“Every poem is a political poem. Telling the truth is a political act.” Philip Levine.
For almost six years I’ve been enjoying a conversation with Moira Magneson about poetry and politics. Moira is one those rare human beings whose hopes for peace on this planet are genuine and indefatigable. She is also a truly talented poet. On Tuesday, we met at Café Metro—just down the street from Sacramento City College, where Moira teaches—to talk about Wislawa Szymborska’s poem, “Some People,” and why we think it works so well as both poetry and politics.
The poem begins in a tone of matter-of-factness: “Some people flee some other people./In some country under a sun/and some clouds.” What struck us was how the poem sustains this tone through the use of generalities, while becoming more and more specific, to the point of creating an internal tension. A tension that echoes the tension between the distant people who created the war and the people caught in its cross-fire. The repeated use of the word “some” is constantly changing and takes on the sound of bombs detonating in the distance.
As the poem progresses, generality becomes universality as the reader creates his or her own image of the fleeing people’s faces, races, nationalities, and social classes. All the while, Ms. Szymborska provides crisp, specific imagery of the terrors they are trying to survive. Moira put it this way: “she is considering the many individually.”
“Some People” is a poem that creates empathy for people without choices. Ms. Szymborska’s empathy is inclusive. One that reminds us the perpetrator may not have many choices, either.
Some people flee some other people.
In some country under a sun
and some clouds.
They abandon something close to all they’ve got,
sown fields, some chickens, dogs,
mirrors in which fire now preens.
Their shoulders bear pitchers and bundles.
The emptier they get, the heavier they grow.
What happens quietly: someone’s dropping from exhaustion.
What happens loudly: someone’s bread is ripped away,
someone tries to shake a limp child back to life.
Always another wrong road ahead of them,
always another wrong bridge
across an oddly reddish river.
Around them, some gunshots, now nearer, now farther away,
above them a plane seems to circle.
Some invisibility would come in handy,
some grayish stoniness,
or, better yet, some nonexistence
for a shorter or a longer while.
Something else will happen, only where and what.
Someone will come at them, only when and who,
in how many shapes, with what intentions.
If he has a choice,
maybe he won’t be the enemy
and will let them live some sort of life.
Ms. Szymborska is a native of Poland and the winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for literature. Born in 1923, she is among that generation of poets who many consider the most important of our time. I came upon “Some People” in her Poems New and Collected, 1957-1997 (Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1998), translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh.