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Clouds
Century of poetry and war

PART 8: women's voices

 

Tortures by Wislawa Szymborska

Nothing has changed.
The body is susceptible to pain;
it has to eat and breathe the air, and sleep;
it has thin skin, and the blood is just beneath it;
an adequate supply of teeth and fingernails;
its bones can be broken; its joints can be stretched.
In tortures, all this is taken into account.

Nothing has changed.
The body shudders as it shuddered
before the founding of Rome and after,
in the twentieth century before and after Christ.
Tortures are just as they were, only the earth has grown smaller,
and what happens sounds as if it's happening in the next room.

Nothing has changed.
It's just that there are more people,
and beside the old offences new ones have sprung -
real, make-believe, short-lived, and non-existent.
But the howl with which the body answers to them,
was, is and ever will be a cry of innocence
according to the age-old scale and pitch.

Nothing has changed.
Except perhaps the manners, ceremonies, dances.
Yet the movement of hands to shield the head remains the same.
The body writhes, jerks and tries to pull away,
its legs fail, it falls, its knees jack-knife,
it bruises, swells, dribbles and bleeds.

Nothing has changed.
Except for the course of rivers,
the lines of forests, coasts, deserts and glaciers.
Amid those landscapes roams the soul,
disappears, returns, draws nearer, moves away,
a stranger to itself, elusive,
now sure, now uncertain of its own existence,
while the body is and is and is
and has nowhere to go.
 

POETRY INDEX

  the first world war
  the 1930s
  the second world war
  crimes against humanity
  the nuclear age
  other wars
  responsibility
  women's voice
s
Come on, come back GO
The Enemies GO
A Wartime Education GO
Tortures GO


INFORMATION
   
Wislawa Szymborska (pron. Vishwava Zhimborska) was born in Poland in 1923. She lived through the Germans' occupation of Poland (and defied them by going to illegal classes). Then she lived under an oppressive Communist regime - not always pleasing its officials with her poetry. In 1996 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature , one of the few women to receive it.
'the founding of Rome': traditionally in 753 BC (Before Christ). The history of the ancient Romans was a long one, full of wars and brutality. The Jewish preacher Jesus, on whose teachings the Christian religion was built, was executed by the Romans, whose favoured method at the time was crucifixion, a form of torture leading to death.
'scale and pitch': musical terms, referring to high or low notes and their order
   

IDEAS
   

- 'It's over 25 years now since I was arrested and tortured for treating a wounded revolutionary, but the memories of the pain in torture, the terror and the utter desolation of weeks in solitary confinement, are still with me. I believe it is the same for all of us, the men and women who have been imprisoned, stripped naked, hurt and humiliated. We are left with only a thin veneer over our pain, and the outraged question: how could one human being do this to another, and how could others stand by and watch it happen? What are we doing, when we turn away from other people's suffering? What is that happens in the human heart to block the natural flow of compassion that is an intrinsic part of us?'
- 'I wouldn't want what happened to me to happen to anybody, because it is something that destroys the spirit and the soul, totally, there is no comparison. To talk about it is hard for me, because it all comes back at once...all that terror, that horror.'
- 'A 29-year old woman was repeatedly arrested for her supposed links with the rebels. During one 2-week period of arrest, she was kept naked and continually tortured. It was not until she was threatened with rape that she signed a "confession". Rape, she said later, was for her the final and unacceptable torture.'
- 'One of my patients said to me "Courage, my friend: find your courage and let it live". That was said to me by a woman who was not just attacked with a machete, but her entire body systematically mutilated. Her ears had been cut off. Her face had been so carefully disfigured that a pattern was clear in the slashes. She was one among many enduring an inhuman and indescribable suffering.'

The Geneva Conventions state that 'violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture', and 'outrages upon human dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment' are banned. The 4th Convention specifically refers to the treatment of women, who should be defended against 'rape, enforced prostitution, or any form of indecent assault'.rape had long been acknowledged as a crime of war, but it was not until 1998 that its use as a weapon of war was also acknowledged.

In 1984 an international Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment defined torture as 'any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining information or a confession'. It may be 'inflicted by or at the instigation or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity'.

Sometimes the victims of torture, if they survive, are kept in prison until the wounds and bruising heal, so that torture is difficult to prove. But the marks on the mind and heart leave permanent scars.

Animals do not make war, though they do fight. In the early days of our species, we did not make war either, though we may sometimes have hurt each other in conflicts between individuals or small domestic groups. Torture is probably much older than war, but when we began to organise armed men to slaughter each other, we soon understood that torture was a weapon in itself. Torture is personal, even intimate: person-on-person acts of pain and humiliation. It is one of the human race's deepest shames. Almost as deep a shame is the difficulty we have in preventing it.

This is a harsh note with which to end this selection of poems. There is a reason. This poem brings us face to face with what is easily forgotten. However large or small the conflict, whatever weapons are being used, war means murder, and more often than not a painful and possibly slow death. The dead may be counted, but that's just a number. What's important is that each one is an individual, each one's 'body is susceptible to pain', each one shudders, writhes, bleeds, and cries out. Each one could be oneself. The mind or soul may wander, but the body, the individual physical being of each one of us, inescapably 'is, is, is'. It's the same for all of us, tortured and torturer, killer and victim. We should not inflict on anyone the pain we would not want inflicted on us.

There is another reason for choosing this poem. It is a translation (it was written in Polish). Translating from one language to another means crossing the frontier of 'otherness'. It means communication across a divide. It means wanting to understand, wanting to be understood. (Even a poem in the same language as our own attempts this.) A basis, could one say, for building peace? Something many women, in particular, may have the insight, qualities and skills to do?

 

   
     

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