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Migrant Words - John Berger

I do not remember the exact moment when I first discovered the eternal spring that is John Berger. But every rendezvous with his words has been rediscovery. Ways of seeing - his famous series on the act of ‘seeing’, and the social, cultural and political contexts within which art is embedded - burst on the literary and art criticism scene like the invention of colour. Years later it is still responsible for small explosions in the minds of young artists and critics. He wrote about everything under the sun, and more - art, photography, poetry, history, culture, storytelling, politics, migration patterns, the veins of a leaf, the wrinkles on the skin of an aging lover or the colour of dreams. He wrote with conviction, but also with the curious wonder of a toddler discovering space. One of his books is entitled “Hold Everything Dear” and that is probably the best life advice that I have culled from a poet’s words. Today is his birthday, and I’m sharing a poem that holds the seed of his explorations with language, metaphor, stories and histories, but also his empathy and sensitivity for migrants and labourers. As P. Sainath points out, suddenly, the story of migrants has gone viral during the lockdown, and we are worried about migrants returning home. But people seldom ask about why they left their homes in the first place. This is something that Berger thought about deeply too. Today’s poem is testimony to his search for meaning.

Berger on poetry: ‘Poems, even when narrative, do not resemble stories. All stories are about battles, of one kind or another, which end in victory and defeat. Everything moves towards the end, when the outcome will be known. Poems, regardless of any outcome, cross the battlefields, tending the wounded, listening to the wild monologues of the triumphant or the fearful. They bring a kind of peace. Not by anesthesia or easy reassurance, but by recognition and the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it had never been. Yet the promise is not of a monument. . . The promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out...In all poetry, words are a presence before they are a means of communication.’

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