HEART’S WORDS IN EXILE: Janet Galbraith Reviews Truth in the Cage by Mohammad Ali Maleki. Plus, a Poetic Film Based on Mohammad’s Poem ‘Brother’, Directed by Siân Darling.

Truth in the Cage, with its very title, immediately claims that what we are hearing is truth.  It is a truth that has been caged, a truth that those outside the cage have seldom listened to, a truth often denied and that the ‘truth-tellers’ have vilified. Inside the covers of this chapbook these truths stand against and re-story those of Australia’s neo-liberal, racialised discourses. They speak of state violence as state violence, devoid of obfuscation; they name what has been mis-named. ‘You’re killing us, and then you call it policy!’ They speak beyond representations that precede the book, representations that situate the poet and others incarcerated on Manus Island as ‘uneducated/terrorists’ (‘Truth in the Cage’). They reaffirm the writer’s identity and grow the reader’s understandings of the prison system and lived experiences within it.

I was once young and happy, like you.
I used to jump from one wall to another –
I was so healthy and fresh.                                                                      

I don’t know why they tortured me,
why they cut my wings and feathers (‘Dream of Death’)

Poet Mohammad Ali Maleki writes from Australia’s Manus Prison on Papua New Guinea, a ‘black site’ established by Australia’s immigration detention regime as part of Pacific Solution 2. In his homeland of Iran, Maleki was associated with theatre. He came to write poetry whilst incarcerated in Manus Prison where he remains. He is also a keen gardener, creating and re-creating gardens even as the guards in Manus Prison destroy them. Like his gardens, the poems of Truth in the Cage, Maleki’s first chapbook, are repeated creative interventions amongst overwhelming destruction. Maleki’s poems are a collaborative effort shared with Mansour Shoshtari, his close friend and translator, also incarcerated on Manus Island. The collection is edited by Michele Seminara and published by the small Australian Verity La and Rochford Street presses. It is made up of eight relatively long poems that work to move the reader into an embodied experience of Australia’s immigration detention regime’s practices.

Segel[1] writes that prison literature draws on the ‘desire to address others, to bear witness, to make known the outrageous assault on liberty and human dignity, the humiliation of the individual and the monstrous inhumanity of the camp system that had been imposed on them’. Maleki’s chapbook can be understood to draw on all of these. In doing this he wrests identity, his own identity, from those who would destroy it, and at the same time calls us as readers to account, calling us in to existence as active moral beings. 

In the first poem, ‘Dream of Death’, Maleki immediately signals the importance of listening, the importance of opening ourselves to his stories/poems/experiences.

My dears, I know these stories are old:
but please, I ask you, listen.

We are entreated to take this seriously, for these stories have been told time and again and after almost six years, few have listened. What Maleki is asking for is a deeper listening. A listening, or reading, that extends beyond what we think we know; the imprisoned poet becoming teacher and we his students.

Each poem reads like a letter. ‘You can find my whole life in my poems, like a letter to God’, says Maleki. Some of these letter-poems address no one specific, others address Aylan Kurdi, the young Kurdish-Syrian boy who drowned on a Turkish beach in 2015,  Maleki’s father and mother, and Hamed Shamshiripour, who died by hanging on Manus Island in 2017. These poems are tender and intimate, at times written as dialogues that speak to shared experience and unspoken knowledges. When Maleki addresses these individuals, the non-refugee reader experiences a sense of being displaced — or outside a place that can never really be known or owned. Maleki’s repeated use of the word ‘you’ and ‘your’ is effective in speaking to spaces unknowable for non-incarcerated people. This ‘you’ is me, and is also you: I am present, you are present. And we are accountable. 

Should I thank your government for this?
Is this the care you give refugees? (‘Dream of Death’)

Maleki’s poem ‘Brother’ is a letter to Hamed Shamshiripour, a friend of mine who I knew as a guitarist with a kind and gentle demeanor, who hanged on Manus Island last year. This poem, like many others begins with a singular focus and opens out — from a lone image to a cacophony, or waterfall of images. 

In your dreams you saw how we were all burning
How death made a flame and razed everything.

In doing so this poem places Hamed within a community of shared experience, and also within a brotherhood where his life is invested with worth.

There was no one to even give you water —
I would have died to wet your dry lips.

The tender humanity of the poet is in sharp contrast to the ‘monstrous inhumanity of the camp system’ Segel wrote about, where Hamed’s life, illness and death had been deemed unworthy of care by his jailers. Even nature in this poem displays more humanity than the Australian Government, aligning itself with the brothers:

The sky, sympathising with us,
has turned the clouds into rain and cries too. (‘Brother’)

 Nature as an embodiment of qualities and experiences beyond what human’s can or choose to hold, weaves through the collection. The poem ‘Myself’ begins with a quiet intermingling of sky, moon and a poet’s longing; a calm created through a tender and lyrical language:

It was midnight and quiet
everywhere was silent.
The night sky was full
of stars shining round the moon.

