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There is a kind of psychic fragility one experiences in times of political turmoil. One’s skin becomes thinner. The light outside seems cold, no matter how radiant. One imagines disasters, loss. One wants to pick fights with family members; one’s patience frays, one’s heart leaps at the slightest apparent slight.

It is not just South Africa one fears for. It is Iraq (my husband’s country), where bombings are a daily occurrence (his mother and brothers still live there). It is Libya, where war has lanced the boils of Gaddafi’s rule and the NATO-backed rebels have committed what amounts to a genocide against the black population. A rebel slogan? “The Brigade for Purging Slaves, Black Skin.”

The world is a bloodthirsty place and the individual is perhaps an endangered species in modern consciousness: we are all representatives of groups that should not be in power; or should not exist; or should be vilified for being one thing and not another, or both, or neither. No wonder the psyche is crushed.

Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska has defined our axe-wielding age in a number of poems. But I choose this one today:

Children of Our Era
by Wislawa Szymborksa
(translated by Joanna Trzeciak)

We are children of our era;
our era is political.

All affairs, day and night,
yours, ours, theirs,
are political affairs.

Like it or not,
your genes have a political past,
your skin a political cast,
your eyes a political aspect.

What you say has a resonance;
what you are silent about is telling.
Either way, it’s political.

Even when you head for the hills
you’re taking political steps
on political ground.

Even apolitical poems are political,
and above us shines the moon,
by now no longer lunar.
To be or not to be, that is the question.
Question? What question? Dear, here’s a suggestion:
a political question.

You don’t even have to be a human being
to gain political significance.
Crude oil will do,
or concentrated feed, or any raw material.

Or even a conference table whose shape
was disputed for months:
should we negotiate life and death
at a round table or a square one?

Meanwhile people were dying,
animals perishing,
houses burning,
and fields growing wild,
just as in times most remote
and less political.

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