Keeping Terrorists at Bay by Pete Mullineaux

The Guantanamo inmates are writing poems, (who

knows, next it will be cricket and ballroom dancing)

putting it all down, with blunt pencils that still

make marks you can see, on paper that doesn’t lie.

Despite the free time, scribbling is often frenzied,

some detainees compose automatically, even in sleep.

One epic alone has a thousand stanzas and the writer

knows them by heart, (they have never left the heart).

A few shorter verses have even been published.


There are boundaries to this generous dispensation:

prisoners are not allowed to communicate. The poem

must not carry a message intended for other ears.

This is too wishy-washy; let us make it clearer –

a poem cannot be aimed at an identifiable target.

One opus has been intercepted and destroyed

because it addressed the writer’s mother: beginning,

‘Dear Mother.’ Remember, these people are devious,

they do not know the ropes or understand restraint;

deceptive ramblings may contain hidden devices,

guiding the reader towards subversive meaning.


You have to know the code to see between the lines,

it’s a cultural thing and the hard-pressed authorities

employ special censors, trained to look for clues.

Even here you cannot be too careful, who can tell:

perhaps some in secret are poets themselves?

It is hard not to be swayed by the power of words.

As a precaution, line-detectors and semantic nit-pickers

are relieved from front line duty at regular intervals,

to avoid battle fatigue: the possibility of seduction.


The prisoners are not as innocent as they claim.

Believe us, we have had to discover the hard way,

many poems are heat-seeking and know their purpose;

others step up, clothed in a bland conformity,

so you drop your guard and wave them through

only to find they carry a hidden payload…

There is an imperceptible pause, a nano-second

when you are neither hot nor cold; north, south, east or west;

alive or dead; before all becomes crystal-clear

as the words literally explode in your face:

or worse still, inside your head.



Pete Mullineaux – 2008. (As published in Poetry Ireland Review: issue 91.)  I am a writer/teacher and an Amnesty International supporter living in Galway.

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