The Operating System

3rd ANNUAL NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: DAY 9 :: MAIGA MILBOURNE on NAZIM HIKMET (1902-1963)

[Editor’s Note: Maiga Milbourne comes to us via our favorite model: the person to person relay-style hand off from former participants (in this case, frequent OS contributor, and all around badass inspirational mama Caits Meissner). I was overwhelmed with gratitude to find that Caits reach-out had brought me not only one but *four* eager contributors for year 3’s series, whom I welcomed as eagerly. This piece on Nazim Hikmet hits home in so many ways for me – as I hope it does for any of you needing a reminder of poetry’s role in activism and social change, for individuals and movements alike. Take heart, take stock, take notes…make change.]
[line] Let’s take a circuitous stroll, shall we? We’ll start in Philadelphia’s militant activist scene, meander through long sentences in New York state prisons, and then exit through Turkey in the early twentieth century. You game?
We begin. I am an activist against mass incarceration. I work for the release of political prisoners, defined by the United Nations in part as a person who “for political motives… is detained in a discriminatory manner as compared to other persons.” ( The majority of the incarcerated in the United States are people of color. I am white. There are a few white political prisoners who identify strongly as anti-racist allies. Among them is David Gilbert, a former Columbia student and member of the Weather Underground. For his part in a bank robbery aimed to liberate funds for political struggle, he’s spent the better part of 30 years in New York state penitentiaries.
He’s also authored books and remains a voice in radical politics. I picked up a copy of his work, No Surrender, years ago. I remember I’d just finished a shift waiting tables at a diner. I walked across the highway to the mall where I would await the bus home. Given Gilbert’s Ivy-League education, I expected heady political theory. Instead, I opened the pages and found:
It’s This Way
I stand in the advancing light,
my hands are hungry, the world beautiful.
My eyes can’t get enough of the trees,
they’re so hopeful, so green.
A sunny road runs through the mulberries,
I’m at the window of the prison infirmary.
I can’t smell the medicines,
carnations must be blooming nearby.
It’s this way:
being captured is beside the point,
the point is not to surrender.
-Nazim Hikmet
Turkish political prisoner
And suddenly, I had a window into Gilbert’s commitment and sacrifice. I had a glimpse of the determination of conviction.
I started mainlining Hikmet’s work. Hikmet was a staunch communist who spent 13 years in exile and 13 years incarcerated in his Turkish homeland. His prolific work details loss, longing, and restraint. Yet throughout his work runs that spark of poetry motivation, and joy despite deprivation.
From On Living, he writes, “Let’s say we’re in prison/ and close to fifty,/ and we have eighteen more years, say,/ before the iron doors will open./ We’ll still live with the outside,/ with its people and animals, struggle and wind–/ I mean with the outside beyond the walls./ I mean, however and wherever we are,/ we must live as if we will never die.”
Although I’m ragged from a tiring shift waiting tables and am overwhelmed by perceived injustice and the insurmountable behemoth of incarceration, as I sit with Hikmet I’m suddenly smelling mulberries. Despite barbed wire, distance, and struggle, we are invited to live with the animals and wind.
I read Hikmet like I gulp air after an endless plunge into deep water. His words are unceasingly optimistic no matter his conditions. In I Made a Journey, Hikmet writes, “I made a journey,/ riding on trucks/ carrying prisoners/ through cities,/ the asphalt moist in the morning light…// I made a journey–/ I couldn’t get enough of the grapes crushed by your white teeth,/ or your bed like a shuttered summer afternoon.”
In the deep sensory details, I wander between now and then, the symmetry of struggle, oppression, and undeniable freedom. Hikmet’s minute details, the crush of a berry, invoke the potential freedom in every moment. Hikmet reminds us that life is a profound offering and sharpens this insight against the extremes of his experiences in exile and prison. Hikmet reminds us that under the seemingly endless sentences of activists like Gilbert, there is a moment of unstoppable sun sweeping through prison bars. Hours of labor on a diner’s tiled floors yield haikus crumpled into pockets. The experiences of beauty and pain begin to seem less distant from one another. As I write this I’m laughing–Hikmet teaches me Buddhism.
You’re my bondage and my freedom,
my flesh burning like a naked summer night,
you’re my country
Hazel eyes marbled green,
you’re awesome, beautiful, and brave,
you’re my desire always just out of reach
In Hikmet’s words, I taste liberation and it both stings and intoxicates. After all, being captured is beside the point. The point is not to surrender.
Maiga Milbourne Writing
Passionate about healthy bodies and communities, Maiga Milbourne is a yoga instructor, writer, retreat developer, activist, and suburban farmer. Look for her upcoming inclusion in the Chrysallis Journal or regular contributions to Project Inkblot. Join her for a yoga and creative writing retreat this August with Caits Meissner. Learn more at
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