The End and the Beginning

    The End and the Beginning

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.
We’ll need the bridges back,
and new railway stations.
Sleeves will go ragged
from rolling them up.
Someone, broom in hand,
still recalls the way it was.
Someone else listens
and nods with unsevered head.
But already there are those nearby
starting to mill about
who will find it dull.
From out of the bushes
sometimes someone still unearths
rusted-out arguments
and carries them to the garbage pile.
Those who knew
what was going on here
must make way for
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.
In the grass that has overgrown
causes and effects,
someone must be stretched out
blade of grass in his mouth
gazing at the clouds.

                      by Wislawa Szymborska,

                      translated by Joanna Trzeciak

After the Shelling, Louvain, 1914, Grace Digby

The Remaking of Belgium, Poster 1918

Effigies of Crusaders in Round Temple Church, London : after damage from enemy action. Norma Bull, She worked as a volunteer at a First Aid Clearing Station and was  trained in first aid and fire fighting.

Searching for Casualties after the Explosion of a 1,000-Pound Bomb off Great Peter Street, London SW1, Duncan Oppenheim, 1940. A night scene with three Air Raid wardens searching through rubble by torchlight.

C Eliot Hodgkin, ‘The Haberdashers’ Hall, 8th May 1945’ Fireweed is growing in the rubble.

A Farmhouse at Mandal : Lyngen Fjord, Norway. Stephen Bone

The Girls College, Péronne
William Orpen, 1917

Edwin Martin 1918

The Ruins of War, Nicholas Gibbs 1995.  A desolate, bomb-damaged house in a Croatian village, formerly occupied by a Serbian family. A shell of a building.

End of a Busy Day, Franklin Boggs 1944.

Finding an Unexploded Bomb, Barton Street, London SW1. Duncan Oppenheim. 1940

The Greek Civil War : Relatives mourn their dead at Peristere, Leslie Cole 1945

A Bomb Disposal Squad at work. A large bomb is winched from a sand dune. Phillip Hutton,1945

Maltese Fishermen Mending Bombed Dghaisas and other Boats, Leslie Cole 1943

The Wounded At Dover, 1918 
John Lavery 1918

France: The Beginning of the Advance; German bridge-demolition Albert Richards 1944

Ravenna: Royal Engineers’ working party collecting material for bridge repairs and road making at the Porta Cybo Ravenna: Edward Bawden,1945

The Bank of England after Bombing
Reginald Mills  1941-42

Bombed Out. Edward Jeffrey Irving Ardizzone Glasgow 1941.


  1. Ingrid Nyeboe:
  2. Thanks for link to the Coventry story. I had heard of that claim and was always inclined to believe it to be true. It’s a classic ethical dilemma of history. “What would you have done if …?” The variables also need to include the complexities of evacuating the city as well as the competing needs of saving lives and preserving a vital secret.

  3. This calls for its essential companion poem, Szymborska’s Reality Demands

    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.

    • I love that concept of history speaking across time and space – letters back and forth between Pearl Harbor and Hastings and all the rest. So simple. So clever.

      “What moral flows from this? Probably none.” And I like that too. No sententious, portentous pretentious moralizing. Just the words and the sly swift thoughts that are down-to-earth and mean the world.

  4. Thanks for this resonant post Josie.
    I’d like to add these paintings, which I’ve known for years.

    and a poem that for me always encapsulated grief (which Sue’s recalled) by Edna St. Vincent Millay. “Lament”:

    Listen, children:
    Your father is dead.
    From his old coats
    I’ll make you little jackets;
    I’ll make you little trousers
    From his old pants.
    There’ll be in his pockets
    Things he used to put there,
    Keys and pennies
    Covered with tobacco;
    Dan shall have the pennies
    To save in his bank;
    Anne shall have the keys
    To make a pretty noise with.
    Life must go on,
    And the dead be forgotten;
    Life must go on,
    Though good men die;
    Anne, eat your breakfast;
    Dan, take your medicine;
    Life must go on;
    I forget just why.

    • Curt – I’m only reading your wonderful response just now!

      Because of the links it got caught up in the spam filter and I wasn’t paying enough attention. So sorry. I love the poem. All that matter-of-fact, life-must-go-on, stiff upper lip undercut by a simple ending phrase.

      And I love both of the Shahn paintings. And – as chance would have it – used one for without reading your comment!

      The children swinging wildly around the pole – playing with wild abandon and release – that one speaks to me and I have it stored away for use coming right up!

      Thanks so much. And I’m going to pay more attention to spam filter going forward!

  5. Ardizzone. Bawden, Szymborska – three artists (one in poetry) I admire the most. What a chastening but still wonderful assemblage of images of construction among the rubble. And how senseless the destruction, one thinks, every time one sees it. I was always especially struck by Lidiya Ginzburg’s description, in her Blockade Diary (about living through the Leningrad siege) of an apartment with its front ripped off exposed to the world as an image of how fragile our habitation is. I was going to quote it but then realised that she adds one more detail, and another, so it can’t be a short excerpt.
    David Nice´s last blog post ..The frogs of Göttingen – and Seeburger See

    • Agreed – a delightful trio. I had always thought of Ardizzone and Bawden primarily as illustrators of children’s books so it’s great fun to find yet more to discover.

      On a totally separate note – we heard a stupendous Mahlers 1st with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting at Carnegie Hall last night. Blew out a few mental cobwebs.

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