In its 40-year history, Index has showcased some of the world’s most remarkable poets, many of whom have faced intimidation for speaking out. To mark National Poetry Day, we republish two poets jailed for exercising their right to free speech
This is the first ever publication in English of verse by Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, written while the author was detained in the Gulag. An extract from a longer autobiographical work composed in 1950-53, it was published in the first issue of Index on Censorship magazine in March 1972.
God Keep Me from Going Mad (translated by Michael Scammell)
There never was, nor will be, a world of brightness!
A frozen footcloth is the scarf that binds my face.
Fights over porridge, the ganger’s constant griping
And day follows day follows day, and no end to this dreary fate.
My feeble pick strikes sparks from the frozen earth.
And the sun stares down unblinking from the sky.
But the world is here! And will be! The daily round
Suffices. But man is not to be prisoned in the day.
To write! To write now, without delay,
Not in heated wrath, but with cool and clear understanding.
The millstones of my thoughts can hardly turn,
Too rare the flicker of light in my aching soul.
Yes, tight is the circle around us tautly drawn,
But my verses will burst their bonds and freely roam
And I can guard, perhaps, beyond their reach,
In rhythmic harmony this hard-won gift of speech.
And then they can grope my body in vain —
‘Here I am. All yours. Look hard. Not a line. . .
Our indestructible memory, by wonder divine,
Is beyond the reach of your butcher’s hands!’
My labour of love! Year after year with me you will grow,
Year after year you will tread the prisoner’s path.
The day will come when you warm not me alone,
Nor me alone embrace with a shiver of wrath.
Let the stanzas throb — but no whisper let slip,
Let them hammer away — not a twitch of the lip,
Let your eyes not gleam in another’s presence
And let no-one see, let no-one see
You put pencil to paper.
From every corner I am stalked by prison —
God keep me from going mad!
I do not write my verses for idle pleasure,
Nor from a sense of energy to burn.
Nor out of mischief, to evade their searches,
Do I carry them past my captors in my brain.
The free flow of my verse is dearly bought,
I have paid a cruel price for my poet’s rights:
The barren sacrifice of all her youth
And ten cold solitary years for my wife —
The unuttered cries of children still unborn,
My mother’s death, toiling in gaunt starvation,
The madness of prison cells, midnight interrogations,
Autumn’s sticky red clay in an opencast mine,
The secret, slow and silent erosive force
Of winters laying bricks, of summers feeding the furnace —
Oh, if this were but the sum of the price paid for my verse!
But those others paid the price with their lives,
Immured in the silence of Solovki, drowned in thunder of waves,
Or shot without trial in Vorkuta’s polar night.
Love and warmth and their executed cries
Have combined in my breast to carve
The receptive metre of this sorrowful tale,
These few poor thousand incapacious lines.
Oh, hopeless labour! Can you really pay the price?
Do you think to redeem the pledge with a single life?
For what an age has my country been so poor
In women’s happy laughter, so very rich
In poets’ lamentations!
Verse verse — for all that we have lost,
A drop of scented resin in the razed forest!
But this is all I live for! On its wings
I transport my feeble body through prison walls
And one day, in distant exile dim,
Biding my time, I will free my tortured memory from its thrall:
On paper, birchbark, in a blackened bottle rolled,
I will consign my tale to the forest leaves,
Or to a drift of shifting snow.
But what if beforehand they give me poisoned bread?
Or if darkness beclouds my mind at last?
Oh, let me die there! Let it not be here!
God keep me from going mad!
Burmese comic, dissident and poet Zarganar was imprisoned for speaking out against the military junta in its handling of the Cyclone Nargis crisis in May 2008. Last year he, along with dozens of other political prisoners, was released Myitkyina jail in northern Burma by the Burmese government.
The following poem appeared as part of a profile of Zarganar in Beyond Bars, a 2010 issue of Index on Censorship magazine.
Untitled (translated by Vicky Bowman)
It’s lucky my forehead is flat
Since my arm must often rest there.
Beneath it shines a light I must invite
From a moon I cannot see