A tough-minded reflection on the cost of being a witness to traumatic history – shared via Carol Rumens at The Guardian

Before It Is All Gone

It will be different –
nobody will cry,
nobody will be cold,
nobody will stand at the door,
it will be better, for sure.

I have to repeat this to myself,
I have to keep inviting pleasant images,
I have to keep admiring
something or other,
I have to walk by the fences,
not hear the cries,
I have to make myself be happy.

But when the smile ceases
and when those eyes pierce mine,
eyes of the one who sees through me,
at the moment when I feel relief
I am stricken by everything
I have been trying to avoid.

Of course they stand at the door,
of course they shout and cry they’ve been betrayed.
Around the world humans are cold and thirsty.
Animals too, and the woodlands.
Rivers are barren,
the sky is dirty from the light.

I am burned by what has stricken me.
I am burned by the horror of it all.
I rinse myself. I am cooling down.
I am in denial, I evaporate.

I am also possessed by a burning desire
that things should not be
like this.

Translated by Anthony Rudolf and the author

This week’s choice, a new poem by the Slovenian writer Ifigenija Simonović, is a compelling personal response to times of acute public conflict and dispersal. It begins with a mantra of optimism, focused on some of the simplest, most basic of human needs, and particularly suggesting the plight of migrants. “It will be different – / nobody will cry, / nobody will be cold, / nobody will stand at the door, / it will be better, for sure.” Uncertainty is already present in the imagined “different” future, though, with that additional emphasis in the last line “for sure”, indicating an insistence that might undermine the brave claim to optimism.

Personal survival tactics preoccupy the speaker in the next stanza, doubly underlined by the thrust of obligation registered in “I have to”. The construction suggests a required obedience to advice or instructions , but this also shades into pressingly inner-derived obligation: “I have to keep admiring / something or other, / I have to walk by the fences, not hear the cries”. The speaker is clearly dubious about following rules of psychological survival that conflict with the duties of witness. The doubt is aptly summed up in the last line of that stanza, the obligation “to make myself be happy”. It’s usually possible to make oneself feel happy, at least transiently, but the existential state of being happy is likely to be far beyond an individual’s will.

The limits of acquired hope are reached in the third stanza. The face, that of the kindly instructor, therapist, or positive inner self, is dissected, split into a smile, which ceases, and dangerously piercing eyes. The gaze pierces the speaker herself, and seems to help reveal the vision she wishes not to see.

The fourth stanza is unequivocal. There is no argument. Speaker and reader must confront those who “stand at the door, /… shout and cry they’ve been betrayed”. They are the stateless and homeless, who seem to have escaped “the fences” mentioned in the second stanza, and press themselves in on our carefully protected personal spaces. Further devastation becomes visible; the natural world is suffering similarly to the human. Again, a forceful last line seems to open the wound a sharp stage further – now “the sky is dirty from the light”. This ecological emphasis helps to bring the new metaphor of fire and burning into focus.

In the penultimate stanza, the metaphor meets its antithesis. The horrors burn, but the speaker knows how to bear them. She can cool herself down. However, in the cooling process, something ominous occurs: “I evaporate.” Without hope, it’s impossible to live well, but to entertain false hope, against the evidence, and without conscience, is to cease to exist as fully human, perhaps even to die as a human being.

Reflecting the first stanza, the last seeks to reconcile hope and the possibility of change. The speaker rejects the comforts of denial: “I am also possessed by a burning desire / that things should not be / like this.”

The conflict between hope and conscience can be assuaged by keeping faith with the “burning desire” for transformation. I like the way that familiar phrase, “burning desire” has earned its place. There’s a hard clarity and honesty throughout the poem, and no easy victory for hope. The poem’s title, Before It Is All Gone, is uncompromising. But meanwhile there is victory for the combination of personal, psychological integration and political witness: it seems close to what the Czech writer and politician Václav Havel, termed “living in truth”.

Ifigenija Simonović, born in 1953, lived in London between 1978 and 2003. Now she lives in Ljubljana, and is president of the Slovene International PEN Centre. Her poetry collection Striking Root (1996) was published by Menard Press, co-translated by her and Anthony Rudolf. She is author of 13 other collections and is also the Slovenian translator of Carol Ann Duffy.

Anthony Rudolf has been influential in many literary fields. He is the founder and publisher of the distinguished Menard Press, and a writer in a range of genres including memoir, criticism and translation. His collected poems, European Hours, was published in 2017.

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