The Subversive Power of Poetry
By Virginia J. Pasalo
“QUISIERON enterrarnos, pero se les olvido que somos semillas.” is a battlecry of the Zapatistas, a leftist group in Mexico. It means, “They tried to bury us, they forgot we were seeds.” This “Mexican proverb” is actually a paraphrase of a two-lines poem of Greek poet Dinos Christianopoulos and was probably read by someone who translated the poem into English and used it as a slogan in the demonstrations in Mexico City where students were massacred.
Prof. Nicholas Kostis translated the poem literally, “what didn’t you do to bury me / but you forgot that I was a seed”. Christianopoulos wrote this poem as a lyrical voice for the homosexual community. He was “the first to write homoerotic poetry in the early ’50s in the tradition of legendary Constantine Cavafy” but was marginalized by the Greek literary community because he was a homosexual. He was never promoted by a powerful publishing house so he created a small one, promoting poetry and folk culture, as he criticized the venerable names of Greek literature during his time.
During Hitler’s time, a German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984), wrote about “the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis’ rise to power and subsequent purging of their chosen targets, group after group. It deals with themes of persecution, guilt and responsibility.”
First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
I recall these poets now in the face of the extra-judicial killings (EJKs) committed by the Philippine National Police (PNP), targeting mostly the youth in poorer communities, in a continuing war against drugs. While I know for a fact that there are men of honor and patriotism in their ranks, the PNP, in a series of its operation, has carried out a pattern of killings, following the pronouncement of the President to “shoot suspects if they fight back, make them fight if they don’t, ‘o, kung walang baril, bigyan ng baril’, ‘kill all criminals,’ ‘they are no longer human’ and ‘makapatay lang tayo ng another 32 every day, then maybe we can reduce what ails this country’”.
These are the President’s words, and those words have the weight of a national policy, and is being carried out on the ground by the PNP. A police officer who was interviewed by Reuters speak of a reward system for these kills. No amount of tears from the PNP Chief Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa or the dramatic outburst of Persida Acosta, Chief Public Attorney of the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO), can erase the history of the killing pattern. Omar Khayyám, in The Rubáiyát, as translated by Edward Fitzgerald in 1859, puts it succinctly:
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”
The times of darkness breed the seeds for poetic expression, anthems of change that reflect the sadness, the anger, and the protest against an emerging dictatorship, more dangerous in its madness, decimating the youth it seeks to protect, with so much disrespect for life, and no clear strategy to address widespread poverty.