Feed on

In the beginning of AMERICANAH, the character of Ifemelu has been unwilling to conform. The reader (and I) could tell that she is a strong and independent, having a sense of nationalism and pride in her culture.

When Ifemelu came to the United States, she saw strong examples of other conforming (ex. aunt Uji changing the pronunciation of her name) and decided that she wasn’t going to conform.

Somewhere in the middle, Ifemelu starts to conform, first changing her accent from Nigerian to English, letting go of a significant part of herself and allowing part of her to hide behind a facade.

Lose the braids and straighten your hair. Nobody says this kind of stuff but it matters. We want you to get that job.

In addition to changing her accent, Ifemelu changed her outward appearance, putting herself through pain and unhappiness in order to conform. She was creating a falseness of her self. From doing this, Ifemelu isn’t just changing and letting go of her accent but is letting go of a part of her heritage, a part of her real home, and ignoring a promise that she made to herself.

I LOVED this book, but there were times like this that made me sad. I can’t help but wonder how much we conform in order to achieve a goal we have…or even just to be liked.

Dark and Lovely After Take-Off (A Future)
by Yona Harvey

Nobody straightens their hair anymore.
Space trips & limited air supplies will get you conscious quick.

My shea-buttered braids glow planetary
as I turn unconcerned, unburned by the pre-take-off bother.

“Leave it all behind,” my mother’d told me,
sweeping the last specs of copper thread from her front porch steps &

just as quick, she turned her back to me. Why
had she disappeared so suddenly behind that earthly door?

“Our people have made progress, but, perhaps,”
she’d said once, “not enough to guarantee safe voyage

to the Great Beyond,” beyond where Jesus
walked, rose, & ascended in the biblical tales that survived

above sprocket-punctured skylines &
desert-dusted runways jeweled with wrenches & sheet metal scraps.

She’d no doubt exhale with relief to know
ancient practice & belief died hard among the privileged, too.

Hundreds of missions passed & failed, but here
I was strapped in my seat, anticipating—what exactly?

Curved in prayer or remembrance of a hurt
so deep I couldn’t speak. Had that been me slammed to the ground, cuffed,

bulleted with pain as I danced with pain
I couldn’t shake loose, even as the cops aimed pistols at me,

my body & mind both disconnected
& connected & unable to freeze, though they shouted “freeze!”

like actors did on bad television.
They’d watched & thought they recognized me, generic or bland,

without my mother weeping like Mary,
Ruby, Idella, Geneava, or Ester stunned with a grief

our own countrymen refused to see, to
acknowledge or cease initiating, instigating, &

even mocking in the social networks,
ignorant frays bent and twisted like our DNA denied

but thriving and evident nonetheless—
You better believe the last things I saw when far off lifted

were Africa Africa Africa
Africa Africa Africa Africa Africa

& though it pained me to say it sooner:
the unmistakable absence of the Great Barrier Reef.


About This Poem

“I used to harshly judge two women who in my storytelling I called ‘The Women from Mars.’ It didn’t take long, though, before I realized I was one of them. (Of course, I was!) So, I started to write as/with/through/alongside/about us. Visual artist Alisha Wormsley makes art that operates in what she calls the Fifth Dimension: where the past, present, and future coexist. Shout out to Alisha and shout out to complex narratives by and about Black women. This poem is one small piece of a larger story I’m telling.”
Yona Harvey

“My full and cool hair would work if I were interviewing to be a backup singer in a jazz band, but I need to look professional for this interview, and professional means straight is best but if it’s going to be curly then it has to be the white kind of curly, loose curls or, at worst, spiral curls but never kinky.”

Throughout Americanah, the presentation of African and African-American beauty and femininity is a prominent point of discussion within Ifemelu’s internal monologue and between the main characters. Adichie often puts emphasis on cultural spaces that hold a significance within the African diaspora because of their connection to grooming and personal presentation. Towards the very beginning of the book, Adichie describes the African hair salon and immediately makes clear the emphasis many women of African descent place on their hair in both America and Africa.

African hair is not only linked to personal preference but to survival itself. The novel makes clear that in order to thrive in a place where blackness — and anything that signifies it — is stigmatized and persecuted, it is essential to attempt to assimilate to the dominant culture.

Later, she said, “I have to take my braids out for my interviews and relax my hair… If you have braids, they will think you are unprofessional.”

“So there are no doctors with braided hair in America?” Ifemelu asked.
“I have told you what they told me. You are in a country that is not your own. You do what you have to do if you want to succeed.”

The chemical straightening of hair throughout the novel seems to not only represent a change in aesthetics but also a change in personal identity and allegiance. Straight hair means cultural dissonance while natural, kinky hair means pride in one’s origins. Although this broad statement definitely does not ring true in reality for many black women, the way Adichie characterizes Ifemelu leads me to believe that her character views it that way although she also seems to recognize the necessity in changing yourself in order to navigate effectively in a harsh world with varying standards of beauty.

“Just a little burn,” the hairdresser said. “But look how pretty it is. Wow, girl, you’ve got the white-girl swing!”

Her hair was hanging down rather than standing up, straight and sleek, parted at the side and curving to a slight bob at her chin. The verve was gone. She did not recognize herself. She left the salon almost mournfully; while the hairdresser had flat-ironed the ends, the smell of burning, of something organic dying which should not have died, had made her feel a sense of loss.

