Review: ‘Hands and Wings: Poems for Freedom from Torture’

On Wednesday 25th November, a large crowd gathered in the Norrington Room of Blackwell’s bookshop for the launch of a new poetry anthology, Hands and Wings: Poems for Freedom from Torture. The event was introduced by Ann Gibson, Chair of Freedom from Torture, the charity for which the collection was written. In a brief but informative talk, she described the organisation’s work in providing psychological, physical, and material support to refugees in the UK who have fled torture in their home country. Brochures and leaflets were available, in which survivors told their stories in their own words. From Gibson’s words, the importance of Freedom from Torture’s work was made clear, but there is still much to be done. Currently, the charity is only able to reach one in three victims of torture who live in the UK.

Hands and Wings: Poems for Freedom from Torture

The next talk was given by author Philip Pullman, who contributed a foreword to Hands and Wings. He offered his interpretation of poetry as an art form: what it strives to achieve, what power it has. One pertinent exclamation proved a nugget of wisdom for those exploring poetry for the first time: “No, it doesn’t have to rhyme, but it does have to do something.” The notion of poetry that Pullman presented centred on its elusiveness: poems rarely name anything with certainty, but rather hint at obscured meanings; they always illuminate the same image, but from different perspectives. Pullman concluded by linking his thoughts to the anthology being presented, asserting that its main subject is not torture, but the nature of human existence.

Dorothy Yamamoto, the book’s editor, affirmed its core ethos as a celebration of connectedness. In her own talk, she described her journey of developing the book, from conceptualisation and commissioning, to her childlike excitement when the emails containing poems began to arrive, “Each morning feeling like Christmas morning.” She spoke with just as much enthusiasm about the editorial process, when the individual poems started to speak to one another, coming together to form the collection as a whole. She ended by drawing from Pullman’s foreword, making the point that poetry is the sound of humans feeling, seeing, and thinking in harmony with one another.

The remainder of the event consisted of readings from four of the contributors: Wendy Klein, Kate Venables, Ian House, and Hylda Sims. A highlight of the poems recited was House’s ‘The Last Meal’, based on a series of prints by Mat Collishaw that depict the last meals chosen by death row inmates, rendered in the style of 17th-century still-life paintings. The poet ruminated upon how he would have felt to be in each individual’s position, projecting his thoughts onto them. Through this, House painted a humbling picture of his own: a portrait, in his own words, of “the self’s final assertion.” These emotive readings ended with a collaboration between all four poets, collectively performing David Attwooll’s ‘Freedom from Torture’. Attwooll’s poem described a bread-making class organised for torture survivors, moving from the simplicity of bread to acknowledge all that it can stand for, and what it can mean for people from all over the world: home.

This was not only a moving and thought-provoking event, but also an important step in raising awareness for a worthwhile charity. As perhaps expected, the Norrington Room was very busy, and a bigger space with more seating would not have gone amiss. However, on this occasion, the intimacy served to generate an atmosphere that only added to the proceedings. The poetry readings and talks worked as a harmonious whole, their interconnected nature both echoing Freedom from Torture’s aim, and providing a fitting occasion to launch Hands and Wings.

Enid Still

Hands and Wings: Poems for Freedom from Torture is available online here from White Rat Press,  or at Blackwell’s Bookshop, 51 Broad St, Oxford, OX1 3BQ. You can donate to Freedom from Torture here.

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