Out of the Silence: Memories, poems, reflections
Church Times Bookshop £9
WHEN Terry Waite was betrayed into captivity in Beirut in 1987, he was God’s diplomat, working to release hostages in Lebanon. Blindfolded and tortured, he endured almost five years of mostly solitary confinement. This book of prose-poems and reflective commentary is a literary postscript about redemption, and grace.
More widely, the poems reflect a life of benign restlessness, in which Waite’s international work as Archbishop Robert Runcie’s special envoy is the best-known chapter. They were written in tranquillity, largely in rural New Zealand, Cornwall, and Suffolk; and the book sets their composition against Waite’s humanitarian concerns, particularly prison reform, justice for the peoples of Israel and Palestine, and positive legacies from wounded communities such as Northern Ireland.
The most haunting of the poems that illuminate Waite’s 27 themes, or chapters, is “Footsteps in the Corridor”, which deals with his torture. His style is terse: sometimes a line has a single word, and they rarely have more than four or five. Like many of his poems, whether evoking action or reflection, it is set at night. “A searing pain Convulses my body, My feet are burning As blow after blow is struck With cable.”
Yet Waite comments: “I felt an overwhelming sense of pity for the one who had administered the beating. How could he bring himself to treat another human being in such a way?” His questions turn into a prayer of thanks for organisations such as Amnesty International, which campaign indiscriminately against such injustice.
Waite’s poems are best read aloud; they were often first aired within his lectures. His stated aim in them is to universalise, or “capture feelings which I think are common to many”. Illustrating a full life, they include celebration, as at the Llangollen music festival, alongside campaigning compassion, as when visiting inmates in Dartmoor or Rampton. He mourns his father’s death, and celebrates his grandchildren’s exuberance, with equal facility.
He brings to his writing a well-thumbed atlas and an elastic spirituality. One of his few metaphors describes dawn on Lake Victoria; and his Christian pilgrimage embraces Anglican, Russian Orthodox, and Quaker insights and practice. His contacts include international political, cultural, and philanthropic figures, from the Cambridgeshire painter John Bellamy, who encouraged him to write poetry, to Stalin’s daughter Svetlana, who was “not happy about her life in general”.
Perhaps appropriately, these meditations leave a mystery unsolved. Waite writes of a “tall, debonair” visitor to his office at Lambeth Palace some 40 years ago. The visitor handed over a note, containing numbers that, he said, contained the solution to the Irish crisis. “Later”, Waite wrote in his poem “Numbers”, “he left his wife And disappeared from the face of the earth.”
Dr Halsall is a poet and journalist.