Although Americanah is not a novel explicitly about the politics of African diasporic presentation, Adichie’s commentary on it added to the richness of the novel in my eyes. It is very rare for me to read a book that seems to mirror some of the experiences that have permeated my life both as an adolescent and a young woman.


Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on black hair. Channel 4. UK.

While re-reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, I was reminded of a quote from an essay written by Zora Neale Hurston, found in The Best American Essays of the Century by Joyce Carol Oates. In her essay titled “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” Hurston writes about her first encounters with the idea of race, something that she never experienced growing up in an all-black community. She says, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background” (116). Adichie writes of several instances in Americanah in which Ifemelu encounters the same idea that Hurston captured on the page years earlier.

One instance of this that particularly stuck out to me can be found on page 273, when Ifemelu writes a blog post titled, “To My Fellow Non-American Blacks: In America, You are Black, Baby,” which begins, “Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care. So what if you weren’t ‘black’ in your country? You’re in America now. We all have our moments of initiation into the Society of Former Negroes. Mine was in a class in undergrad when I was asked to give the black perspective, only I had no idea what that was.”  This blog post essentially captures the same feeling that Hurston’s essay did; until a colored person encounters a non-colored person, their “color” is not a determining factor in their identity or something that said person has even considered or fully realized about themselves.

This occurrence also brings to my mind William E. Cross’ Nigrescence Model, which involves five stages: the Pre-Encounter, in which the person of color has little regard for the color of their skin, sometimes also called “race neutrality”; the Encounter, in which said person has an encounter (that is not always negative) that changes how they view the color of their skin, or at the very least makes them aware of it where they likely had not been before; the Immersion-Emersion stage, in which a person of color must shatter all previous world-views about race and form a new identity, usually achieved through the immersion of themselves into “black culture” or history; the Internalization stage, in which that person must decide their own feelings about their blackness or color; and, finally, the Internalization-Commitment stage, in which said person has mostly settled their new identity. This theory is applied to all minority groups but was developed through the study of African-Americans and seems so prevalent in the reading of Americanah, particularly in today’s society.

The idea of race is truly that–an idea–but the lived experience of both American and Non-American people of color is proof that this idea, which is so prominent in American culture, is not only toxic but seriously harmful to its non-white citizens. The fact that there is an entire process that non-white American citizens go through to accept the color of their skin is sickening, and the people who argue that racism is no longer prevalent are the same people who have not experienced it and therefore do not care about it. Americanah is an eye-opening novel that not only provides proof of Chimamanda Adichie’s talents as a writer but also a simultaneous fictional and first-hand account of the very thing that so many people deny in our culture. On page 135 of the novel, Ifemelu says, of Aunty Uju, that “America had subdued her.” Americans, particularly white Americans who do not face the same struggles as the characters in this novel, have both a civic and human duty to prevent this suppression. Or, at the very least, we need to educate ourselves about it so that we may attempt to prevent it.

Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah is a work of fiction that tackles many of the issues immigrants in America face. Many themes emerge throughout the text, including the racism present in current society, love and relationships in a romantic context, and most importantly, personal identity. While all of these topics are relevant and essential components to Americanah, I believe that the main point of the book is to discuss the struggles that individuals face when attempting to be a part of a new community yet also strive to keep a part of who they are regarding where they are from originally. This, of course, surrounds personal and cultural identity.

There are many examples of Ifemelu trying to remain faithful to her Nigerian roots, but also being influenced by the American culture around her (when she is in both the US and Africa). She is told, time and time again, that to be successful in the United States she must conform to stylistic expectations (which take away from her Nigerian culture). This also impacts other characters within Americanah.

“I have told you what they told me. You are in a country that is not your own. You do what you have to do if you want to succeed”…

…Sometimes, while having a conversation, it would occur to Ifemelu that Aunty Uju had deliberately left behind something of herself, something essential, in a distant and forgotten place. (146)

Aunty Uju feels she must change her appearance, which is a direct indicator of her cultural background, to fit into American societal norms and become a doctor. This is also a battle Ifemelu faces, but because she is self-aware regarding these cultural issues, it makes it even harder for her to cope with her ever-changing identity. People tell her that America is changing who she is and molding her Nigerian background in negative ways, infuriating her and leading her to feel self-conscious about her personal identification.

Her Ethiopian taxi driver said, “I can’t place your accent. Where are you from?”

“Nigeria? You don’t look African at all.”

“Why don’t I look African?”

“Because your blouse is too tight.”

“It is not too tight.”

“I thought you were from Trinidad or one of those places…You have to be very careful or America will corrupt you.” (255)

Ifemelu went on to write a blog post about this years after it happened, mad because she knew that the taxi driver was only being sincere in his examination of her. However, there are places where Ifemelu defends her position in society, being an immigrant, and how behaviors are not just ‘country-specific,’ another theme which makes Americanah as diverse and complex as it is. When speaking about Dike and his suicidal tendencies, Ranyinudo states:

“I don’t understand how a fine boy like Dike would want to kill himself. A boy living in America with everything. How can? That is very foreign behavior.”

