Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Unwritten Word

I was an ugly cry mess this morning driving home after dropping the boys off at school. I was listening to NPR, to a story about one of the soldiers who spent more than six years as a hostage in the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War. John Borling was shot down from his plane, captured, tortured and held in a six by seven foot cell with no windows for years, and hearing his old, rough voice explain how the composing of poetry in his head and then the tapping out of that poetry in code on the wall kept him alive just undid me. You know - the irony of a soldier fighting in an unjust war, bombing civilians in what would ultimately become a lost cause was not lost on me. However, I was so moved by the power of what Bowling called the unwritten word, the nearly unbelievable impulse to create and to survive. He said this in his newly published book of poetry, Taps on the Walls: Poems from the Hanoi Hilton:

The essence of the human condition is the ability to create. Jail me, hurt me, hate me, but the mind and spirit are weapons. No books, no writing materials, nothing—just the mind. Find a way. One of the ways for me was to mentally create poetry. Create poetry and keep it memorized — lots of poetry. It was a way to fight back and provide legacy for my wife and daughter should I not survive. I tapped those poems through the walls and others helped carry that legacy for years.

Here's one poem that describes how he got through the day as a knight, but you really have to listen to him (I dare you not ugly cry), and you can do so here:

The Tourney
The scepter raised and silent challenge made,
Again I mental summon lance and shield,
And somehow last till regal colors fade.
It's now, the victor absent from the field,
Hard pallet draws me, huddled down upon,
A distant tower tolls a muffled chime;
Another muddled day has eddied on
To join the addled streams of tousled time.
Embittered languor blankets captive man;
So armored, sally forth at dawn, consigned
To stand alone, and parry best I can
Until appointed tourney's end, resigned.
For time's an old and boring enemy.
Too cruel to kill forgotten men like me.


  1. Thank you, for sharing his words. Just reading them brings tears to my eyes - I'm almost afraid to listen...

  2. A sonnet! Such a beautiful one. The creative human mind is beyond wonderful.......

  3. well, no tears, but a deep deep appreciation for this man's creativity and resilience. I listened to the interview - thank you so much for sharing on your blog.

  4. "The essence of the human condition is the ability to create. Jail me, hurt me, hate me, but the mind and spirit are weapons."

    Something I wish every human being could hear and absorb. Such a glorious state of grace he was in to know that deep in his bones. I heard the interview too and was struck still.

  5. How poor our lives would be without NPR.
    Thank you. I didn't hear this one. Such an incredibly powerful message. Such an incredibly powerful image. My god.

  6. Oh my. Hard to believe he could distill wise beauty in caged pain. What an amazing mind.

  7. Poetry amid the horror - were we all so resilient.

  8. Interesting. It's amazing what people will do to survive.

  9. blown away by his words and story.

  10. I cried the other day listening to This American Life. An old episode, and I can't remember exactly what the stories were that made me cry--I always listen while I'm cleaning and forget the stories, like dreams--except for the very same reasons here. The horror and beauty of it all.



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