There are many kinds of desperation, as many as the stars above and the souls beneath them. The death of a child, the disintegration of a marriage, homes lost to floodwaters and whirlwinds, all of these things can drive you to — and beyond — the point of suicide.
And yet, there are sources of strength as varied as the sorrow. For one man, that source was found in unwritten words, tapped out on prison walls and shared with his captured brothers in Vietnam.
Maj. Gen. John Borling, a 6-plus-year “guest” at the infamous Hanoi Hilton is, like Joyce Kilmer and Wilfred Owen, a soldier-poet. Interned under inhuman conditions from 1966 until 1973, he survived by putting words together in his head, memorizing them and then sharing his work with other prisoners, including Sen. John McCain, by using a rudimentary code to tap out the words on walls.
When he was finally released from captivity, he recorded the memorized pieces on cassettes. This year, the 40th anniversary of that liberation, his poems have been collected and published in “Taps on the Walls: Poems from the Hanoi Hilton.”
In the introduction, Gen. Borling writes “This is a story about the power of the unwritten word. It is a redemptive story — how poetry helped save me during 6-plus years as a POW in North Vietnamese prison camps.”
Here is his rumination on resistance:
“When you cling to values you know are true/Like family, God, the red white and blue/It’s your fortress ‘gainst indoctrination/When floodwaters rise, breaking mind levee/You go on, though the standard staff heavy/But you live in confirmed desperation.”
Reading this book gave me some insight into the character of the men who lived for years in isolation and uncertainty, and who were still able to find within themselves a reason to survive. Whether it be for family, for faith, or out of defiance against their oppressors, they fought back. And they often did so with a sense of gallows humor.
Gen. Borling’s work made me think of other poems that represent the strength of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming pain and grief. During these past months, Americans have been subjected to exceptional tragedy, whether manmade or caused by random acts of nature.
Superstorm Sandy battered our coastlines and destroyed the memories of Jersey summers. An evil young man shattered the innocence of children in Newtown, Conn. A joyous celebration of athleticism and freedom was hijacked in Boston by ungrateful immigrants. And Oklahoma was swept up in the brutal whirlwinds.
For them, the healing balm of poetry.
To our beloved neighbors across the bridge, lines from their native son Walt Whitman:
“Nature is incomprehensible at first/Be not discouraged, keep on/There are divine things well envelop’d/I swear to you there are divine beings/More beautiful than words can tell.”
To the mourners in Sandy Hook, words of comfort from John Donne:
“Death be not proud, though some have called thee/Mighty and dreadfull, for thou art not so/ For those whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow/Die not, poor death, or yet canst thou kill me.”
To the runners in Boston who continue to seek the finish line, encouragement from Rudyard Kipling:
“If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew/To serve your turn long after they are gone/And so hold on when there is nothing in you/Except the Will which says to them “Hold on.”
And finally, to the homeless in our heartland, inspiration from William Ernest Henley:
“Out of the night that covers me/Black as the Pit from pole to pole/I thank whatever gods may be/For my unconquerable soul.”
Whether memorized in a prison camp, handwritten on parchment, typed on onion skin or spoken from the stage on a warm summer’s evening in the park, words are powerful. As long as we have the ability to write, read and listen to sentiments like these, I think we’ll be fine.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.