“Foreign behavior? What the fuck are you talking about? Have you read Things Fall Apart?” Ifemelu asked, wishing she had not told Ranyinudo about Dike. (524-525)

Ranyinudo makes it seem as if mental illness is specific to western culture, but Ifemelu immediately retorts with an example (in the novel Things Fall Apart) of how anybody, no matter their origin or a particular community, can face the sorts of psychological struggles that lead to suicide. Another example of this is presented when Ifemelu is watching television with Aunty Uju and Bartholomew.

“A girl in Nigeria will never wear that kind of dress,” Bartholomew said. “Look at that. This country has no moral compass”…

…”Girls in Nigeria wear dresses much shorter than that o,” Ifemelu said. (142-143)

Batholomew is dissing the stylistic choices that are made in American culture, noting that females back in their country of origin would never be so promiscuous. Readers see Ifemelu defend the choice of clothing and point out that it is not just specific to America (where girls wear shorter dresses) and that girls have the ability to wear short skirts in Nigeria also. She later provides an example of changing in friends’ homes to avoid parental judgment on the garments they chose to wear.

It is clear that Ifemelu is conscious of the battle between American and Nigerian culture and has an ongoing struggle with how she defines herself. Americanah focuses on the war such immigrants can have within themselves pertaining to how they choose to describe where they are from despite multiple cultural influences that may keep others from agreeing with their definition of who they are socially and culturally.

The poems “Character” and “Border” are both about the patriarchy and how they hold the female speakers back in life. In the poem “Character,” the speaker has to take the first steps from her sheltered home, but if she does there will be men who are harassing her every step of the way, while in the poem “Border,” the patriarchal society is holding her from moving forward with things she wants to do in life.

“You’re a girl/ and you’d better not forget/ that when you step over the threshold of your house/ men will look askance at you.” This poem starts off speaking a truth that the readers can connect with. The last few lines of the poem are where the feminist theme comes in strong in this poem. “If you’ve got no character/ you’ll turn back,/ and if not/ you’ll keep on going,/ as you’re going on now.” These lines are where the theme shows up the heaviest, the idea to carry on if you have the strength to, to keep moving in a patriarchal society. The way this poem is set up, it is saying that the only way to move up in a patriarchy as a female is to force your way up and to keep moving.

“I’m going to move ahead./ Behind me my whole family is calling,/ my child is pulling at my sari-end,/ my husband stands blocking the door,/ but I will go./ There’s nothing ahead but a river/ I will cross./ I know how to swim but they/ won’t let me swim, won’t let me cross.” This poem is set up after this first stanza like a wave. She tries to move forward and life knocks her back. The waves take you where they want you to go, and the family and her husband are the metaphorical waves in this poem. This poem is about the speaker being forced to stay stagnant, like a lake, but the speaker has waves crashing back on her and pulling her farther and farther from her goal. She, at the end, decides that no matter what she is going to cross the river.

This is how the two poems are similar: that no matter how you need to do it, you move forward and make your own path in a society that men control. “Character” and “Border” end in similar ways. The ending of “Border” is “There’s nothing ahead but a river/ and I know how to swim./ Why shouldn’t I go? I’ll go.” Forcing yourself into the society dominated by men is, in these poems, the only way to make it in the world.

Our sweet soldiers
wanted nothing for themselves.
All they ever asked
was to come home

In this poem, Dahlia Ravikovitch expresses a spontaneous reaction to a political and military event. Her poems are engaged, and just by being an Israeli writer, she is de facto politically engaged and apprehended with prejudices, good or bad ones.

In other poems she uses mythological characters or biblical references (Medea and Abraham, for instance), but in this one she refers directly to two particular things: Shatila and Sabra. Shatila is a camp that was created in 1949, two years after the creation of the State of Israel, by Palestinians who were refugees at the border of Lebanon. Sabra is a Hebrew word used to talk about people who were born before 1947 in Palestine, but it is still used in current Hebrew to talk about any Jew born in Israel. These two terms are used in the same way as the mythological ones in other poems in that the author does not explain them. This absence of explanation can lead the reader to do some research, but it can also mean that Ravikovitch is reacting to something and writes not to be read or at least thinks that people who are reading her work are familiar with these references.

The whole point of this poem is a reaction to what happened with the Palestinian population and what Tsahal did to these populations. She is referring to the soldiers as “our soldiers,” so she is including herself in what happens and takes a part of the responsibility. Yet her position is totally against what is going on; she writes this poem to accuse her state of “killing” people. Even if she doesn’t depict any actual crime, there were, of course, crimes committed at that time. And what strikes me is that the worst part of the poem may be that she describes a scene in which soldiers are chasing Palestinians and especially women and children but not killing anyone. The last stanza is constructed with an oxymoron first — “our sweet soldiers” — and expresses a point of view that is now widespread in Israel about the government and the conflict with the Palestinians. Israelis have to be in Tsahal for at least three years for boys and two years for girls, but for most of them, they don’t want to do it and they don’t want to hurt anybody. They just want to go home, to be safe and to get back to their lives. The title is eponymous to a line of the poem and evokes Palestinian children who don’t have a home anymore and are dehumanized. But it can also apply to the soldiers who are in a way not their own anymore after they join the army. Also, the fact that in the first stanza Dahlia Ravikovitch talks about the Palestinians as Sabra is giving a clear indication of her political vision because they were born on the land of Israel so they are Sabra in the first meaning of the word. But it’s subversive to apply this term to them because since the creation of the state of Israel, the term has changed and only applies to Jewish people.