In the fourth stanza the tone shifts:

Then, in the silence
I heard the sound of sobbing

The repeat of the ’s’ sound and the enjambment of ‘sound’ and ‘sob[b]’, which then opens out into the ‘ing’ stops the reader for a moment. Like a lamentation the poet cries out and the full horror of the moment opens as he hears ‘groans worse than [his] own’, groans that ‘swelled the sky’, and experiences a terror that becomes unspeakable — a terror that even nature cannot contain: ‘The fish scattered in fear’. 

The imagery that Maleki invokes in his poems is often vivid and, for me, none is more intriguing than that of the final poem ‘Silence Land’. As I re-read this poem I wonder whether it borrows from Sohrab Sepheri’s first collection of poetry ‘Death of Colour’, a collection where hope is equated with colour. Maleki writes of a return to the ‘starting place’:

What if the woollen jacket I am wearing unravels
and begins to fall apart?
Or the butterfly flies back to its cocoon,
or the autumn leaf grows green
and returns to its branch on that old tree?
What if the tree becomes a seed in the soil — (‘Silence Land’)

The extraordinary imagery of this poem, beautiful as it is, does not hide the loss of hope, perhaps touching on refoulment, perhaps a longing for release through death — or is it a deep desire for rest and rebirth?

All things returning to their starting place…

How peaceful, to live in a colourless world,
everywhere silent and still.

Truth in the Cage speaks many ‘unpleasant truths’. Maleki’sheart’s words in exile’ (‘An Unforseen Life’) do not shy from the horrors or daily torture of indefinite detention. He addresses the reader directly, entreaties us to bear witness, speaks intimate tendernesses amongst horrific hardship, decries various assaults on his self and the inhumanity of the Manus Prison system. In doing this he employs striking imagery that takes the reader into an intricate and complex inner world. Through his own poetic form of truth-telling, Maleki affirms the humanity of himself and his fellow political prisoners:

We brought three things with us when we were born:
discipline, mother wit and realisation.
You tried to take these away from us
but you couldn’t because they are congenital.
Realisation and mother wit aren’t related to literacy:
having these just means we are human. (‘Truth in the Cage’)

An individual’s humanity, at least, is something Australia has as yet been unable to erase.

[1] Petra Čáslavová, ‘The Bulwark against Trauma: Poetry as a Means of Survival in Totalitarian Prisons‘, Bohemica Litteraria

Truth in the Cage 
By Mohammad Ali Maleki 
Verity La Press and Rochford Street Press, 2018

‘BROTHER’, a poetic film written by Mohammad Ali Maleki and directed by Siân Darling

Written from within Manus Island’s notorious detention centre, where Mohammad has been incarcerated for the past five years, ‘Brother’, translated by fellow Manus Island detainee Mansour Shoshtari and edited by Verity La Managing Editor Michele Seminara, is a powerful work of personal and political poetry dedicated to Hamed Shamshiripour, who died by hanging on Manus Island in 2017. The poem can be found in Mohammad’s chapbook ‘Truth in the Cage’, available in ebook and print from our online bookshop. All profits go directly to the author. 

You can read more of Mohammad Ali Maleki’s poetry online at Verity La & view more of Siân Darling’s films on Vimeo.

Janet Galbraith is a writer and poet living on the unceded lands of the Dja Dja Wurrung.  Her work has been published in poetry and academic journals, and newspapers in Australia.  She is founder and facilitator of Writing Through Fences, a project that collaborates with writers and artists incarcerated in Australia’s immigration detention regime.  Her collection of poetry ‘re-membering’ was published by Walleah Press in 2013.

Siân Darling is a documentarian and artist working at the intersection of art and social justice. Siân’s work has been published and exhibited in state institutions, national magazines and poetry anthologies. A regular contributor to Art Guide Australia, Producer of Nasty Women Everywhere, active member of Artists’ Committee, Co-Chair of Right Now, and former General Manager of Human Rights Arts and Film Festival, her work is steadily chipping away at the disconnection between people, our responsibilities to others, and the natural world. 

Mohammad Ali Maleki is an Iranian poet and avid gardener who has been living in detention on Manus Island for four years. His poem ‘The Strong Sunflower’ was the first work published on Verity La’s Discoursing Diaspora project. Since then, Mohammad’s writing has been published by Bluepepper and by the Blue Mountains Refugee Support Group. He has been a featured poet on Rochford Street Review, and his poems and letters have been included in the Dear Prime Minister project and at the Denmark Festival of Voice.  His poem ‘Tears of Stone’ was shortlisted for the Red Room Company’s New Shoots Poetry Prize 2016 and received Special Commendation for extraordinary work in extreme circumstances.

Mohammad’s chapbook, Truth in the Cage, is available for purchase in ebook and print from our online shop. All proceeds go directly to Mohammad.