Friday, October 26, 2007

Lives In the Balance

WARNING: This is not a typical Wild Rose Reader Poetry Friday post. It’s an anti-war protest song and poetry post. The thought of writing up a post like this never entered my mind…until last Sunday. I had just returned home from dinner with my daughter at a local restaurant when my husband told me that there was something he wanted me to watch on his computer. It was a YouTube video of Jackson Browne’s song Lives in the Balance. I knew the song well. It was more than twenty years old. I definitely had an emotional reaction to the 2005 video that paired images with Brown’s lyrics. The song may be old—but the words seem written for the 21st century, for the times in which we find ourselves today.

It was the men of my generation who fought in Vietnam. I still remember the day I began to re-evaluate our country’s involvement in the Vietnam War. It was in the spring of 1969—my first year of teaching elementary school. My sister telephoned me after I returned home from work that day. She asked, “Didn’t you go to high school with S. D.?” “Yes,” I answered. Then she said words that brought anguish to my heart and tears to my eyes: “I just read in the paper that he was killed in Vietnam.”

S. D. was a big bear of a guy. A graduate of Boston College, he was one of the sweetest, kindest, finest young men I knew. Before that day, I had never been touched personally by war. Now there was someone I cared about who was killed far away in a foreign country. I would never see him, talk to him, or laugh with him…ever again. It was so sad. I couldn’t begin to imagine the grief that his family was going through.

After that, I began to think about all the soldiers who were sent to fight in that war…about the innocent people who lived in a country where a war was being waged…about the soldiers and civilians who were injured, maimed, killed…about the people who lost their loved ones.

In the late sixties and early seventies, thousands of college students and other Americans held anti-war protests and sit-ins all over the country. Young men burned their draft cards. My fiancée—who is now my husband—went to an anti-war gathering on Boston Common to hear George McGovern speak.

That war changed our country. It changed my husband. It changed me. Evidently, it didn’t make a lasting impression on many of our political leaders.

After watching the YouTube video, I felt a flush of emotions coursing through me. Memories returned of a dear friend I had lost. I thought about people like Joan Baez—folksingers who wrote and performed songs that spoke to my generation.

Poets, like those folksingers, often range against the machine—even children’s poets. Watch Browne’s Lives in the Balance video. Then read the three poems I selected for this post. The first was written by Wislawa Szymborska, winner of a Noel Prize in Literature. The other two poems were written by the award-winning children’s poets Myra Cohn Livingston and Eve Merriam.


Lives In the Balance


The End and the Beginning
by Wislawa Szymborska

After every war
someone has to clean up.
Things won't
straighten themselves up, after all.

Someone has to push the rubble
to the side of the road,
so the corpse-filled wagons
can pass.

Someone has to get mired
in scum and ashes,
sofa springs,
splintered glass,
and bloody rags.

Someone has to drag in a girder
to prop up a wall,
Someone has to glaze a window,
rehang a door.

Photogenic it's not,
and takes years.
All the cameras have left
for another war.

You can read the rest of the poem here at Poetry 180.

I also recommend reading another version of this poem translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baraczak and Clare Cavanagh, which can be found in Poems New and Collected 1957-1997. The book was published in 1998 by Harcourt.
Here are two short children's poems that speak volumes:

by Myra Cohn Livingston
"...neither shall they learn war any more."
Isaiah 2:4
Micah 4:3

Can you see
the bursting bombs?
unknown tombs?
jet fighters?
smoking guns?
dead guerillas?
bloody dunes?
crumbled buildings?
cities burned?

We never learned.
We never learned.

(Livingston's poem was taken from her book Remembering and Other Poems, which was published by Margaret K. McElderry Books in 1989.)

by Eve Merriam

I dream
giving birth
a child
who will ask,
what was war?"

(Merriam's poem was taken from A Sky Full of Poems, which was published by Dell Publishing Company in 1986. The poems in the book had first appeared in three of Merriam's earlier books.)

The Poetry Friday Roundup is at Literary Safari this week.

Enjoy the weekend. I’ll be away at the Keene State College Children’s Literature Festival.



Anonymous said...

Thank you for these moving poems, especially the simple and beautiful "Fantasia".

I had hoped to meet you this weekend at the Keene CLF but unfortunately I'm taking care of my mother this weekend who just had a melinoma excised.. Things look good for her, but it just brings the need to fight cancer even closer to home..

Elaine Magliaro said...


I hope you're mother is well. Maybe we'll get a chance to meet at Keene next year.

Yes, Merriam's poem is so simple--yet makes a profound point.

Tricia said...

Okay, I'm in my office crying -- not a good way to start a Friday morning. Thanks so much for sharing the video and these wonderful poems.

Anonymous said...

A poet friend constantly bemoans Jackson Brown's becoming a musician - he claims we lost a great poet that way, and recites some of Brown's lyrics as poetry.

I have a collection of Milosz poems, but that particular one isn't in there. I'm glad you shared it, and the others - the Merriam one is particularly devastating.

Elaine Magliaro said...


I didn't mean to make people cry--I did hope to make them feel.


The poem "The End and the Beginning" was written by Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska--not Czeslaw Milosz.

tanita✿davis said...

Oh... the Eve Merriam poem.

This is haunting, all of it.

Andromeda Jazmon said...

We ought to have more peace poetry, don't you think? Thanks for this.

Elaine Magliaro said...


I agree about the Merriam poem. It's so short--but it says so much.


Yes, we need more peace poetry--or poems that rage against war.

Elaine Magliaro said...

Kelly F.,

To me the lyrics of many songs are just poetry put to music--besides, more people would be likely to hear a song like Lives in the Balance by Jackson Browne than read its lyrics if they were published as a poem in a book. My generation was moved by the songs/poetry of folk singers.

jama said...

Your entire post was so moving and powerful, Elaine. Singer/songwriters like Jackson Browne were definitely poets in my eyes, poets who definitely made me wake up and become socially conscious. We're all asking ourselves, "When will we ever learn?"

Mike Thomson said...

Thank you, Elaine. Jackson Browne is a wonderful songwriter/poet. I enjoyed the poetry also.

Elaine Magliaro said...

Jama & Crispus,

Thanks for commenting. I had the Lives in the Balance album on tape and used to listen to it often when I was driving in my car. I'd like to hear more songs like Browne's being written and performed today.

Robin said...

What a beautifully powerful post! The poems are wonderful, and the Jackson Browne (long a favorite!) video was both heartbreaking and hopeful...hopeful because people are speaking out now. Thank you.