Dahilia Ravilovitch, “The Sound of Birds at Noon”

“The Sound of Birds at Noon” is a very different poem than the others in Ravilovitch’s collection. The lines “They sing without giving us a thought,” “Some are rare, some are common,/but every wing is grace,” “This chirp is entirely free of malice” employ an entirely different voice than “when that hand closes over her hair, grasping it/without a shred of pity,” or “first they shot/then they hanged/ then they slaughtered with their knives.” These disturbing graphic images gave me a sense of deep emotional turmoil roiling throughout the other poems. However, the narrator speaks of the birds in a distant, almost scientific way.

The use of pronouns is also very different. In every other poem in this collection the pronouns I, your, and our are scattered throughout as if Ravilovitch is putting humanity’s stamp of ownership on the poems. “The Sound of Birds at Noon” doesn’t have this possessive note to it. The birds are referred to as they or their, further distancing them from human meddling. I would almost call this poem childish except for the very subtle notes of tension, particularly in the last line that provides a distant connection between the two worlds. “Over the years/ it even seems to have/a note of compassion.” My take on this is that the birds are so free from humanity that they can afford to feel compassion for us.

It is interesting that Ravilovitch would choose to incorporate this poem in among her other works. I suspect that it was to give the reader a bit of a breather from some of her darker works, but also to provide a contrast for the human world that she is painting. The poem’s placement gives the reader a sense that this dark world shown in the other poems isn’t the only one out there. While this airy world might not be a human one, it still coexists with it up to a point. It also gives me a sense of concern for this world of birds. I cannot help but wonder how long it will remain so distant from humans.

While there are some aspects of Taslima Nasrin’s poems that specifically relate to life in Bangladesh, the feminist themes are very relevant in America – and across the world – today. Her poem “Character” begins with a message that is drilled into women’s heads from the start: “You’re a girl/ and you’d better not forget” (401). Nasrin describes how men will always call women names and look at them in ways that make them uncomfortable. Women are taught that “boys will be boys,” and they must be the ones who have to learn to defend themselves, instead of men being taught not to harass women. Because “you’re a girl,” you’re taught to accept men’s inappropriate behavior and to live with it, no matter how uncomfortable or frightened you are. However, Nasrin turns this poem into an encouraging message for women. “If you’ve got no character/ you’ll turn back,” she writes, “and if not/ you’ll keep going,/ as you’re going now” (402). Here, the poet encourages women to live their lives despite the men who harass them. One can’t simply stay in her house forever, being afraid of what she will face when she goes outside. Women have to acknowledge what the world is like, yes, but they should use that acknowledgement to learn to stand strong in a world that is often against them.

“At the Back of Progress…” is another poem that is particularly relevant to American society today. Nasrin writes, “The fellow who sits in the air-conditioned office/is the one who in his youth raped/ a dozen or so young girls/… This fellow gives out character references for people” (403). The poem describes a man who treats women horribly, yet he gets away with it because people see him as a “good man” and would never suspect “how foul his language could be/ how vile his behavior” (403). With the rise of the “Me Too” movement, there was a lot of backlash toward the accusers because so many “good men” were accused of assault, and those accusations could “ruin them.” As we see in this poem and in recent media, however, this is not the case. A powerful man can be accused of sexual assault and still remain in power, if not gaining more. Nasrin’s poem shows readers that one can never know what goes on behind closed doors; just because someone seems like a good person in public doesn’t mean they behave that way in private. This is always important to keep in mind, but it is especially so in America’s current political climate.

Taslima Nasrin’s poem “Border” is told from the point of view of a woman fantasizing about leaving her family for a life of freedom.  Interestingly, she intends on returning, which is different from many stories with this theme.  The narrator is Hindi, and from the limited research I did on the roles of women in Hindi families, women are expected to be subservient to their husbands and devoted to their children.  It seems to me that this behavior is ingrained into the narrator’s very being, which is why she repeats the refrain “and then return” after saying what she’ll do once she escapes from her family.

The poem reads as if the narrator is trying to convince herself to leave, despite her longing to do so.  She clearly feels trapped by her family – “I know how to swim but they / won’t let me swim, won’t let me cross.”  While dreaming about her escape, she imagines playing keep-away and dancing as she did as a child.  The longing with which she speaks of these dreams makes it seem as though the narrator is ready to leave her home immediately, but reading the last line of the poem made me wonder about this.  “Why shouldn’t I go?  I’ll go,” the speaker says.  I think this line can be taken two ways:  as a woman determined to temporarily leave her responsibilities who is ready to leave as soon as possible, or as one who wants desperately to leave and is trying to convince herself but lacks the courage to do so.  I think the second explanation is more likely.  Another word that Nasrin repeats throughout the poem is “someday.”  To me, adding this word to each description of the things she’ll do when she gets away shows that while she has the dream to leave, she lacks the courage to actually do so.

