‘Surveillance’ by Riyas Qurana is a twenty-four line free verse poem that discusses and highlights the claustrophobia that comes along with the concept of surveillance. It becomes even harder to bear when it is social standards and cultural pressures that are the ones constantly monitoring how you express yourself. you can read the full poem here.
Lines 1 to 2
There is no inhalation here
Qurana’s ‘Surveillance’ is introduced with the idea of suffocation. In the first two lines, Qurana is expressing the intensity of what being constantly watched by others actually feels like. He specifically mentions not being able to inhale, this is important because the action of inhaling is a type of absorption of one’s surroundings or the environment; by mentioning that inhalation is not taking place Qurana is implying that it is difficult for someone under surveillance to be able to get comfortable in his environment. The second line is just two words but they are heavy to read. “can’t breathe” relays to the readers that there is a story that is yet to unfold and it contains the reason behind the suffocation the narrator is facing. Line two also suggests that someone is in the process of dying in a situation where they are still trying to breathe. Had the narrator given up on the life he would have said he stopped breathing, instead, he used the word “can’t” which portrays effort still being made to breathe; implying that the narrator is fighting to survive.
Lines 3 to 4
Now and then air would come this way
Lines three and four of Qurana’s poem continues to describe the impact surveillance is having on the narrator. He speaks of a sense of relief “now and then” as he gets some space to breathe; however, he makes it clear that someone or something made sure it did not last very long. These lines help the reader understand that the character is not suffering due to his own actions but rather the actions of someone else. It is safe to assume the relief that the character is able to get is when he isn’t being watched so carefully, and the one watching him rarely takes any breaks. Although the reader is unaware of whom the character is and who is watching him, it is still easy to understand the discomfort and suffocation that comes along with not being given any breathing room. By not exposing who is doing the surveillance Qurana is allowing the reader to make this narration their own by stepping into the character’s shoes. This permits the reader to associate their own story with the character, whether it is family, friends or society in general that is smothering their own space.
Lines 5 to 7
That which we want to say
with hunger proving unbearable.
The next three lines are pretty clear that the character feels he must even monitor his speech as a result of being watched so carefully. It is interesting, however, the diction that Qurana has chosen to describe his silence. The narrator is claiming to “eat” the words that he wants to say, and that the hunger he has been proven as “unbearable”. The circumstance of the character seems to be so extreme or he at least feels that way. It seems that no matter how many of his own words he has to “eat” or keep silent about his appetite intensifies because he becomes increasingly paranoid about what he should or should not say. Eventually, he will reach a point where his appetite will not leave any words for him that he can use; essentially meaning that he will not feel like sharing anything he has to say because they will feel inadequate for the public to receive. This stanza highlight’s the fact that the narrator feels judged on his words and opinions alongside being constantly watched and judged for his actions.
Lines 8 to 9
How we should live is decided by them.
Lines eight and nine are more sinister as they spitefully consider the situation of the character. It is obvious that the narrator is having a hard time with his circumstances and hates being under a watchful eye at all times. These two lines inform the reader of the fact that the character is not being watched by one person but by a “them”; at this point in the poem, the reader can consider them to be social and cultural standards and pressures. Moreover, these lines suggest that he is not the only one suffering as he mentions “we”. The narrator is explaining how absurd it is that he must act and speak a certain way or in a certain manner in order to live and be accepted by “them”, this does not make sense to him as he doesn’t think a person can live a fulfilling life if he is not given the freedom to be himself. Social and cultural standards are important to anyone’s identity because it helps define their identity, however, the pressures of cultures and societies to be a specific way cannot be supported because of the reason that illuminates an individual’s right to express themselves authentically without the fear of being outcasted.
Lines 10 to 16
We have but their hands
We walk with their legs
On the walls
Lines ten and eleven continue with the sarcastic and spiteful tone as they paint a picture of utter control. By claiming that “we have but their hands/we walk with their legs” the narrator is stressing the concept of complete control over a life that is not yours. Hands and legs are a crucial part of the human body that help people with their tasks that they have to manage for basic everyday life; by stating that he doesn’t even have his own hands and legs, he is displaying the extremity of his situation while highlighting how little control he has over his own basic tasks without the interference of social and cultural standards and pressures. Lines twelve through sixteen expresses that the only thing he feels actually belongs to himself is his stomach, this is an interesting point as the basic function of the stomach is to digest the food entering the body. Fundamentally the narrator is stating that the only thing he feels is left in his control is his ability to “digest” the standards and pressures that are being force fed to him. His process of breaking down the expectations being thrown at him to a level that he understands them is purely and solely his own, untouched by anyone. It stays that way whether he be outdoors or indoors and it is the only thing he feels truly confident about.
Lines 17 to 19
Why even in the air
We are being watched
Lines seventeen through nineteen paint a very striking image of eyes stuck in the sky. This imagery is a powerful way to describe the intensity of the gaze that social and cultural standards/pressures have set on every individual who desires to stay connected to them. Line seventeen is important because it suggests that the very air that every person breathes in is tainted heavily by society’s eye. By stating that “their eyes are stuck” the narrator suggests that these standards and pressures are jammed in one place and do not conform to individual needs. They are just permanently there. Line nineteen is a statement that is presented for the first time in the poem that actually expresses being watched; for a poem titled ‘Surveillance’ this is an important point as displays that the narrator is finally comfortable enough with the reader and to plainly explain his situation.
Lines 20 to 22
A kiss given in the bedroom
In the midst of a huge crowd.
The next three lines are important because it exposes the lengths to which social norms and standards go in order to interfere with someone’s life. The impact of cultures and societies is that it assists in building a person’s identity, character, and personal morals; even when a person is not surrounded by people and is in the comfort of his own home he is influenced by the social and cultural norms he has grown up around. These lines specifically seem to be those of annoyance with a hint of guilt as the narrator confesses to a secret kiss and how it didn’t stay very secret because he felt the judgment of society and culture on this most private intimate act.
Lines 23 to 24
That all this is the figment of imagination
is how these lines ought to be brought to a close
The closing lines of ‘Surveillance’ don’t conclude the conflict in the poem. The narrator is rightfully quite upset with his experience and wishes that the pressures of culture and society didn’t exist so that no one would have to feel like they need to meet a specific standard in order to be accepted as a part of the community or even family. Why can’t these restrictions on individual freedom be just a “figment of imagination” so that people can just put aside what others have to say and be authentically themselves? The narrator wishes he could close the poem by telling his readers that his experience wasn’t real but unfortunately that isn’t the case.