943: The Dictator in Prison

943: The Dictator in Prison

943: The Dictator in Prison

Today’s episode is guest hosted by Shira Erlichman.


I’m Shira Erlichman and this is The Slowdown.

My elementary school art teacher would drive two hours round trip to her job. I wondered why––she didn’t seem to like her students. She was a person of few words, rarely affectionate, and always strict. During the paper mache unit, we created molds of our faces. I painted mine with abstract blue and purple swirls. The Art Teacher insisted I repaint it, “That’s not realistic. It doesn’t look like you.” I was new to English, but I could sense pain under her language. But to my eight-year-old antennae her strictness registered as loneliness. “But this is how I see myself.” Standing there holding my unapproved face, my small heart broke. It still breaks my heart. Adults have so much power over children.

There are days where it seems that the pain of those in power runs the whole world. Against this brutal backdrop, what does it mean to be empathic creatures? Doesn’t it seem like a glitch in the design? The heart, I mean. So soft, capable of being broken?

In one lifetime we’re tasked with bearing a range of horrors. Some might seem small, but their effects last a lifetime: the taunts of a classroom bully, the ache of exclusion, or a bike losing its grip on gravel and the sensation of a bone snapping awake. The range expands to the national, the global; from helplessly witnessing the invasion of Ukraine, another mass shooting, or the accelerated and senseless targeting of Trans youth and adults. We each have our tactics for coping. Some leap into action. Some go numb. Others avoid, ignore, or lash out. Some feel pain with such vividness they can’t get out of bed.

It amazes me that underneath it all––the denial, dissociation, or rage––the heart keeps going. And I don’t just mean beating. I mean, feeling sneaks up on us. Unexpectedly, empathy flares. I used to think this gust of empathy was my weakness. I now know it’s a superpower. It’s what keeps me human in the dehumanizing onslaught. Even at eight, staring up at the Art Teacher who was telling me my face was wrong, my heart somehow sent up a flare: really look, it said, she’s sad.

Today's poet delves even deeper into this superpower, investigating empathy of the highest and most mysterious degree.

The Dictator in Prison
by Adélia Prado, translated by Ellen Doré Watson

The dictator is writing poetry,
poor fellow,
poor us for saying poor fellow,
since he, too, has a memory                                                              
to conjure orange trees, little bowls of pudding,
laughter and pleasant conversation—        	        	 
a paradise of lowly delights.
The impatiens have barely opened               
and the laboring bees surround us,                           
turning the day perfect.                                  
Let’s not ridicule the bloodthirsty man               
who, under the eyes of the guards,                            
pours his desire—equal to anyone’s—
into a notebook:                          	                    
I want to be happy, I want an elastic body,
I want a horse, a sword and a good war!
The dictator is devout,
he observes his canonic hours like the monks on the altar,
and dozes over the Koran.                                                                
I who live outside the walls tremble for the fate
of a man who pounded the ground with his iron boot.
Let no one interrupt the outcast’s prayer                                                      
or ridicule his verses.                                                                          
God’s mercy is strange,
oh crushing mystery.
For some unfathomable reason I am not the prisoner.
My compassion is too large to be my own.
He who invented hearts
loves this poor wretch with mine.

"The Dictator in Prison" by Adélia Prado, translated by Ellen Doré Watson. Used by permission of the translator.