“Character” might be one of the shorter poems in the set we read for class, but it has one of the clearest voices.  “You’re a girl/ and you’d better not forget…” Nasrin writes in the opening lines, sounding both accusatory and commanding at the same time.  As the poem continues, though, we learn that she is simply informing her subject of the way things are.  And that reality is a harsh and degrading one.

“If you’ve got no character/ you’ll turn back,” she continues, “and if not/ you’ll keep on going, as you’re going now.”  These lines are a clever way of saying that there is no way for a woman to have honor or respect in the place Nasrin is writing about.  A girl can turn back and go inside her house to avoid harassment if she does not have character, but staying outside and going about her business also insinuates that she has no character.

According to her biography at the beginning of the PDF, we learn that Nasrin was forced to leave her home country of Bangladesh because of her writing, and that many of her books have been banned because of their anti-religious commentary.  “Character” reflects what I have come to understand about her personality from the short descriptions I have read: Nasrin is not afraid to speak her mind, no matter the cost.  She writes about the inequality of men and women in “Character” because it is unjust and needs to be addressed.

“At the Back of Progress…” raises an interesting question: is true equality ever guaranteed? It’s been almost 54 years since the Civil Rights Act was passed, and yet we are still fighting racism on a daily basis in this country; women are still fighting for equal pay and reproductive rights, though it’s been decades since the Equal Pay Act and Roe vs. Wade; since 2015, it’s been legal for gay couples all across the United States to marry, yet many parishes still refuse to perform wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples. This poem reminds us that, no matter how far we advance as a society, that same level of advancement is not guaranteed for each individual. There will always be those who disagree with the way things are; this could be because they were raised by someone who remembered and valued the old way of doing things, or simply because change of any kind can feel strange or even threatening.

This poem also reminds us that no matter how respectable or kind a person may seem outwardly, you can’t always know what they are like personally:

“The employee who’s speaking in such a low voice
that no one knows or would ever suspect
how much he could raise his voice at home,
how foul his language could be
how vile his behavior.”

“The bearer who brings the tea
Who keeps the lighter in his pocket
And who gets a couple of taka as a tip:
He’s divorced his first wife for her sterility,
His second wife for giving birth to a daughter,
He’s divorced his third wife for not bringing dowry.
Returning home, this fellow beats his fourth wife
Over a couple of green chilis or a handful of cooked rice.”

Nasrin reminds us that there will always be opposition amidst progression and that, in spite of it, everyone must do their best to uphold true equality, even with the possibility that it may never exist.

“Try to Praise the Mutilated World” is a poem which not only tells a story but has fantastic rhythm. Zagajewski is free in his prose, which is a characteristic of the poem allowing for its success.

“You watched the stylish yachts and ships;

one of them had a long trip ahead of it,

while salty oblivion awaited others.”

This line, in particular, struck me as one which is constructed in a way which has the ability to transport the reader to the specific imagery the author creates, a talent that Zagajewski clearly has and demonstrates throughout this poem. While not extraordinarily detailed, it is the word choice (specifically, “salty oblivion”) which leaves the reader with a specific memory, scent, or idea of their own, aiding the mental images which come with “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.”

“Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.”

While there is no specific rhyme scheme, I feel that the meter presented within this poem is a factor contributing to its success. As shown here, the poem is written in a style which allows for the words to flow together beautifully, a key component to lucrative poetry. When reading out loud, (to my ear), the words “together” and “fluttered” mesh together quite well. Poetry which is read out loud leaves a different impression than when reading to one’s self, and I feel that in order to appreciate “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” to the fullest extent, it must be read aloud.

The tone used is also one which further allows “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” to be as well written as it is. The title itself leaves an emphasis of hope in a systematically dark community, evoking sadness from audience members.

“The nettles that methodically overgorw

the abandoned homesteads of exiles.

You must praise the mutilated world.”

It is easy to imagine somewhat of a post-apocalyptic world after reading this section of the poem. Zagajewski is not subtle when reaching for melancholy emotions, something which is clearly presented in his tone and choice of language. Obviously, the context of this poem changed greatly when the attack on the WTC happened, but even before this national tragedy, this poem successfully attempted explaining mournful emotions. This is also something that Szymborska demonstrates in her written works.

Comparing Zagajewski and Szymborska, it is important to note that they are both Polish authors. Either’s work surrounds depressing topics, playing on negative human emotion (of course, depending on the work). Within Szymborska’s work, we see references to wars and the repetition of a negative history (“The End and the Beginning”), negative emotion regularly found in humans relating to tragedies (“Theater Impressions”), and harsh truths in “Reality Demands.” Warfare present in “Reality Demands” begs the question of how humans can continue to live knowing the great damage they have done, not only to one another but to the Earth as well.

Both of these poems, while not blatantly saying this, are about emotions and human components. Of course, the written subjects differ to a great degree, but they attempt to evoke the same response of being emotionally impacted by the way we treat our planet and different cultures.


