For Veteran’s Day

If you want a good poem about war, you never have to look further than the Polish poets, who were invaded by someone every century.

The End and the Beginning

After every war
someone has to clean up.
Things won’t
straighten themselves up, after all.

Someone has to push the rubble
to the side of the road,
so the corpse-filled wagons
can pass.

Someone has to get mired
in scum and ashes,
sofa springs,
splintered glass,
and bloody rags.

Someone has to drag in a girder
to prop up a wall.
Someone has to glaze a window,
rehang a door.

Photogenic it’s not,
and takes years.
All the cameras have left
for another war.

We’ll need the bridges back,
and new railway stations.
Sleeves will go ragged
from rolling them up.

Someone, broom in hand,
still recalls the way it was.
Someone else listens
and nods with unsevered head.
But already there are those nearby
starting to mill about
who will find it dull.

From out of the bushes
sometimes someone still unearths
rusted-out arguments
and carries them to the garbage pile.

Those who knew
what was going on here
must make way for
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.

In the grass that has overgrown
causes and effects,
someone must be stretched out
blade of grass in his mouth
gazing at the clouds.

Wislawa Szymborska
Translated by Joanna RTrzeciak

Continue reading “For Veteran’s Day”

One from Szymborska

When we were in Krakow two years ago, we went to an exhibit at the National Museum called “Szymborska’s Drawer.” It was a recreation of the home office of the Polish poet, Wislawa Szymborska. It had her desk, her yellow typewriter, her bookcase, her postcard collection, many strange and delightful artifacts. You can see some photos here.

Born in 1923, Szymborska lived through the upheavals of central Europe, the invasion by Germany, control by the Soviets, constant political change and public hardship.

He poems are mostly deceptively simple and intensely moving,  as this one.

Children of Our Age

We are children of our age,
it’s a political age.

All day long, all through the night,
all affairs—yours, ours, theirs—
are political affairs.

Whether you like it or not,
your genes have a political past,
your skin, a political cast,
your eyes, a political slant.

Whatever you say reverberates,
whatever you don’t say speaks for itself.
So either way you’re talking politics.

Even when you take to the woods,
you’re taking political steps
on political grounds.

Apolitical poems are also political,
and above us shines a moon
no longer purely lunar.
To be or not to be, that is the question.
and though it troubles the digestion
it’s a question, as always, of politics.

To acquire a political meaning
you don’t even have to be human.
Raw material will do,
or protein feed, or crude oil,

or a conference table whose shape
was quarreled over for months:
Should we arbitrate life and death
at a round table or a square one.

Meanwhile, people perished,
animals died,
houses burned,
and the fields ran wild
just as in times immemorial
and less political.

Wislawa Szymborska
translated by Stanisław Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

Final trip post

We are actually safely home, but I do have a few last thoughts on our trip, in no particular order

images-5I loved the big car-free squares and pedestrian walkways of Prague and Krakow. I wish we did something similar here–it makes the city so much more inviting. Combined with excellent public transit, it goes a long way to creating space for people to interact in a leisurely way. In Krakow, they even have an elegant pedestrian bridge across the Vistula, as well as walk and bikeways along the edges.

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Why I don’t write political poems

wisaawa-szymborskaWe’re heading to Russia and Eastern Europe in a few days, so I’ve been rereading the wonderful Polish poet, Wisława Szymborska. Here’s a poem of hers that expresses an idea I’ve had about political poetry perfectly. I believe the conference table she’s referring to is the one from the Paris Peace Talks, which were designed to end the Vietnam War in 1968.

Children of Our Age

We are children of our age,
it’s a political age.

All day long, all through the night,
all affairs—yours, ours theirs—
are political affairs.

Whether you like it or not,
your genes have a political past,
your skin, a political cast,
your eyes, a political slant. Continue reading “Why I don’t write political poems”