Poetry Friday: The End and the Beginning by Wislawa Szymborska



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Poetry Friday is hosted by Cathy @ Merely Day by Day

The New York Times just featured a moving new piece of video journalism: James Estrin’s Revisiting Unhealed Wounds in Chechnya – a story about photographer Stanley Greene, and his return visit to Chechnya many years after covering the war there.  Through the article, I also learned of the Aftermath Project founded by photographer Sara Terry which provides grants “which helps photographers tell post conflict stories of recovery and rebuilding”.  Something she said about the mission of the Aftermath Project has really stuck with me:

“War is only half the story,” she said. “I think war defines our inhumanity. Aftermath is where I believe we begin to rediscover our humanity, because if you’re going to survive and rebuild you have to be making choices about being human. If not, you’re making choices that lead to the next conflict.”

It doesn’t seem as if we ever get around to making the right choices about being human in these days of endless conflict.  Greene’s haunting photographs, though, show us how hard it is to pick up the pieces of life after war has torn it asunder.


NYT Photo ‏@nytimesphoto Stanley Greene

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



8 thoughts on “Poetry Friday: The End and the Beginning by Wislawa Szymborska

  1. And Robyn’s line is mine too, also I like that those final words give a little hope. A neighbor in Missouri was German, a young teen ‘after’ WWII. He grew up playing in the rubble, said that was what they had, and the kids made games in and out of it. This is so sad, Tara-so many people in the world are living it now.

  2. Wow wow wow–so everyday and ordinary for some, the cleaning up–and it must take ages of living in it. Thanks for this post and the comments about choices toward humanity.

  3. Wow! This poem leaves me with a punched in the gut kind of sadness. Wish all people in charge of making these kinds of decisions would have to read this just before they signed the papers or fired the shots or … Thank you.

  4. Tara,
    This is such a powerful post. I loved your statement, “It doesn’t seem as if we ever get around to making the right choices about being human in these days of endless conflict.” It is often hard to believe that after all of these years, centuries and centuries, we haven’t learned to care for humanity. We haven’t learned to set conflict aside in the name of peace. We haven’t learned to treat everyone as if s/he were our sister/brother. I have often thought in a world connecting by social media that borders and disagreements would begin to settle as we learned the stories of others….but perhaps not.

    Your poem, is a powerful statement to these times. I do not know if you have seen war first hand, but your poem sure makes me think that you have. I know I felt like I was right there in the careless destruction of it all. You made me think about what it must be like to pick up after…and how much we have forgotten right here.

    This will stay with me for a bit: must make way for /
    those who know little. / And less than little. /And finally as little as nothing.


  5. This is such a powerful poem. I have two friends — one a fiction writer and another a poet and translator — who are from Poland. It’s fascinating to hear them talk about how the meaning of Szymborska’s lines change subtly when you say them in English vs. Polish.

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