This poem stuck with me the most after reading and re-reading Szymborsa’s poems, because it felt the most relevant to today’s current events. This particular poem was all about how whenever there is a war, or a tragedy, there are always people who have to stay behind and clean up the messes made. With everything going on in the news today between the Kavanaugh trial, Trump’s never ending string of offenses, and the multiple wars ravaging countries and families, I feel as though there are far too many messes to clean. There was a line that went, “Someone’s got to trudge through the sludge and the ashes, through the sofa springs, the shards of glass, the bloody rags.” This particular quote stood out, and impacted me so deeply because I think that this showed the most emotion, and the death of the situation the most clearly. The work that goes into cleaning up these messes is exhausting, it is unpleasant in every possible way. The people that have to endure this at first are the ones who were there from the start, who knew what life was like before said tragedy. They had the hardest time dealing with this and therefore a new wave of people end up coming in who won’t be as deeply emotionally traumatized as the first wave. In my head, what I related this back to is the Kavanaugh trial and the sexual assault crisis in our country today. Every time a new man in the spotlight is accused of assault, all of the women who have suffered in their lifetime are forced to re-live their trauma and re-pick up their pieces. Women in this country are constantly cleaning up the messes that men made, that they never asked or even volunteered to clean up. We are holding the hands of other women, trying to help lift them out of the ashes, while also trying to hold ourselves together. This is what I personally related this poem back to and it really struck a chord with me, I absolutely loved it and thought that it was extremely relevant to one of the many crises happening in our country today.

After every war
someone has to tidy up.
Things won’t pick
themselves up, after all.

In reading the selected poems by Wislaw Szymborska, I found that her work entitled “The End and The Beginning” stood out to me the most. In researching her life, I found that her work was often inspired by her experience of growing up in Poland in the span of time between two devastating world wars. This particular poem is interesting in that instead of focusing on the grisly carnage of the battlefield, it focuses on the lesser talked about destruction that war leaves behind. Each of the poem’s stanzas talks about the way the war has changed the lives of the citizens of the country as well as the inherent trauma of living through such a destructive event. The way she uses language really conveys the quiet suffering of the civilians left behind to deal with their own inner battles as time continues to pass and the world moves on to other wars in other places.

Those who knew
what this was all about
must make way for those
who know little.
And less than that.
And at last nothing less than nothing.

In this poem, Szymborska writes about the destruction war can cause and the time and healing the effects of the war have, but with that comes the beginning of a new life. The overall choice of words by the implies the serious narrative to this poem, thus pulling the reader visualize and feel the effects a war would bring.

Someone got to shove
the rubble to the roadsides,
so the cars loaded with corpses
can pass.

The repetition and use of the word someone in this poem, follow with a task shows the time and effort that ANYONE would feel and witness after the war.

I think the ending of this poem is the most haunting as Szymborska writes about how little new generations don’t realize about the hardships and effects a war had, and how that information is lost over time when those generations die.

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

In this compilation of Wislawa Szymborska’s poems, the poem I found the most interesting and relatable was “Unexpected Meeting.” the reason I liked this poem over all the others is that you can tell how tense this meeting is without her saying it.
“Our tigers drink milk./ Our hawks walk on the ground./ Our sharks drown in water.” I chose this quote because it is the opposite of what we expected the author to say. We hope to go with the flow, not go against the grain. By describing a shark drowning in water, we can see how uncomfortable this narrator is. The use of an animal drowning in the environment it is supposed to thrive in is a fantastic analogy for how the narrator feels in this situation. They feel out of their comfort zone, and it feels like going against the grain of life.
I also really liked the poem “Pietà,” I love that this poem has both a Jesus storyline and an Achilles storyline. Seeing as the word pietà means “heel” which is where I got the impression of the Greek god. The line that really grabbed my attention was the first line, “In the small town where the hero was born: in seeing the monument, praising it for its size, shooing two hens off the steps of the abandoned museum, finding out where his mother lives, knocking and pushing the creaking door open.” The very first section of this poem brought to the idea of Achilles, this is because we don’t usually see the term hero associated with Jesus. We typically hear the word savior. This use of the word hero turns the poem to a new direction as it moves along. I wonder why the author chose the word hero to describe Jesus, was it because they wanted to show their beliefs in a poem? Was it due to the authors own religion? Or was it just based on the painting?

In “The End and the Beginning”, Wislawa Szymborska writes about the war, and more precisely, the after war. What is interesting is her way to write a poem about this subject. We could expect something tragic, or with a lot of pathos. But her choice is to tell the story through a poem of what is going on after a war. We understand that she is not going to talk about an everyday event from the title because of the capital at “End” and “Beginning”. Also, the choice to put the end before the beginning is interesting because she is not going through a chronology of the events but she does the contrary and starts from the end when there is nothing left. Almost nothing left, the ninth stanza is evocating the fact that at the end, we think there is nothing left, and she corrects line after line to end by saying that there is always something that reborns from that.  Then, the fact that she doesn’t focus on a particular war, even if we can assume that she is writing about the Second World War because she was born in 1923 in Poland and was twenty years old when it was annexed by the Nazis. She is using general terms and it creates sort of a statement about the war itself as a repetitive thing and removes the particularity of choosing one war and mentioning special events or places. She stays in a general and kind of vague statement and yet with a really precise word choice. The fact that she is not even using a pronoun but “Someone” in different sentences when she writes about the person who is gonna clean the place and in a way be alive in a place where there was only death is significant. It is not a he or she but someone, it can show that we will not remember or care about this person, but this is gonna be the one that is gonna bring back life after the disaster. We can always question the words and the style when it’s a translation but in this case, we can assume that the translation is good and that even in Polish, the general tone and the choice of words is, at least, giving the same feeling to the reader.

