Thursday, December 15, 2016

Ryan Van Winkle

Ode for Rain from Death Row

The rain is a cold, clean prayer,
the only light I want to see.
I say it still rains on her

like it rains on the bars and streets
somewhere outside the walls.
And in the rain, she is always twenty,

her shoes always candy-red Converse,
her jeans always damped to her thighs,
her mouth never parted from mine.

She hasn’t pressed her lips to glass
since the fire; the ashes are back to ashes, the dust
follows dust, the spring rain powders her arms

and evaporates in the stare of the sun.
And this rain is the only light I want to see.
A mist that kisses till my socks are sponge,

till the fire fizzles and baby is back again
cooing with hot-chocolate-warm hands.
Before I die I want to stand outside,

birth-naked, let the Lord soak me.
But options and pardons are gone.
The priest only offers a glass

where my throat wants a holy rain that pours
in sheets and hoods and lasts for forty days,
till it floods, and floats my sins away.

Published in 'Tomorrow, We Will Live Here' from Salt Publishing, 2010

This poem is based on a quote from Kenny Ritchie – a dual British-American citizen who was on Death Row in Ohio following a conviction for killing a two-year-old in a 1987 arson. In 2006 he had reached the end of a lengthy appeals process and was quoted in The Observer saying, “My dearest wish before I die is to stand outside in Scottish rain and to feel it soak me.” In 2008, he accepted a plea bargain which released him from death row and he returned to the UK. 

bio: RYAN VAN WINKLE is a poet, live artist and critic living in Edinburgh, His second collection, The Good Dark, won the Saltire Society's 2015 Poetry Book of the Year award. As a member of Highlight Arts he has organized festivals and translation workshops in Syria, Pakistan and Iraq. Recently, they have been working on a new play about the death penalty in Pakistan. This project has been commissioned by the Justice Project Pakistan and is in partnership with Ajoka Theatre and Complicite. To learn more about their JPP's human rights work please visit:



Thursday, April 14, 2016

Tim Holmes


"Simon the Hammerman"
 If we want to test how strong a material is––say tungsten steel––we subject it to increasing pressure until it crumbles.  That measures its strength.  Thus we know we are fools to expect more from it than its capability.  But we never do that with human beings!

In this very troubling way we actually treat human beings with less inherent dignity than inanimate objects.  If there is any moral pressure beyond which a human is commonly known to break I've never heard of it. Of course we know that people do break under torture, but is there a point where we then find them innocent, as in acknowledging they were stretched beyond all possible expectation?  We won't admit confessions obtained under torture in most modern courts, but I have never heard of a moral equivalent: a point beyond which no human being could survive without breaking morally, meaning a place of innocence beyond all reasonable expectation.  Otherwise we would hold certain criminals innocent, such as murderers with PTSD, who simply behave exactly the way they were trained.

So it is I find myself returning over and over to the compelling story–which reads more like a legend from the book of Job than a real life––of Simon the Hammerman.  Simon might be the loneliest man in history. He is the only person I've ever heard of who I think might be, incredibly, both a mass murderer and a saint. 

"Weight of Responsibility; Simon the Hammerman"

Simon Mpungose was a real person who was executed in South Africa for multiple murders in 1985.  But let's look at this remarkable man.  Ostracized by his community, the Zulu, before he was born, he grew up as basically a wild child; orphaned and never educated or even socialized.  In his whole life he had only one friend: briefly as a child he lived with another kid in the bush before that kid was killed by police.  Later on Simon stepped into a trap he'd been totally unaware of, the result of being a black man born into a racist nation: he stole a loaf of bread from a white person.  As a result he was sentenced to years of hard labor breaking rocks in a brutal prison camp. 

Being totally unsocialized means his moral compass was set not by his community with instruction, but by his internal religion that was revealed to him in his dreams.  During his internment in the camp he had a powerful prophetic dream in which his god revealed to him that the white rocks he was compelled to smash with his hammer all day long were really symbols for the unbreakable white heads that ruled his nation so brutally.  But despite enduring the most inhumane upbringing possible, Simon was blessed with a good heart that could not be crushed.  Simon knew that the instructions his god gave him would hurt people.  So when his sentence was up and he was to be released, he went to plead to his (white) warden to be kept in prison so that he would not have to hurt white people––the very people who had abused his people for hundreds of years––as his god demanded of him.  But the warden only laughed at him and shoved him out the gate anyway.

Simon tried then to isolate himself from whites by taking jobs in all-black industries like gold mining camps.  But every attempt to save white people from his terrible mission was brutally foiled by the very people he tried to protect.  Eventually his strong, loving heart lost out to the compelling vision of his dream, and he took up his hammer to do what he was trained to do in prison: smash white heads. Thus he earned the name "Simon the Hammerman", by killing and injuring a number of people with his hammer.  But Simon's pristine logic did not fit with South African law.  He was of course arrested and tried.  Knowing that death would be just recompense for his acts, at his trial he instructed his court-appointed lawyer not to defend him.  Instead the lawyer hired a psychologist to declare him insane.  But the psychologist found Simon to be not only not insane, but full of courage and wisdom, a man of "superior intelligence".  So in the end everyone agreed: all South Africa could see in Simon was a murderer, and the only thing it could offer him turns out to be the only thing it ever gave to him at all: death.

Simon knew that each side in the trial was following their own moral code and this was how it must be.  Accepting his fate graciously, before being led to his execution Simon delivered a powerful and poetic speech that is also a gentle but terrible indictment of a blind culture that may as well be yours or mine.  Those who heard it witnessed one of the most remarkable moments in history. 

The contrast between what he gave us and what we gave him should humble every soul.  In the end did Simon––following the moral dictates of his internal god––break under pressure, or did he actually break the moral system used to try to crush him?  You tell me. 

[I urge you to read the full account of Simon in Rian Malan's stunning book, My Traitor's Heart)  He raises questions that I wish had never been asked.  But now that they are I cannot help but stand with him and say, here is a good man, innocent of his very real crimes by virtue of having endured a life of more torture than any single human can stand.]

Image links: (all images by Tim Holmes Studio) 

"Simon the Hammerman", oil, 58 x 79 cm,  by Tim Holmes:   
"Weight of Responsibility; Simon the Hammerman", charcoal, 64 x 46 cm, by Tim Holmes: