Sunday, 1 April 2012

The Right Word

If you search google for 'terrorist', this image comes up first...
This poem is a rather touching expression of how important words are when it comes to thinking about the perpertrators and the victims of conflict. Dharker reads the poem here, at the Poetry Archive site, and on the same site says that she sees the poem as in some ways analogous to a film--in that it is like a single film shot, interpreted in different ways. It's an interesting way of looking at it.

The poem is strructured in a series of short stanzas that seem to use incremental repetition in the same way as a poem such as 'Flag' does.  It is unrhymed, but the repetition, and the author's apparent questioning of her own language seem to hold it together in structural terms. The frist word that she uses, 'terrorist', is a loaded one, as the image on the left suggests, and this sinister effect is accentuated by the use of the verb 'lurked' which has connotations of suspicious activity--someone usually lurks for a nefarious purpose. The form of repetition that Dharker uses here, where the same words frame others that are changed (but which are, for instance, all nouns or verbs) is called parison. It is a very forceful kind of repetition, because the similarity of structure of the clauses makes you extremely aware of the differences in language between each--for instance the shift from 'the door' to 'that door' to 'your door' which has the effect of bringing the person outside closer to the reader as the poem goes on.

This is what google gives as one of the first images for 'freedom fighter'
Stanza 2 starts immediately with self-questioning--'is that the wrong description?', and she then replaces the term and seems to rephrase the idea. The term that she uses in stanza 2 is 'freedom fighter', and here the person is 'taking shelter'--the shadows become protective rather than sinister. As you can see from the image left, a 'freedom fighter' as the name implies, is a very much more positive term with connotations of bravery and heroism that 'terrorist' tends not to have. In fact, many of the images google has are from video games, music covers and so on, suggesting that a freedom fighter is a figure to be admired and emulated. I think myself that it also has a sligthly archaic feel--but perhaps that is only because it tends to be used of people well after the event. It's a definite term of approval, as the use of 'shelter' (suggesting an innocent) suggests.

If you search 'google' for 'hostile militant', this is what you find...
The poet again interrupts herself, with the statement 'I haven't got this right'. The self-questioning again foregrounds the preocess of composition of the poem--the author is creating the effect that the poem is spontaneous, is being written as it is read, almost. The lack of rhyme adds to this effect--it is as though the poem is deliberately 'unpoetic' in tone. The term 'hostile militant' seems to have connotations of news reports; it sounds like an official term, perhaps part of army jargon, while 'waiting in the shadows' suggests someone lying in wait, and so reverses the more positive implications of the previou stanzas.

'Guerilla warrior' from google
The next stanza seems to reflect on this with the image of 'words no more than /waving, wavering flags'. This line is immediately reminiscent of 'Flag', which has a suimilar focus on the importance of language and its connotations. The echoing aliiteration on 'w' and assonance of the long 'a' in 'waving, wavering' makes the two words sound similar, the added 'v' in 'wavering' sounding like a hesitation so that the word almost enacts its own meaning. The terminology shifts again, now a 'watchful...warrior' is described, the term 'guerilla' reinding us of past conflicts (rather like 'freedom fighter')--the word 'guerilla' being one which has been used, for instance, by Marx and Engels, and which has been in use since at least the 18th century. As a result, some people who fought guerilla warfare have in retrospect been seen as freedom fighters--something that the poem is inetrested in.
An Early Christian martyr
The next stanza starts 'God help me', a phrse which suggests the uncertainty fo the speaker in naming what she sees, but also preparing us for the next word in Dharkers list of almost-synonyms: 'martyr'. This word is a very loaded term. If you type it into google images, you come up with a huge range of Christan iconography--pictures of men and women who died for their faith, generally during the persecutions of the Roman empire, but with some later ones. as they were a favourite subject for painters in the Renaissance, this isn't that surprising.  What Dharker is referrring to, though, is the appropriation of this term to cover those hostile to a regime, who are willing to commit acts of violence in the name of their faith.

 It is at this point that she mentions the figure outside the door, for the first time, as a personality: 'I saw his face' and it is at this moment that the poem transforms into something more tender. The would-be martyr or freedom fighter or terrorist is seen simply as a 'child', 'lost' in the shadows. The invitation to come in and eat (reminiscent of George Herbert's poem, 'Love III') in effect defuses the conflict and reveals the apparent threat only as a peaceful 'child', courteous and polite. Perhaps the poem is saying that all apparent terrorists are actually someone's child--or it is highlighting how easy it is to be led into misreading threats by fear--or perhaps a little of both.

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