Peter Paul Rubens was a Flemish painter during the seventeenth-century Baroque movement who excelled in portraits, particularly nudes. In “The Women of Rubens”, Wislawa Szymborska describes many of the common characteristics that can be found in Rubens’ nude portraits. The poem begins, “Giantesses, female fauna, / naked as the rumbling of barrels. / They sprawl in trampled beds, / sleep with mouths agape for crowing.” The description of these women as “giantesses” is fitting of Rubens’ work; his portraits are easily distinguishable and unique because of the artist’s hand when portraying the human form, particularly that of women.

The second stanza begins with “Daughters of the Baroque.” This line is particularly lovely because Rubens himself was a product of the Baroque period; he studied under classical and Renaissance artists and works of art that came from both periods. It was not until he arrived in Rome, about halfway through his career, that he was introduced to the Baroque style. Thus it seems fitting that the women of his paintings should be daughters to the period as he was a son. The stanza goes on to list several characteristics of art from the Baroque, both in subject matter and style–the color of the wines that are often depicted, the ostentatiousness of the skies. In this poem, the writer is both describing a painting and the movement from which it came.

Szymborska, in the third and fourth stanzas, goes on to describe the art of the past movements. “Their slender sisters had risen earlier, / before dawn broke in the picture. / No one noticed how, single file, they / had moved to the canvas’s unpainted side. / Exiles of style. Their ribs all showing,”…”The thirteenth century would have given them a golden / background, / the twentieth–a silver screen. / The seventeenth had nothing for the flat of chest.” The comparing and contrasting–as well as the use of the words “golden” and “silver” in regards to past and future artistic styles, which imply riches, and then “nothing” of the Classical and Renaissance periods–of the styles sheds light on the writer’s appreciation for Ruben’s portrayal of women and perhaps the Baroque movement itself. She seems nearly to mock the women of previous artists and their thinner, more beautified bodies.

The final stanza describes the sky and many of the subjects in Ruben’s work as “convex” which is the perfect word both to summarize the artist’s work and end this poem. The bodies of the women he painted were fuller and more voluptuous than artists’ prior, and many of his compositions carried this trait over. Because of her mockery and shaming of the women of past art movements and her appreciation of their more natural, less modified portrayal in Rubens’ work, not only does this poem seem to marvel at the artist himself, but is heavily toned with feminism and her opinion on how women were perceived as a whole.

When you ask most people what their favorite part of a play is, they’re probably not going to say “when it was over,” especially if the play was a good one. That is what makes Wislawa Szymborska’s poem “Theater Impressions” so interesting. Szymborska writes, “For me a tragedy’s most important act is the sixth:/ the resurrecting from the stage’s battlegrounds,/ the adjusting of wigs, of robes,/ the wrenching of knife from breast,/ the removing of noose from neck,/ the lining up among the living to face the audience” (140). She goes on to describe the dead characters coming back to life and acknowledging that their deaths weren’t real. In the last stanza, she describes the lowering of the curtain, leaving us with a lasting image: “Only then does a third, invisible [hand]/ perform its duty:/ it clutches at my throat” (141).

What about the end of a play causes the speaker to feel the way she does? Is the true tragedy having to acknowledge that something is over? Or is it the fact that there was no real tragedy to begin with? Perhaps the speaker has had to face death in her life, and the fact that the dead in the play can “return to life” upsets her. Given Szymborska’s life in Poland during World War II, it is probably safe to say that she witnessed a lot of death and experienced a lot of trauma in her early years. That experience surely influenced her writing of this poem. The “sixth act” of the play could represent the end of the war. Though the dead would not actually come back to life, the actors taking their bows could be a representation of the hope of better things to come at the end of the war, or it could be the speaker simply wishing the war never occurred in the first place. The hand clutching the speaker’s throat at the end of the poem serves as a reminder that the impact the war had on Syzmborska would never go away – it would be something that haunted her forever.


Wislaw Symborska admits herself that her poetry focuses on the “particulars.” She is interested in the minute details of the world. She sees the larger image but she isn’t focused on that but instead the small things that would normally go unnoticed. Her poem “Unexpected Meeting” is about the reunion of two people but the images she provides to explain this are interesting and strange. In “The End and the Beginning,” Wislaw talks about war but she is more interested into the aftermath than the war itself. She views it from the point of view of the survivor, of the person picking up the pieces and trying to continue on with their life. It is a small window into a much larger scene, but it is an important view and she describes it beautifully.

In the poem “The Women of Rubens” Wislaw describes a female subject in one of Peter Paul Rubens paintings. Again, Wislaw has zoomed in on a narrow subject this time in the world of Rubens.  Her descriptions are almost more beautiful than the paintings themselves.  She writes “Giantesses, female fauna, naked as the rumbling of barrels. They sprawl in trampled beds, sleep with with mouths agape for crowing…” It is a vivid image made up of beautiful language. Even though her viewpoint is but a glance Wislaw has created a world with her words.

Many of Wislaw’s descriptions are very in tune with nature. Her poem “Unexpected Meeting” is about the reunion of two people but the images she provides to explain this are interesting and strange. The line “Our serpents have shaken off lightning” is gorgeous. It is a powerful image, and even though I am not quite sure what she means, it is a line that stuck with me as I continued to read the rest of the poems.

