War and its aftermath: A meditation

Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996, died last week at the age of 88. I admit when I read the story, the name meant nothing to me at first, but then I looked up a couple of her poems and thought, "Oh, yeah!"

Unfortunately, I don't read Polish and so I can only read her poetry in translation, but those translations make clear that this was a woman with a unique view of the world, a unique understanding of human society and the way it works. Of the few of her poems that I have read. this is a favorite of mine. I find it particularly relevant just now as the war in Iraq ends (at least for us) and the one in Afghanistan starts winding down (at least for us).

THE END AND THE BEGINNING by Wislawa Szymborska 

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. 

Translated from the Polish by Joanna Trzeciak 

I can still hear my mother saying to me when I was a teenager, "We have to clean up the house. It won't straighten itself!" How I hated those words.

But she was right. Szymborska was right. That's the way it is in life. That's the way it is after every tragic event. Someone's always got to clean up. The survivors have to clean up. Things have to be straightened before they can get on with their lives.  


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