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November 14, 2006
‘Matchbox’, a new poetry magazine, recently published an article I wrote on Moazzam Begg. The reason I put it on my blog is not a blatant attempt at showing-off, but rather beacuse I think the issues that Begg brings up in his work deserve to be reflected on:
Poetry in Solitary Confinement
Most of us who write poetry like to be alone when we do so. Not necessarily alone in terms of sitting behind a locked door in the dead of night (though arguably an environment like this one can be very productive), but rather in the sense of being alone with the poem in hand. It gives us the chance to focus our ideas and pursue a line of thought without being interrupted or distracted. Of course, there comes a stage in the writing process when the poem has to be left alone. A diversion from the solitude becomes necessary and the distance created helps to view the poem with a fresh perspective when we come back to it.
But what if you could not move away? What if the night was endless and the door never unlocked? What if there was no way for you to get away from your thoughts?
I recently went to the Birmingham Book Festival to hear Moazzam Begg talk about his experiences at Guantanamo Bay, where he was illegally detained on suspicion of being a collaborator in the September 11 attacks. The occasion took the form of an interview followed by a Q&A session but Moazzam opened and closed the event by reading some of the poetry that he had written during his experience. The most striking poetry was produced while he was in solitary confinement, and an example of this is ‘Dark World’. His situation made it difficult for him to escape from his thoughts and in his book Enemy Combatant: A British Muslim’s Journey to Guantanamo and back Begg describes the effect of the imposed isolation and then quotes from the poem itself to articulate his feelings at the time:
‘I find it hard to describe the sense of utter desperation and claustrophobia I often felt during almost two years, isolated in a cell smaller than my toilet at home. I spent countless nights praying, crying, thinking…and regretting certain decisions in my life. When I finally did get to sleep my dreams were filled with strange and wonderful visions of life far away from US soldiers and concentration camps. In fact, I hated waking up. I wished I never woke up again. It was during that time I wrote ‘Dark World’. Some of its verses read:
Tormenting strain is at its height,
Darkness blotting out sunlight.
All has disappeared, but night,
Eyes have shed their tears from light
Awaiting anxiously respite,
The noose is closing in too tight.
Proceeding on ahead, despite
The guiltless beings they indict
Life is drained by parasite,
Inflicting pain as from a bite.
End is near, but not just quite -
My world is dark, and theirs – is white’
What follows is a paragraph about how Begg, normally very calm and collected, lost control. In light of this, his poem, with its tight structure and rhyme scheme strikes the reader as ironic. The form makes the poem seem like a cynical attack rather than just an articulation of emotion or frustration and this is enhanced in the racially charged word of the last line, ‘white’.
Individual lines in Begg’s poetry can often be difficult to understand, perhaps because he is more interested in the emotion conveyed by the words in any particular line, than of the line as a coherent whole. This aspect of his poetry makes it powerful even without the context in which it was written. For example, the meaning of the line ‘Eyes have shed their tears from light’ is ambiguous and open to interpretation, but the connotations and associations of the three key words, ‘eyes’, ‘tears’ and ‘light’ (which we already know there is a lack of), conveys more than a single coherent image would.
Begg made it clear very early on in the event that poetry had taken on a special significance and meaning for him during these two years of his life. Sometimes, in response to a question, he would come out with a verse or two of one of his poems instead of answering the question directly. Once he quoted from his poem ‘Homeward Bound’ (the first poem he wrote at Guantanamo), which expressed the importance of poetry for him:
‘Now ‘patience is of virtue’ taught
And virtue is of iron wrought;
So poetry is in motion set
(Perhaps with appreciation met)’
Poetry, it seems, gave Begg the hope and the strength of will to keep going. The allusions to ‘patience’ and ‘virtue’ are references to the story of Job in the Bible and the Qur’an that Begg was reminded of by a psychiatrist who came to see him. What is interesting though, is that Begg feels they are traits that can be developed by poetry. However, as his time in Guantanamo lengthened and his experiences became more and more bitter, Begg’s poetry also became less hopeful and less, it can be claimed, orientated towards an audience. In fact, Begg became the audience of his poetry, using it as a distraction from his solitude. He admitted that this was the reason for some of the funnier poems he wrote during his experience:
‘Vulgarity is not my style,
But still I have to say,
This occasion causes me revile
So f**k the USA!’