“The End and the Beginning” stands out the most to me out of all of Wislaw’s poetry.  Wislaw was alive during World War II and afterwards.  She would have been there to see the destruction and the aftermath.  Wislaw witnessed first hand as her people picked up after the war. “The End and the Beginning” talks about something people often forget, that war leads to destruction and that destruction is left on the shoulders of the people who live there.  Wislaw zooms in on the little people, the ones “picking up the broom” and “lugging the post.”  By doing this, Wislaw creates a powerful and vivid image of a war torn city rebuilding after the horrors of war.

I agree with the introductory line that Wislaw Szymborska creates a “detached sympathy with her subjects.” This is important when dealing with poetry because it has a bad reputation for getting too sappy and cheesy. I firmly blame this on the overabundance of love poems in our culture. By providing the readers with a bit of irony, the entire tone of the poem changes, allowing the reader to pull back a little from the characters.

“Unexpected Meeting”
When I read this poem my first thought was that the world these people are in has turned on its head and not in a good way. I particularly liked the line, “Our sharks drown in water.” Everything that we would consider natural is gone only leaving the unnatural behind. The world changed because of the fighting between these two people or groups of people. I don’t know if the fighting was physical or metaphorical. There is a very strong sense of tension when they are talking politely to one another, that it is difficult to determine the exact relationship between these two groups. At first, I wondered if it was two warring nations who had destroyed the world around them, but that seemed a little extreme for the poem. However if one looks at it like a separated couple the fighting could have been metaphorical and both of their worlds were drastically changed.
There is an empty stillness in the polite talk, contrasted with the violent movement of the list of animals. If these two people were a couple who fought so much they decided to separate, there would have been bad blood on either side. Now that time has passed and they meet once more they have nothing to say to each other because everything meaningful or passionate has already been said and they are left with polite gibber gabber on repeat that they can’t even finish.

“The Women of Rubens”
This poem is a tribute to time, beauty, and gender. It’s subject is women who, in this time period, would not be considered the cream of the crop while in the seventeenth century were the epitome of beauty. I enjoyed all the mentions of the old masters in the poem. It added to the different sense of beauty that the poem speaks of. After all one of arts, main appeals to many is its beauty. This poem also speaks to the fact that if a woman doesn’t think she is beautiful she acts very differently from the ones that do.

This is an interesting title for the poem, particularly when she never mentions the hero by name or exactly what he did. Still the reader gets that whoever this guy is he did something great that is somehow cheapened by all the people walking in and out of his home asking the same questions, over and over again. There is a polish on the answers that his mother gives that says she has answered this many times before, and all the yes, yes, yes give the reader the impression of nodding. Still to name your poem after a famous statue of the Virgin Mary holding a dead Jesus is a very painful image to connect this with. It adds an extra layer of emotional depth and complexity. I think that it shows that despite the mother’s calm appearance and will practiced answers she still hurts for her long gone son. Perhaps this opening up to tourists are her way of resurrecting him.

“Theater Impressions”
I cannot tell at the end if it is a good clutch or a bad one. Becoming emotional can give you that tight feeling in your throat but it doesn’t mean that the emotion is a bad one. However, the fact that this play was a tragedy, and the wording, “it clutches my throat” does have sinister or negative connotations. I do love the way that the character views the play. Starting at a place where many lose interest in the actual plot and are only focus on thanking the actors is very unusual.

“Under a Certain Little Star”
The strongest theme in this poem was the desire to size and experience everything there is in life, even if it is not physically possible, like living as every man and women or apologizing to a tree for her table legs. There is also a great deal of sorrow that this isn’t possible because “I myself am an obstacle to myself.”

“Reality Demands”
I loved this poem. It is the brutal truth, but also shows that this might not be the worst thing in the world. One of its main themes is time. Time moves on and soon the old battlefields that were so tragic and vivid in its time will be forgotten despite the attempt to remember them. This is never so clearly shown as her descriptions of people still experience day-to-day moments like sending letters, painting a park bench, and seeing blooming flowers in these places where so much death has occurred.
It is ironic that so many people have died in these various battles for their beliefs and causes. However, reality demands (hahaha) that they are forgotten, or not quite as remembered as they were. This may give the impression of narcissism but one should also remember that the ideals the people died/fought for could still be present. So that even though the individual fades in the grand scheme of things bits of their lives and experiences still live on today.

“The End and the Beginning”
I would say this is a hopeful poem with a touch of irony. Hopeful because all the hard work of rebuilding succeeds in creating peace in a land where there was war. Where there used to be, “sofa springs/the shards of glass/the bloody rags,” there is now a cornfield with a farmer boy staring up at the clouds. However, it is ironic and painful because humans can’t remember the pain and suffering of war. If you can’t learn from history, you are doomed to repeat it. The growing ignorance of what war means to the common people is very clear. In the end, the way the farmer’s boy is described as lying, “in the grass that covers up/the cause and effects/… (while he’s) gawking at the clouds” shows that the transformation is complete. Still, this is one of my favorite poems because of the imagery.

Try to Praise the Mutilated World
by Adam Zagajewski

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.




« Newer Posts - Older Posts »