A friend of mine recently sent me an email containing the poem below. I usually do not forward such material, but this one is the exception. It is a smart piece of work and says more than masses of media coverage ever could.
The piece is entitled “Refugees” and was written in response to the Syrian refugee situation in Europe, but could easily be about immigrants from Central America and Mexico seeking asylum in the United States. Apart from its poignant message, the poem uses a unique literary form – the palindrome. A palindrome is a word, phrase, number, or other sequence of characters which reads the same backward or forward. An example of a palindrome is the sentence, “Madam, I’m Adam.” So is the word “Otto.” Both can be read forward or backward.
The author of the poem is Brian Bilston. Frequently described as the “Poet Laureate of Twitter,” I do not imagine his name is one that comes to mind immediately when speaking of contemporary poets, yet his poems have earned him more than 20,000 followers to date. He is an Englishman living in Oxford who uses the alias “Brian Bilston” to keep his identity secret “for the time being at least. Not for any sordid or particularly interesting reason – other than the real me would just prefer to remain in the background.” In an age where social media is a tool for self-promotion, Bilston goes against the grain by using the form to mask his identity. “Brian” started life as a football correspondent for a fictional newspaper, The Dudley Echo.
In his poem, Bilston forces people to re-think their prejudice against refugees with this startling poem highlighting the plight of those fleeing conflict and persecution. “Refugee” won praise for recounting the pains suffered by those seeking asylum in Europe in unexpected fashion – and in just twenty-four lines!
Read top-to-bottom as normal, his piece says refugees “are not welcome here,” calls on them to “go back to where they came from” and says “a place should only belong to those who are born there” and “build a wall to keep them out.” If you have been following the political scene in the United States, such phrases should sound familiar, particularly from the Republican side of the issue.
Bilston then adds a small request at the end of his poem: “Now read from bottom-to-top”. And the results are really truly something else. So with the above as introduction, here is Bilston’s masterful gem in full:
They have no need of our help
So do not tell me
These haggard faces could belong to you or me
Should life have dealt a different hand
We need to see them for who they really are
Chancers and scroungers
Layabouts and loungers
With bombs up their sleeves
Cut-throats and thieves
They are not
We should make them
Go back to where they came from
Share our food
Share our homes
Share our countries
Instead let us
Build a wall to keep them out
It is not okay to say
These are people just like us
A place should only belong to those who are born there
Do not be so stupid to think that
The world can be looked at another way
(now read from bottom to top)
To that I can only say – genius, absolutely genius.