Today is National Poetry Day in the UK, and this year's theme is 'Refuge'.
On a global scale, the world is experiencing the highest levels of displacement ever recorded. On a more personal level, I have friends who have become refugees this year. And while the disastrous war in Ukraine or the horrors of migrants drowning in the Mediterranean may be prominent in the thoughts of many, they are just the tip of an iceberg which includes mass displacement in and from countries such as Congo, Afghanistan and so many others, due to war, natural disasters, famine and a host of other reasons. Even for those who have fled or claimed asylum under marginally less terrible conditions than some others, the emotional impact (at the very least) is shocking.
Carolyn Forché's 'The Boatman', from her most recent and truly wonderful collection In the Lateness of the World, speaks in the voice of a taxi driver who is also a Syrian refugee. I find the juxtaposition of the incredible horror of what he's endured to arrive in a (relatively, apparently) safe city, with his determination to "see that you arrive safely, my friend, I will get you there", almost unbearable. Forché brilliantly conveys the contrasts between the warm taxi and the filthy, dangerous rubber boat, the hotel in Rome with its portraits of films stars and the dead child floating in the water. How surreal it is to hear someone in a calm environment quietly describe the inhumanity they endured to arrive there. And there is also an underlying sense that death is never far away. 'The Boatman', as a title and the self-description of "the boatman, driving a taxi at the end of the world", makes me think of Charon, who took the souls of the dead across the river Styx.
On this melancholy note, please enjoy National Poetry Day and the many ways in which it explores 'Refuge', some surely more comforting than others.