Make a whistle from my throat
I do not know
what will happen after I die.
I do not want to know.
But I would like the Potter to make a whistle
from the clay of my throat.
May this whistle fall into the hands
of a cheeky and naughty child
and the child to blow hard on the whistle continuously
with the suppressed and silent air of his lungs
and disrupt the sleep
of those who seem dead
to my cries.
“Make a whistle from my throat” is an anonymous poem written in 2005 by a refugee held in the Baxter Refugee Detention Centre, Australia (part of Poems from Baxter — a collection published by the Refugee Action Centre). Like Tom Shapcott’s “Seven Refugee Poems” (2006) and Les Murray’s “Succour” (2002) and “Eucalypts in exile” (2010), these poems by Baxter Centre detainees have explored presence and absence, including the dissonance of memory, from the point of view of people who are ‘nowhere’ – not even in exile. The category of exile is a category which oft appears in the Old and New Testament, but the category of detainee is one that is more of an invention of twentieth century diplomacy and twenty-first century politicisation of the process of claiming asylum.
The practice of indefinitely detaining those seeking refugee status along with those illegal non-citizens who have made it to the Australian mainland is controversial on many levels, but it is not the focus of this post. Rather, the focus is the transitory but not necessarily temporary nature of the detained refugee experience and the way it elicits a perspective on what it means to be without ‘home,’ without even the tenuous solace of exile.
The theological dimensions of speaking for the voiceless as a poet and giving the exiled, and thus often the absent, space for their voices to be heard is worth pondering. That the poet is not named, that they themselves are anonymous, also has significance for me as a reader. In this case the most vulnerable, and the most without agency, can give voice to their experience.
This poet acknowledges the purgatorial nature of this existence and the sense of hopelessness that is attendant. Yet, in the midst of the fog of hopelessness the poet asserts that an act of creation, of reuse, may give voice to his or her cries. The implicit recalling of the theological metaphor of God as Potter and of the body being made of clay is central to this poem. The visceral image of the throat being removed after death serving as both a play thing, a child’s folly, and a clarion call for the suffering one that no longer has a home is striking.
This poem serves as a lament for those that feel oppressed and ignored; the comic moment of the cheeky and naughty child being the one that serves as messenger places the acknowledgement of the seriousness of the lack of agency of the poet in sharp relief. The poet is not interested in the possibility of judgment or salvation following death, declaring that the throat of their still body would be more likely to give voice among those who have life but “seem dead.”
I wonder, yet, what poems like this teach us about what is means to be without agency. How as creatives or teachers or pastors might we use what agency we may have for good?