“Grenfell Tower, June 2017”

Read a New Poem by Ben Okri

By  Ben Okri

It was like a burnt matchbox in the sky.
It was black and long and burnt in the sky.
You saw it through the flowering stumps of trees. You
saw it beyond the ochre spire of the church. You saw
it in the tears of those who survived.
You saw it through the rage of those who survived.
You saw it past the posters of those who had burnt to ashes. You saw
it past the posters of those who jumped to their deaths. You saw it
through the TV images of flames through windows Running up the
aluminium cladding.
You saw it in print images of flames bursting out from the roof. You
heard it in the voices loud in the streets.
You heard it in the cries in the air howling for justice.
You heard it in the pubs the streets the basements the digs. You
heard it in the wailing of women and the silent scream Of orphans
wandering the streets.
You saw it in your baby who couldn’t sleep at night Spooked
by the ghosts that wander the area still trying To escape the
fires that came at them black and choking. You saw it in your
dreams of the dead asking if living Had no meaning being
poor in a land
Where the poor die in flames without warning.
But when you saw it with your eyes it seemed what the eyes Saw did
not make sense cannot make sense will not make sense. You saw it
there in the sky, tall and black and burnt.
You counted the windows and counted the floors

And saw the sickly yellow of the half-burnt cladding And
what you saw could only be seen in nightmare.
Like a war zone come to the depths of a fashionable borough. Like a
war zone planted here in the city.
To see with the eyes that which one only sees
In nightmares turns the day to night, turns the world upside down.

Those who were living now are dead
Those who were breathing are from the living earth fled.
If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower. See the
tower, and let a world-changing dream flower.

Residents of the area call it the crematorium. It has
revealed the undercurrents of our age.
The poor who thought voting for the rich would save them. The
poor who believed all that the papers said.
The poor who listened with their fears.
The poor who live in their rooms and dream for their kids. The poor
are you and I, you in your garden of flowers,
In your house of books, who gaze from afar
At a destiny that draws near with another name.
Sometimes it takes an image to wake up a nation
From its secret shame. And here it is every name
Of someone burnt to death, on the stairs or in their room,
Who had no idea what they died for, or how they were betrayed. They
did not die when they died; their deaths happened long Before.
Happened in the minds of people who never saw
Them. Happened in the profit margins. Happened
In the laws. They died because money could be saved and made.

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Those who are living now are dead
Those who were breathing are from the living earth fled.
If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower See
the tower, and let a world-changing dream flower.

They called the tower ugly; they named it an eyesore. All
around the beautiful people in their beautiful houses Didn’t
want the ugly tower to ruin their house prices.

Ten million was spent to encase the tower in cladding. Had
it ever been tested before except on this eyesore, Had it
ever been tested for fire, been tried in a blaze?
But it made the tower look pretty, yes it made the tower look pretty. But in
twenty-four storeys, not a single sprinkler.
In twenty-four storeys not a single alarm that worked. In
twenty-four storeys not a single fire escape,
Only a single stairwell designed in hell, waiting For an
inferno. That’s the story of our times.
Make it pretty on the outside, but a death trap On the
inside. Make the hollow sound nice, make The empty
look nice. That’s all they will see,
How it looks, how it sounds, not how it really is, unseen. But if
you really look you can see it, if you really listen You can hear
it. You’ve got to look beneath the cladding. There’s cladding
everywhere. Political cladding,
Economic cladding, intellectual cladding—things that look good But
have no centre, have no heart, only moral padding.
They say the words but the words are hollow.
They make the gestures and the gestures are shallow.
Their bodies come to the burnt tower but their souls don’t follow.

Those who were living are now dead
Those who were breathing are from the living earth fled.
If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower. See the
tower, and let a world-changing deed flower.

The voices here must speak for the dead. Speak
for the dead. Speak for the dead.
See their pictures line the walls. Poverty is its own Colour, its
own race. They were Muslim and Christian, Black and white
and colours in between. They were young And old and beautiful
and middle-aged. There were girls In their best dresses with
hearts open to the future.
There was an old man with his grandchildren; There
was Amaya Tuccu-Ahmedin, three years old,
Burnt to ashes before she could see the lies of the world. There
are names who were living beings who dreamt
Of fame or contentment or education or love
Who are now ashes in a burnt-out shell of cynicism. There
were two Italians, lovely and young,
Who in the inferno were on their mobile phone to friends While the
smoke of profits suffocated their voices.
There was the baby thrown from many storeys high By a
mother who knew otherwise he would die.
There were those who jumped from their windows And
those who died because they were told to stay
In their burning rooms. There was the little girl on fire Seen
diving out from the twentieth floor. Need I say more.

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Those who are living are now dead
Those who were breathing are from the living earth fled.
If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower. See
the tower, and let a world-changing deed flower.

Always there’s that discrepancy
Between what happens and what we are told. The
official figures were stuck at thirty.
Truth in the world is rarer than gold.
Bodies brought out in the dark Bodies
still in the dark.
Dark the smoke and dark the head. Those
who were living are now dead.

And while the tower flamed they were tripping Over
bodies at the stairs
Because it was pitch-black. And
those that survived
Sleep like refugees on the floor Of a
sports centre.
And like a creature scared of the dark, A
figure from on high flits by,
Speaking to the police and brave firefighters, But
avoiding the victims,
Whose hearts must be brimming with dread.
Those who were breathing are from the living earth fled.

But if you go to Grenfell Tower, if you can pull
Yourselves from your tennis games and your perfect dinners If
you go there while the black skeleton of that living tower
Still stands unreal in the air, a warning for similar towers to fear, You
will breathe the air thick with grief
With women spontaneously weeping And
children wandering around stunned
And men secretly wiping a tear from the eye
And people unbelieving staring at this sinister form in the sky. You
will see the trees with their leaves green and clean
And will inhale the incense meant To
cleanse the air of unhappiness You
will see banks of flowers
And white paper walls sobbing with words
And candles burning for the blessing of the dead You
will see the true meaning of community
Food shared and stories told and volunteers everywhere You
will breathe the air of incinerators
Mixed with the essence of flower.
If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower.

Make sense of these figures if you will
For the spirit lives where truth cannot kill. Ten
million spent on the falsely clad
In a fire where hundreds lost all they had. Five
million offered in relief
Ought to make a nation alter its belief. An
image gives life and an image kills.
The heart reveals itself beyond political skills. In
this age of austerity
The poor die for others’ prosperity. Nurseries
and libraries fade from the land. A strange time
is shaping on the strand.
A sword of fate hangs over the deafness of power.
See the tower, and let a new world-changing thought flower.

The preceding is from the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which features excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition gathered around the theme of power, featuring work by Margaret Atwood, Elif Shafak, Eula Biss, Aleksandar Hemon and Aminatta Forna, among others, is available now.

Ben Okri
Ben Okri
Ben Okri, born in Nigeria in 1959, has published more than 20 books of essays, poetry and fiction, including The Famished Road, which won the Booker Prize in 1991. He lives in London.





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