Terry Anderson's Poems From Captivity

Terry Anderson, the longest-held U.S. hostage, kept an extraordinary account of his seven-year captivity in Lebanon. He composed, in all, 32 pieces he calls his "prison poems." ------------------------------

Poetry, said the poet William Wordsworth,"is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings."

Terry Anderson never professed to be a poet. But chained to a wall in a darkened room, alone with his thoughts and fears and dreams and fellow captives for seven long years, he most surely acquired some powerful feelings. Shortly before his release they spontaneously overflowed.

"I had had a night without sleep, which was not unusual," Anderson recalled. "Just after dawn I woke up Tom. I said, `Tom, I wrote a poem.'

"I recited it to him - we weren't allowed paper or pencils and had to commit everything to memory - and we talked about it and I decided, by God, I kind of like that. The next night I wrote a couple more."

Anderson, who was chief Middle East correspondent for The Associated Press, was abducted in Beirut on March 16, 1985. Thomas Sutherland, who was dean of agriculture at American University in Beirut, was abducted nearly three months later on June 9. Together and separately they were shunted to various prisons in Lebanon until both were released late last year.

Anderson said that when John McCarthy, a British television producer who was taken hostage in 1986, was released Aug. 8, 1991, he and Sutherland were pretty sure their freedom was not far off. During those next four months he wrote what the "prison poems."

"They were like a catharsis," he said.

"It was as if knowing we were going home sometime soon, all those seven years of thinking about my life, my career, my religion, my experiences, what had happened to me, all came together and just all came out."

When Sutherland was freed, along with Terry Waite, a Church of England envoy who had been taken while trying to negotiate the hostages' release, Anderson talked his captors into allowing him to send a letter with them and pen and paper to write it.

"Frankly I was getting worried. By then I had 17 poems in my head and was afraid of losing them. I wrote a letter, then had time to write down 11 of the poems. By the time I was released, I had written 32, all in my head. I wrote them all down later."

The first one he wrote, the Tom-look-what-I've-done poem, is titled "Not Here." In it Anderson calls up experiences in his life, as a Marine in Vietnam and a reporter in Thailand and Japan, vivid reconstructions that allow his mind, at least, to flee captivity.

I lie on Levantine sand, pale next to

the near-chocolate of my other self;

no Asian almond eyes, but huge Semitic ones,

dark with love, not kohl; proud Saracen nose

shouting of towers, and Damascus,

red lips, white teeth whispering of

pomegranates, and ivory.

I'm not chained; there's no steel door,

no bitterness, no anger; those are

much less real than these.

There's pain in the past and present both,

but There is also joy, and love.

I'm not here most days.

And this poem, untitled as are most of the others, "is one of my favorites," the author said:

I dream of growing things,

not in meticulously ordered gardens,

but in abandoned wild profusion.

I think of cutting fallen trees

for firewood with an axe,

clearing a small, leaf-choked

stream, and watching water

running clear and free again.

I think of all the small, wild creatures

I hunted as a boy and shake my head.

Too many wars, mine and others,

have left me unable to see

any gun without recalling

men's, women's, children's faces,

and the sweetly horrifying

smell of bodies in the sun.

I long for life so fiercely,

and I wake to chains.


Anderson, too, discovered how much his religion meant to him in captivity. The four others attending this prison Mass are a Roman Catholic priest, the Rev. Lawrence Jenco, and a Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Benjamin Weir, both hostages when Anderson was taken; hostage David Jacobsen and Tom Sutherland.

Five men huddled close against

the night and our oppressors,

around a bit of stale bread

hoarded from a scanty meal,

and a candle, lit not only

as a symbol but to read the text by.

The priest's as poorly clad,

as drawn with strain as any,

but his voice is calm, his face serene.

This is the core of his existence,

the reason he was born.

Behind him I can see his predecessors

in their generations, back to the Catacombs,

heads nodding in approval, hands with his

tracing out with his the stately ritual,

adding the power of their suffering

and faith to his, and ours.

The ancient words shake off

their dust, and come alive.

The voices of their authors

echo clearly from the damp, bare walls.

The familiar prayers come

straight out of our hearts.

Once again Christ's promise

is fulfilled; his presence fills us.

The miracle is real.


Anderson wrote all except one of his 32 poems in free verse. The exception, a poem offering his definition of faith, follows a pattern of four syllables a line. "I did an awful lot of thinking about my faith, trying to figure out just what exactly it was I believed." The 38-line poem concludes:

Sometimes I feel

all the world's pain.

I only say

that once in my

own need I felt

a light and warm

and loving touch

that eased my soul

and banished doubt

and let me go

on to the end.

It is not proof -

there can be none.

Faith's what you find

when you're alone

and find you're not.

Faith, then, to endure captivity, and something more:

Patience is not a virtue -

it's a necessity, a survival trait,

an ever-filling well from which

I sip, or gulp, exhausted

by the desert of this non-life.

My faith surges and recedes;

hope sometimes abandons me,

leaving only patience.

I kick and scream and flail

inside my head; patience

offers only soft resistance,

washing gently at my rage.

I know if I dive deeply,

I will find patience, hope and faith

emerging from a single source,

eternal and unchanging.

"One of our big problems," Anderson said, "was figuring out how to deal with our guards." Just so. He titled this poem "Satan."

Satan is a name we use

for darkness in the world,

a goat on which we load

our most horrific sins,

to carry off our guilt.

But all the evil I have seen

was done by human beings.

It isn't a dark angel

who rigs a car into a bomb,

or steals money meant for others' food.

And it wasn't any alien spirit

that chained me to this wall.

One of those who kidnapped me

said once: "No man believes he's evil."

A penetrating and subtle thought

in these circumstances, and from him.

And that's the mystery:

He's not stupid, and doesn't seem insane.

He knows I've done no harm to him or his.

He's looked into my face

each day for years, and

heard me crying in the night.

Still he daily checks my chain,

makes sure my blindfold is secure,

then kneels outside my cell

and prays to Allah, merciful, compassionate.

I know too well the darker urges in myself,

the violence and selfishness.

I've seen little in him I can't recognize.

I also know my mind would shatter,

my soul would die if I did the things he does.

I'm tempted to believe there really is

a devil in him, some malefic,

independent force that makes him

less or other than a man.

That's too easy and too dangerous an answer;

It's how so many evils come to be.

I must reject, abhor and fight against

these acts, and acknowledge that

they're not inhuman - just the opposite.

We can't separate the things

we do from what we are;

Hate the sin and love the sinner is not

a concept I'll ever really understand.

I'll never love him - I'm not Christ.

But I'll try to achieve forgiveness

because I know that in the end,

as always, Christ was right.

Neither could Anderson bring himself to hate the country of his captivity nor its people. The poem, a lament, begins "For 3,000 years this land was known as paradise. . ." and describes the grandeur and gifts that have hallowed it and the blood hatreds that have cursed it. The poem concludes:

But even years of war, centuries

of greed, have not erased the beauty.

Mountains stripped of cover are

still glorious; streams yet run clear,

and the earth's as rich as ever.

The people, tried by fire, retain

their courage and intelligence;

they may be ready to become again

what once they were. This land so steeped

in history, and faith, and blood,

can be clothed again in riches

if you choose; the name of Lebanon

can be once more a metaphor of God's grace.