for Mordechai Vanunu
not to be complicit
not to accept everyone else is silent it must be alright
not to keep one’s mouth shut to hold onto one’s job
not to accept public language as cover and decoy
not to put friends and family before the rest of the world
not to say I am wrong when you know the government is wrong
not to be just a bought behaviour pattern
to accept the moment and fact of choice
I am a human being
and I exist
a human being
and a citizen of the world
responsible to that world
—and responsible for that world
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2007. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2007 was Alan Spence.
I’ve said it before: Tom Leonard should be designated a National Treasure. His influence on contemporary Scottish writing, in terms of what we write about and how, is immeasurable – he opened up doors for the rest of us to walk through. This poem, dedicated to Mordechai Vanunu who spent the best part of twenty years in prison for telling what he knew about Israel’s nuclear programme, could be Tom’s own credo. It’s the very opposite of rhetoric; it’s a simple, profound, direct, challenging statement of how we should be – existentially and politically – in the world: to accept the moment and fact of choice.
The poem was written to be read at a specific occasion—the installation in April 2005 of Mordechai Vanunu as rector of the University of Glasgow. The rector is a person elected as representative of the students on the university senate and is elected by the students to serve for two years. Vanunu, though nominated and elected by the students of Glasgow University, was unable to attend his own installation, and the ceremony was held symbolically in his absence at an event in Bute Hall, Glasgow University, attended by the principal of the university Sir Muir Russell, with professors, lecturers and students.
Vanunu was unable to attend because he was detained by the Israeli authorities in Jerusalem and refused permission to leave the country. He had in fact recently spent 18 years in jail, much of it in solitary confinement, for the crime of letting it be known to the world at large that the nuclear installation he was employed in in Israel was secretly making nuclear weapons. At the time of my writing this note to the poem, October 2007, Mordechai Vanunu is back in jail in Israel for the crime of speaking with foreign journalists and visiting what he himself referred to as ‘the Palestinian ghettos’.
As a professor at Glasgow University, being one of three writers appointed to the Chair of Creative Writing at Glasgow University in 2001, I was able to read my new poem from the platform standing beside the Principal, and to congratulate the students on their political maturity and evident sense of social responsibility in voting for this courageous man. It was sad to see the robe that should have been on Vanunu’s shoulders draped across the empty chair on which he should have been sitting during the installation ceremony.
But the desire for liberty and freedom from mutual destruction that Vanunu stood for, and stands for, cannot be suppressed: that is a truth that many young people, students or otherwise, have repeatedly throughout history maintained in despite of those sundry forces for destruction and the suppression of liberty too often backed by too many of their elders. The students of Glasgow University were saying by their official endorsement of Vanunu: ‘This is how you—and all of us—should behave.’
My poem was written at the end of a run of poems I had written over about nine months, having had a burst of writing following heart disease resulting in stents being put in several of my arteries. The procedure was a complete success, but I felt a sense of necessity for certain forms of saying to be expressed, and the urgency seemed to be part of the forms of concision that were given me.