to mind as I opened the door and stepped back out to the daylight.
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
but when we are silent
we are still afraid
So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive.
Katy Hastie is a writer from Glasgow currently undertaking a creative writing PhD at the University of Glasgow that explores embedded surveillance in experimental novel form influenced by Proust. She is also a tutor, editor and organiser, and currently working as academic co-director of the Scottish Universities’ International Summer School and an editor-at-large for Gutter Magazine. Her work has appeared in Zarf, The Free Poetry Anthology (Scotland) and Unsettling Wonder among other places.
Freedom Papers, featuring specially commissioned writing from 51 authors from around the world each exploring their own unique interpretation of Freedom, available with Gutter 18