Is He Still Alive?

By Joergen Ostensen

4.19.19—Good Friday

This poem is the result of a brief conversation I had with our tour guide during a visit to Robben Island. He had been a prisoner there for seven years. I told him that my dad, George, had served a 26-month prison sentence in America that ran concurrently with part of his. My dad was a member of the Plowshares Movement and became a political prisoner for his civil resistance action, which was motivated by his opposition to America's use of nuclear bombs.

Then the former prisoner said: Is he still alive?

Taken aback I said: Yes.

And he replied: Then send my greetings to him

Under the afternoon shadows

Of the twisted razor wire

He tells the story

His story

The perverse, brutal story

Of the chains

That bound his arms, his legs

The metal ball that pressed

Against his teeth

Keeping him quiet

In the unfathomable fear

He felt in the dark

As the boat passed over the waves

To the island

Where seven years of memories linger

Even now, seven years away

From everything,

Everything he loved, desired, hoped,

Dreamed, lived for.

He tells this between jokes

His face bearing the weight of

His memories, memories too horrible

For me to imagine

Too horrible to vaguely enshrine

With words in a poem

And I knew that then

As my hand touched his

And I was telling him

Without knowing why

Who I was

There on the island

There one stop away

From, infinity, oblivion, heaven

Or whatever lies hidden

To the west in the setting sun haze.

Shaking his hand

And this is just to say

Thank you, thank you

Thank you for sharing

This hour with us here

Thank you for telling your story

And this is just to say

My father was a prisoner too

In the shadows of American razor wire

In his own solitary cell.

My father, whom they tried to break

Like they tried to break him

My father, who believed

In the non-violent Jesus

The Jesus who overturned the money-changing tables

That were defiling His father's house

With atom bombs and Bantu education.


Shaking his hand

This is just to say.

Shaking the hand

Of a true freedom fighter

And I wonder if he thinks of his father

Now like I think of mine

As he asks me a question

That haunts the sea breezy

Afternoon air like the ghosts of the fallen.

Is he still alive?

And taken aback I falter

Not understanding why

He is asking that

As I stand there an instant shaken

While the shadows slowly lengthen

And the waves continue their assault on the rocks

And the setting sun covers

The looming, tantalizing mountain

In an ominous shade of gloom.

Is he still alive?

And it makes sense now

Here on the island.

Is he still alive?

And it makes sense

Coming from this man

Whose father got a letter

His father the ANC member

His father who almost didn't open the letter

His father who lived in Soweto

Like his son in a tiny house

Crammed with people trying

To be alive and have dignity at the same time.

Is he still alive?

His father who opened that letter.

Is he still alive?

His father who died

When that letter was a bomb.

Is he still alive?

And it makes sense

Here on the island

Here somewhere between

Heaven and hell

Where death, the memories of death

Are all around us

Death, cool, intractable death

Death that clings even now to every shadow

Death because they believed

They should have the right

To be alive and have dignity at the same time

And the world didn't.

Is he still alive?


Then send my greetings to him.

And with that our hands detach

And I wander off

Seeing how the sorrow of the world

Can be understood in a question.

Is he still alive?

Yes and how lucky

How wonderful to say yes

Yes and the difference is so vast

So real, so present

Here in this moment.


In the world of hate and fear

Of tanks and guns and letters holding the kiss of death


In the world of atom bombs

Of prisons on both sides of the ocean

Even in the ocean


In the world that killed his father

The world that pointed a loaded gun at mine

The world that hung Christ from a tree.

Is he still alive?

And nothing more needed to be said

Under the lengthening razor wire shadows

As I walk away

Knowing, feeling, understanding

Now for the first time

How wonderful it is

In a world of death

To say yes.