Human Rights, Literature

Songs for the night

Nazim Hikmet's book of poetry

Although I do not do it very well, I realize that in moments of great despair and agony, moments when everything seems lost, one can always turn to singing. Brecht said that we must all sing about the dark times. Neruda, in his memoir, recounted the story of the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, who sang during his captivity to vanquish his captors. Here is his story as told by Neruda:

“Another poet I frequently visited in Moscow and in the country was a Turk, Nazim Hikmet, a legendary writer kept in prison for eighteen years by his country’s bizarre governments. Accused of attempting to incite the Turkish navy into rebellion, Nazim was condemned to the punishments of hell. The trial was held on a warship. He told me he was forced to walk on the ship’s bridge until he was too weak to stay on his feet, then they stuck him into a section of the latrines where the excrement rose half a meter about the floor. My brother poet felt his strength failing him. The stench made him reel. Then the thought struck him: my tormentors are keeping an eye on me, they want to see my drop, they want to watch me suffer. His strength came back with pride. He began to sing, low at first, then louder, and finally at the top of his lungs. He sang all the songs, all the love poems he could remember, his own poems, the ballads of the peasants, the people’s battle hymns. He sang everything he knew. And so he vanquished the filth and his torturers. When he told me those things I said to him: ‘You sang for all of us, my brother. We need have no doubts any longer, or wonder what to do. We know now that we must begin to sing.”

(from Pablo Neruda, Memoirs: Confeso que he vivido, Penguin Books, 1978)

*This is for Sherlyn Cadapan, Karen Empeño, Jonas Burgos, Luisa Dominado, Nilo Arago, the Calubads, Prudencio Calubid, and all the desaparecidos who possibly, just possibly, might still be alive and may still be suffering in the hands of their tormentors. We sing for you til the day we see you again.


This is Hikmet’s advise to those imprisoned by fascists:


If instead of being hanged by the neck
you’re thrown inside
for not giving up hope
in the world, your country, and people,
if you do ten or fifteen years
apart from the time you have left,
you won’t say,
“Better I had swung from the end of a rope
like a flag” –
you’ll put your foot down and live.

It may not be a pleasure exactly,
but it’s your solemn duty
to live one more day
to spite the enemy.

Part of you may live alone inside,
like a stone at the bottom of a well.
But the other part
must be so caught up in the flurry of the world
that you shiver there inside
when outside, at forty days’ distance, a leaf moves.

To wait for letters inside,
to sing sad songs,
or to lie awake all night staring at the ceiling
is sweet but dangerous.

Look at your face from shave to shave,
forget your age,
watch out for lice
and for spring nights,

and always remember
to eat every last piece of bread –
also, don’t forget to laugh heartily.

And who knows,
the woman you love may stop loving you.
Don’t say it’s no big thing :
it’s like the snapping of a green branch
to the man inside.

To think of roses and gardens inside is bad,
to think of seas and mountains is good.
Read and write without rest,
and I also advise weaving
and making mirrors.

I mean, it’s not that you can’t pass
ten or fifteen years inside
and more –
you can,
as long as the jewel
on the left side of your chest
doesn’t lose its luster.

May 1949

tr. by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk
from a website devoted to Nazim Hikmet


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