Imtiaz Dharker’s poem “The Right Word” focuses on a figure that is in the shadows outside the narrator’s house. It is noticeable that the word “outside” appears in the first seven of the poem’s nine stanzas, and the word “shadows” or “shadow” in the first six. Because the figure is in the shadows, it is difficult to make out who or what he is, and so the narrator is searching for the right word to identify him. The first stanza describes the figure as “lurking” in the shadows and states that he is a terrorist; the image is therefore a very threatening one.
In the opening line of the second stanza, Dharker wonders if that description was an incorrect one. This time the figure is said to be “taking shelter,” making him seem more vulnerable, and Dharker identifies him with alliteration as “a freedom fighter. ” The connotations are much more positive than those connected with a terrorist. In the third stanza, however, the narrator still feels that the figure has not been correctly identified. He is now described as merely “waiting” in the shadows and is seen as “a hostile militant. ” This identity obviously labels him as an enemy.
Dharker uses enjambment to link the first two lines of the fourth stanza to extend a question about the definition of words. She uses the alliterative metaphor “waving, wavering flags”, asking if words are no more than that. Wavering conveys the idea of hesitating, changing an opinion, and waving creates an image of constant movement or fluctuating ideas. The words we use to describe people or things can change from one moment to the next. In this stanza, the figure is “watchful,” therefore alert, in the shadows; this time the narrator identifies him as a “guerrilla warrior,” in other words an aggressive fighter.
The fifth stanza opens with the words “God help me,” signifying the fact that Dharker is in a state of shock, perhaps. Now the figure is “defying every shadow,” and so his identity becomes more apparent. He is “a martyr,” in other words a person who dies for the sake of his faith. The stanza closes with the line “I saw his face,” so there is now no doubt as to the figure’s identity. Dharker opens the sixth stanza with the comment that words can no longer help, as the realisation of who the figure is dawns on her.
Now the figure is “just outside” but is “lost” in the shadows. This time, rather than a fighter or a warrior, he is described as a “child” who resembles the narrator’s own. In the opening line of the seventh stanza, the poet says “One word for you,” seeming to address the reader directly. The figure is still outside; his hand is “too steady” and his eyes “too hard. ” These descriptions convey a sense of purpose and confidence. The “word” for the reader is the comment of the stanza’s last line, which states that the figure is “a boy who looks like your son, too. The implication is that a terrorist, a fighter or a warrior is someone’s son. He belongs to a family, and there are people who love him; he is not necessarily a person to be feared or shunned. Having identified the figure, Dharker begins the eighth stanza with the line “I open the door,” marking a turning point in the poem. She invites the figure to come into the house and eat with the family. This underlines the idea that the figure, even if he is a fighter, is part of the family and not a threat.
In the opening line of the ninth and final stanza, the figure is referred to as a “child”. He enters the house and “carefully” takes his shoes off. This action shows respect for the household as well as politeness, especially since the action was performed with care rather than brusqueness. Dharker’s poem “The Right Word” makes us question the labels that we give to people and the attitudes that we have towards terrorists and militants. The poem’s stanzas are of uneven length as the narrator reacts in different ways to the sight of the figure and thoughts go through her mind.
Rhyme is not used, but the phrase “Outside the door” recurs with the word “the” replaced by either that, your or my. The situation could therefore happen outside anyone’s door. Repetition of the phrase “in the shadows” allows for the figure’s exact identity to remain a mystery until the narrator sees his face in the fifth stanza. The shift in attitude once the figure is identified as a child or a son is emphasised by the repetition of “come in” in the penultimate stanza and “comes in” in the final stanza.