On Wislawa Szymborska: A poet dies, a war is born

By Dahlia Shaham

The morning I saw the obituary for Wislawa Szymborska, the Polish poet and Nobel Laureate, I was in a hotel room in Munich.

I put the newspaper down on the small desk and left the hotel to attend the Munich Security Conference. Participation in this conference is limited to the global policy elite – heads of state, ministers, parliament members, generals and about a dozen conscience-cleaning social activists. Enabling this exclusive gathering is an army of aides, advisors, reporters, photographers, security guards, waiters and ushers.

Here were the front page headlines of that day: Bashar Assad’s forces killed hundreds of Syrian civilians, again. Iran’s nuclear program and prospects for military attack were also on the agenda. The decorated conference halls were full of men in suits, standing, leaning, sitting, discussing the prospects for violence and war in the Middle East, in level-headed, pre-meditated, non-committal phrases. Priorities must be reconsidered, global governance structures reformed; we harshly condemn this, we reached important understandings that…; the UN must, the Arab League should, the EU could; every partnership is strategic, every threat – imminent; the trend is clear, reality – volatile. Existing frameworks should be put to work, alternative methods must be explored. My ears filled up with words, but all that came to my mind was that conference table…

 … a conference table whose shape
was disputed for months:
should we negotiate life and death
at a round table or a square one?

Meanwhile people were dying,
animals perishing,
houses burning,
and fields growing wild,
just as in times most remote
and less political.”

[from “Children of Our Era“]


For a moment I was overwhelmed by anger at all those arrogant word-abusers crowding the room. I wished them all gone in some diabolical deal in exchange for one minute with the slim bright-eyed woman who had just died. She wrote fewer than 400 poems, and I have read fewer than 40 of them, but they filled my heart and opened my eyes. She wrote about death, about love, about memory.

She wrote about war. She had a special way of undressing these dramatic affairs of supreme human conviction and ecstasy, taking off the artificial layers of differentiation – nationality, belief, ideology – through which we are so accustomed to seeing the world, and exposing the flesh of humanity, as it wounds and heals itself time and time again.

What would she have said if she had been there with me, if she had seen and heard what I had: that the only actions offered to stop the killing of oppressed civilians, by a dying regime with nothing to lose, are typed words exchanged between high-level emissaries? Or that no one – not a single political leader in the world today – is openly committed to preventing military escalation between Israel and Iran and the outbreak of a regional fireworks show?

She probably would not have said much. Why waste words? Those who read her already know, that after the mountains of policy papers, secret correspondences, media announcements and pundit analyses will have transformed into smoke clouds and burnt land, her truth will shine in its simplicity:

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

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

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

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

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

Again we’ll need bridges
and new railway stations.
Sleeves will go ragged
from rolling them up.

Someone, broom in hand,
still recalls how it was.
Someone listens
and nods with unsevered head.
Yet others milling about
already find it dull.

From behind the bush
sometimes someone still unearths
rust-eaten arguments
and carries them to the garbage pile.

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

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

[“The End and the Beginning“]

This she taught me: the global policy elite, with its army of aides, advisors, reporters, photographers, security guards, waiters and ushers, will not be around “mired in scum and ashes” or “broom in hand” after the next Middle East war. They might very well be the ones financing the reconstruction of the bridges and railway stations. But mostly, they will have gone, with all the cameras, for another war. Only we, the people of the Middle East, will be left with the rubble, the work and with all those “rust eaten arguments,” which we have currently so enthusiastically embraced.

Dahlia Shaham Brender is a translator, researcher, and lawyer, advising organizations on issues of cross-cultural cooperation and socio-economic development in the Middle East.