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The most moving Father’s Day present

Poems that Make Grown Men Cry, edited by Anthony and Ben Holden, was published in April this year in partnership with Amnesty. It’s a deeply moving book and makes a lovely gift, not just for poetry lovers but those seeking glimpses into the human condition.

The concept is simple: 100 well-known men choose and write about poems that touch them at a deep emotional level. Some of the contributions are deeply personal, and many talk, not surprisingly, about father/child relationships. Many of the contributors are long-term Amnesty supporters; four of them are former prisoners of conscience, one is our secretary general Salil Shetty and others (such as Peter Sis and Ariel Dorfman) have close experience of being denied their human rights.

From the universal to the intimate

In essence, there are two writers for each of the 100 contributions: the poet and the man who has chosen the poem. In a couple of cases, two people have chosen the same poem, though their reasoning is utterly different. The book is testament to poetry’s transformative power, whereby the poet takes a unique perception of an experience and transmutes it into something universal – to which the reader responds in a highly personal manner.

I’ll leave you with the words of former Argentine-born human rights lawyer Juan Méndez, now United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture. He was adopted as an Amnesty prisoner of conscience in the mid-1970s after his arrest, imprisonment and torture by the Argentinean regime for representing political prisoners.

Méndez's chosen poem is Brindis con el Viejo by Mauricio Rosencof, an Uruguayan writer who spent 12 years in prison, where he was tortured, for political reasons. Ultimately both Rosencof and Mendez are reflecting on the love of fathers and sons for each other, transcending all sorrow and guilt.

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Juan Méndez introduces the poem that makes him cry

‘I read this sonnet only in 2012, although for decades I had known the story of the inhumane conditions in which the Uruguayan “hostages” were held for eleven years. Coming at the very end of the remarkable Memorias del Calabozo, the poem brought tears to my eyes because it made me think of my own father and his unyielding moral support for me when I was a political prisoner in Argentina.

'I remembered also how I imagined my dad’s sadness and at times distress, as I spent my days in a cell under conditions that could change for the worse at any time. They did for several friends of mine and I can only imagine the despair of their own fathers.

'The poem is written in the familiar Spanish of the River Plate and it describes a Sunday ritual that is very common to families in the Southern Cone of South America. My father was also fond of a drink with family before a Sunday luncheon. He preferred vermouth to grappa, but the effect is the same: an opportunity to share a loving ritual with offspring and to share the events of the week and plans for the future with sons, daughters, and grandkids. When those moments are rendered impossible by prison or exile, their remembrance stings with nostalgia, guilt, and love.’

Brindis con el Viejo / Raising a Glass with My Old Man, by Mauricio Rosencof

I know that on Sundays, at around midday,

You cautiously open the ancient sideboard

And pour a glass of the same grape liquor

We used to share in better times.

I know you’re not happy now when you drink it,

That it’s lost all savor for you,

Because sometimes sorrow can quite erase

One’s taste for wine and the light of day.

But you know, as I do, that the storm will pass

And that the implacable sun doesn’t simply stop

When obscured by a dark, pernicious cloud,

Which is why I know I’ll return to your house -

On a Sunday that’s there on the calendar –

And laugh with you over a glass of grappa.

Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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