Posted by: Ken Homer | April 14, 2008

An Old Woman Writes About Torture

News item:

WASHINGTON, DC – April 10 – ABC News reported that in dozens of top-secret White House meetings, the most senior Bush administration officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, discussed and approved specific torture techniques for use on detainees. According to this report, Cheney, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Attorney General John Ashcroft sanctioned these tactics…

I have a lot to say about this, but I think it best to let the poet speak first.

To help ground my thinking about torture, I turn to the work of Nobel Prize winning Poet Wistawa Szymborska. 

Born in Poland in 1923, she was a first hand witness to the kind of thinking and behavior that condoned torture and created the insanity that was WWII in her homeland when the Nazis invaded.

I find an amazing wisdom in her words.

The following is not an easy poem to read – but when the news headlines inform us that the highest levels of government are approving torture – it may be among the best things we can read to restore us to sanity.


Nothing has changed.

The body is a reservoir of pain:
it has to eat and breathe air, and sleep;
it has thin skin and the blood is just beneath it;
it has a good supply of teeth and fingernails;
its bones can be broken; its joints can be stretched.

In torture all of this is considered.

Nothing has changed.

The body still trembles as it trembled
before Rome was founded and after,
in the twentieth century before and after Christ.

Tortures are just what they were, only the Earth has shrunk
and whatever goes on sounds as if it’s just a room away.

Nothing has changed.

Except there are more people,
and new offenses have sprung up beside the old ones-
real, make believe, short-lived, and non-existent.

But the cry with which the body answers for them,
was, is, and will be a cry of innocence
in keeping with the age-old scale and pitch.

Nothing has changed.

Except perhaps the manners, ceremonies, dances.

The gesture of hands shielding the head
has nevertheless remained the same.

The body writhes, jerks, and tugs,
falls to the ground when shoved, pulls up its knees,
bruises, swells, drools and bleeds.

Nothing has changed.

Except the run of rivers,
the shapes of forests, shores, deserts, and glaciers.

The little soul roams among those landscapes,
disappears, returns, draws near, moves away,
evasive and a stranger to itself,
now sure, now uncertain of its own existence,
whereas the body is and is and is
and has nowhere to go.

            Translation by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh        

If you find this news as repugnant as I do, speak out – sign the ACLU petition at:





  1. Thanks for this. It’s an amazing poem, and I’m sorry to say that I wasn’t aware of this poet before. I’d like to quote from it on the website for our project:

    You and others concerned about this issue may be interested in what we’re doing, and we would certainly welcome your help in spreading the word. For more info see below:

    It’s estimated that more than 500,000 immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers in the United States have been victims of politically motivated torture. They come here from Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America, Southeast Asia — some legally, some undocumented, some with families and some very much alone. They live in major American cities and in small towns. Some survivors bear visible scars, but many more have been wounded in ways that remain hidden. Throughout the United States, healthcare and social service professionals and students have mobilized to respond to their needs.

    REFUGE: CARING FOR SURVIVORS OF TORTURE is a half-hour documentary on immigrant torture survivors in the United States, and on some of the individuals and organizations who are working to help survivors deal with their trauma, and with the sometimes traumatic experience of coming to America. In future projects we will continue to explore the impact of torture not only on its victims, but on its perpetrators, and on societies that tolerate or encourage torture as well.

    For additional information about the film, and updates on our progress, check out

    Ben Achtenberg

  2. Hi Ben,

    I’m happy to put a link to your site here on my blog.

    As for M. Szymborska, she is an amazing poet, able to write about very dark subjects while still keeping her words filled with light. A quality I much admire. You can find several of her works online if you do a google search. Better yet, buy one of her books – New and Selected Poems is a good volume. It has her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, which while written in prose, is a poem unto itself.

    Thanks for the valuable work you and you organization are doing.

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