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Reality Demands by Wisława Szymborska

Almost all my letters the other day began this way: I am not sure of the geography of things—

Some friends I haven’t written in awhile. Their previous letters I haven’t yet answered. I said: this is a letter I must write right now. I needed to write it.

Apparently I am the person who stays up at past four in the morning, making a sandwich, barefoot in the kitchen, listening to the news.

When did I become her? When the planes hit the towers? When the floods kept coming, submerging towns, washing away houses? When earthquakes moved local governments to issue tsunami warnings? When someone went on a shooting rampage on an island? When an active pursuit for two bombers becomes a manhunt that put a city under lockdown?

My letters were uncertain. Sometimes embarrassed. While I was writing I was telling myself what a complete fool I must sound like. I am a thousand miles away. How can I possibly care? And why would I?

But I needed to ask: Are you okay? Are you safe?

Death and loss and grief. And all that blood.

Days pass and it will be all I can think of, all I can feel: the weight of that. On my chest. Here. To feel the heart beating, and to feel the weight upon it, the terrible, inescapable weight of the empty space where something beautiful once was.

To think of what I have, and what was lost.

How indulgent, sneers another self. This is the kind of navel-gazing that nobody wants to hear.

Because elsewhere, the world turns. Elsewhere, more deaths. Elsewhere, everything you want me to turn my gaze to because don’t they deserve my attention, too?

There is always someone dying.

An acquaintance ripped off an air conditioner from the wall. He and his family then climbed out of that tiny hole, onto the roof, and waited until help came, shivering under the rain. Elsewhere there’s a baby being carried in a bucket. Elsewhere water bottles were being used as rafts. Elsewhere another family was being swept in the flood, passing under a bridge, and afterward you see the roof of their house floating, with no people on top of them.

I watched my grandfather breathed his last and I didn’t demand the rain. I stood under a staircase, in a dark corner, and buried my face in my hands. Then I walked around the hospital, chased doctors, and asked for them to sign the forms, my voice trembling, my cheeks wet. Elsewhere someone is buried alive and starts to decompose. Elsewhere journalists are slain, caught in the middle of a clan war. Elsewhere people walk home with ashes in their hair.

There is always someone dying.

In a particular letter, I wrote: I keep thinking how close it is to where you live, how it could’ve easily been you. How dangerous the world is. How nobody is really that safe. How, at any given day, it could’ve been me, in a wrong time, at a wrong place.

In another: I thought of you precisely because you loved to run.

In another: I just had to check.

I said, I’ve been watching the news. I said, It’s all horrifying.

I said, I wish we aren’t vulnerable to violence or terror.

It is painful, to be made aware, and to realise again and again how life is fleeting, how it is all borrowed. It also cuts deeper to know that sometimes it is we who make it so—people make it so.

There is always someone dying. And yet every day is a chance to live. I risk a cliche, but it’s the truth, isn’t it.

Every day reality demands that we must live.

Each letter ends with: I’m glad you weren’t there. Though I hurt for all the people who were there.

I hurt, and this is all I can write—what I needed to write. Perhaps someone else can say it better. This— life— the world— it is “perhaps worthy of a better poet,” as Szymborska said in another poem.

Perhaps this is a letter, too.

Reality Demands
Wisława Szymborska
Translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

Reality demands
that we also mention this:
Life goes on.
It continues at Cannae and Borodino,
at Kosovo Polje and Guernica.

There’s a gas station
on a little square in Jericho,
and wet paint
on park benches in Bila Hora.
Letters fly back and forth
between Pearl Harbor and Hastings,
a moving van passes
beneath the eye of the lion at Chaeronea,
and the blooming orchards near Verdun
cannot escape
the approaching atmospheric front.

There is so much Everything
that Nothing is hidden quite nicely.
Music pours
from the yachts moored at Actium
and couples dance on the sunlit decks.

So much is always going on,
that it must be going on all over.
Where not a stone still stands,
you see the Ice Cream Man
besieged by children.
Where Hiroshima had been
Hiroshima is again,
producing many products
for everyday use.
This terrifying world is not devoid of charms,
of the mornings
that make waking up worthwhile.

The grass is green
on Maciejowice’s fields,
and it is studded with dew,
as is normal grass.

Perhaps all fields are battlefields,
those we remember
and those that are forgotten:
the birch forests and the cedar forests,
the snow and the sand, the iridescent swamps
and the canyons of black defeat,
where now, when the need strikes, you don’t cower
under a bush but squat behind it.

What moral flows from this? Probably none.
Only that blood flows, drying quickly,
and, as always, a few rivers, a few clouds.

On tragic mountain passes
the wind rips hats from unwitting heads
and we can’t help
laughing at that.

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