This year, the American Bar Association has chosen “a more perfect union” as the theme for Law Day. In furtherance of this theme, the Business Law Section has asked attorneys to volunteer to talk about the rule of law in some forum. I am excited to be part of this conversation and to share some perspectives from the book Law and Poetry: Promises from the Preamble, which was published by the Association earlier this year. The book is an anthology that explores the themes presented in the Preamble to the United States Constitution. The anthology includes the work of poets from around the world.
In preparing the anthology, I had the opportunity to connect with many of these poets and to learn more about them. Cecil Rajendra was one of the poets who impressed me most. Mr. Rajendra is both a poet and an accomplished human rights attorney. Below, you will find his poem “The Dark Side of Trees,” together with some introductory information and a short biographical sketch that provides a little bit more information about Mr. Rajendra. This material is reproduced from the anthology.
This poem resonated with me for the way in which it emphasizes the responsibility we as individual citizens have to hold our government accountable. We are called upon to notice—and not to turn away—when our legal system and our institutions of government are threatened. In doing so, we help to uphold the rule of law, and, ultimately, we help to build a more perfect union.
The poem below was reprinted in the June 1984 issue of the International Commission of Jurists’ journal The Review. The ICJ is a non-governmental organization, founded in 1952 in Geneva, which is focused on international human rights. Mr. Rajendra’s poem followed updates on human rights throughout the world, from East Timor, to Haiti, to Japan, Pakistan, South Africa, and Western Sahara. As you read this poem, you might consider the world-wide applicability of its themes.
~ The Dark Side of Trees
The truth burns
so they turned
their faces away
from the sun . . .
When small liberties
began to fray . . .
When their constitution
was being chipped away
When their newspapers
were shut down . . .
When their rule of law
was twisted round . . .
When might became right
and their friends
Were carried off screaming
in the pitch of night . . .
They chose silence
And now when the shadow
of the jackboot hangs
ominous over their beloved land
they walk as zombies
unable to distinguish right from
wrong from right
their minds furred with lichens
like the dark side of trees.
The truth burns
so they turned
their faces away
from the sun . . .
Cecil Rajendra is a poet, lawyer, and human rights activist who has lived by the mantra, “Seek out the little guy and help if you can.” He was born in 1941 in Penang, Malaysia and received his formal education at St. Xavier’s Institution, the University of Singapore and Lincoln’s Inn (London) where he qualified as a barrister-at-law. Throughout his lengthy and distinguished career, he has earned numerous distinctions in poetry, law, and human rights. As an attorney, in 1980 he co-founded the Penang Legal Aid Centre (PLAC), which was the first rural legal aid clinic in Malaysia. In 2000, he created Malaysia’s first-ever mobile legal aid clinic. For this work, Rajendra earned the Malaysian Bar’s 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award as well as the International Bar Association’s 2019 Pro Bono Award. As a poet, he has published dozens of volumes of poetry and was nominated for the 2004 Nobel Prize in Literature for his collection By Trial & Terror. His work has been published in more than fifty countries and translated into a number of languages. As a human rights activist, he has initiated campaigns against detention without trial and in support of an independent judiciary. He was awarded the first-ever Malaysian Lifetime Humanitarian Award in 2004, in recognition of both his outstanding work in law and his exemplary poetry; and in 2015 was declared a Living Heritage Treasure by the Penang Heritage Trust.
From Hour of Assassins and Other Poems by Cecil Rajendra. London: Bogle- L’Ouverture Publications, 1982.
I am always struck by the universality of the images and themes that Mr. Rajendra raises in this poem. Here are a few examples that come to mind:
When small liberties began to fray . . . . In St. Petersburg, Florida, where I live, the Florida Holocaust Museum has a permanent display that I have always found to be particularly important, as a lawyer, because it reminds me that the law can be used to cause great harm. This display includes a timeline showing how the laws in pre-war Nazi Germany were changed over a period of six years to disenfranchise, restrict, persecute, and isolate Jewish people. The first wave of what would ultimately be more than four hundred antisemitic laws and regulations was focused on restricting Jewish citizens from civil service and other aspects of public life.
When their newspapers were shut down. Thomas Jefferson recognized the importance of the free press to American democracy: “No government ought to be without censors: and where the press is free, no one ever will.” Even prior to the pandemic, more than twenty percent of the newspapers in the United States went out of business during the prior fifteen years, according to an article in the New York Times. In addition, the past few months have brought attention to the serious crackdown on independent media and access to online information in Russia.
When might became right and their friends were carried off screaming in the pitch of night. Every day, we read about individuals in Ukraine being forcibly deported to Russia. In our own country, more than one hundred thousand Japanese Americans were forced to leave their homes to be incarcerated in internment camps that were euphemistically called “relocation centers” during World War II.
These images—both historical and contemporary—are so bleak and so painful that sometimes, hope is in short supply. Mr. Rajendra reminds us that our hope is in not turning away, even when “the truth burns.”
In preparing this anthology, I found—and was inspired by—a number of examples, both historical and contemporary, of what not turning away might look like. Some of these voices come from the past and are quite famous: Elizabeth Barrett Browning denounced slavery at great personal and professional cost. Langston Hughes powerfully invoked images of crushing poverty. Edna St. Vincent Millay dared to suggest that “America the beautiful” could become an America that is “beautiful nowhere” if apathy toward the American “cause” continues to prevail. Other voices may be unfamiliar to many readers but are, thankfully, still with us: Naomi Ortiz and Stephen Lightbown are strong voices in the disability justice movement. John Brandi challenges us to see incarcerated persons as persons. Dee Allen requires us to reckon with homelessness through the eyes of a person who has experienced it.
As we continue to have conversations about what it means for us to strive toward “a more perfect union,” I hope some of these voices will serve to inspire and challenge you, as they have me.