Though looking simple with short dialogues, the poem The Terrorist He Is Watching written by the nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska is not well understood by many, including me.

Who actually is (are?) the narrator(s) just from the third stanza onwards - the terrorist? an observer? both?

What kind of professional ethics make the observer watch this "like a movie" being callous and heartless? Can we presume him to be a media person?

While reading the lines below,

Another guy, fat, bald, is leaving, though.
Wait a second, looks like he’s looking for something in his pockets and
at thirteen twenty minus ten seconds
he goes back in for his crummy gloves.

I wonder how the poet persona discovers that the bald and fat guy gets back in for his "CRUMMY GLOVES"? How does he specifically know they were "crummy"? His educated guess?... But how?...

  • [careful with: go back in somewhere versus get in somewhere; it's tricky but they are diffferent. to get in to a place means there is a chance you could not go in. We got into the movie even though it was supercrowded in the theater.]
    – Lambie
    Commented May 9 at 12:42
  • I'd say that the point of view is some sort of combination of that of the terrorist and that of an omniscient narrator. I'm not sure whether you could get away with this kind of thing in a novel, but this is a poem, and the rules for poetry are much less strict.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented May 9 at 14:55
  • 1
    This little adjective is just an euphemism - it would be a swearword in practice. Overall it's one of her lesser poems.
    – Mithoron
    Commented May 14 at 23:19

2 Answers 2


How the Terrorist Knew the Gloves Were Crummy

The link above from the OP translates the Polish word by the word crummy, whereas this other translation uses the word wretched in this poem by Wisława Szymborska.

he returns to look for his wretched gloves. Polish; trans. Adam Czermiawski

ronnow poetry.com

The title in the OP's link on the page where the poem is cited in full has the title: The terrorist, He's Watching, whereas the link I give has it as: The Terrorist, He Watches.

This is important since it is the terrorist doing the watching and not another person as it would be in this form of the title The Terrorist He is Watching on the model of "The man he is following [etc.]". In that model, the "he" and the terrorist would not be the same person, whereas in the poem, the terrorist and he are the same person.

So since the terrorist is watching the scene four minutes before the bomb explodes and even puts himself out of danger, all the adjectives associated with all the characters in the poem come from him as narrator for the descriptions after the colon in the second stanza. As of the third stanza, the terrorist's point of view is described.

The distance keeps him out of danger, and what a view -just like the movies:

So, it's the terrorist's adjective and rather disdainful. Wretched can mean poor quality as can crummy. From his vantage point, he also employs other adjectives though this one is the only one where one might ask: How does he know? It seems to me that this becomes a temporal issue. He could have seen the fat, bald guy at another point because he, the terrorist, had to have set the bomb at some earlier time and he could have seen the guy and his gloves then.

This is borne out by this pedagogical article that explores drama conventions to analyse this poem ([Taylor & Francis online]):2

Throughout the poem, Szymborska examines the essential difference between the terrorist, who knows and watches the time, and the victims, who are ignorant of the time that they have left. Through exploring this vital difference, the poet can show us something of the terrorist’s attitude towards his victims.

Possibilities for restorying are abundant from the first line of the poem, “The bomb in the bar will explode at thirteen twenty”. Conventional narrative analysis might highlight the fact that the poem opens with a firm, definite statement. It asserts that something, an explosion, will most certainly occur. The statement also announces the specific location and the precise time for the explosion while the auxiliary verb “will” creates a sense of certainty over a future event. It can be inferred that such certainty is based on knowledge of past events, namely the planting of the bomb.

[all italics mine] It is worth reading that article in full as it provides a series of cogent explanations about the restorying poem. The poem seems almost unpoetic in its language and just a series of cold, calculating statements, punctuated by the timekeeping and a few adjectives. There is terrible irony in this as four minutes would be enough to get people out of the bar and out of the way on the street. But we as readers are "forced" to experience the entire scene due to the poet's use of the present tense to describe it. When we realize what is happening, it's too late. We, the observers as readers, are...like the terrorist. We didn't do anything. A totally chilling and brilliant poem.

  • 1
    the gloves may not normally be wretched or crummy, but they are worth far less than a life, the watcher (who knows the man will die by going back in) is commenting. Commented May 9 at 19:16
  • @KateGregory The question was "how does the terrorist know they were crummy"? Answer: Because he saw the man wearing them prior to the times given in the poem. He set the bomb before the four minutes described. The fact they are worth far less than a life matters to the reader, not the terrorist, who is watching the thing unfold. There is no other watcher but than him.
    – Lambie
    Commented May 9 at 21:57
  • 1
    I disagree. I don't think the terrorist saw the gloves earlier, and I think words like "lucky" and "crummy" are ways the poem shows us the terrorist is thinking about the people who will die. Isn't going to stop it or warn them, but does feel like it's kind of a shame. Commented May 9 at 22:02
  • @KateGregory With all due respect, that man is lucky because he's leaving on a scooter. It could be sardonic. All the adjectives describing people/clothes (yellow, green, dark) are things the terrorist can see right then. "crummy" is the only one he can't see right then. One wishes he would feel like it's kind of a shame but I don't think there's any evidence for that reading.
    – Lambie
    Commented May 9 at 22:38
  • If the terrorist had already seen the guy, he would better have described him "THE fat and bald guy in stead of A fat and bald guy" wouldn't have he?? Commented May 10 at 3:10

This poem is new to me, but I would understand 'he' to be the terrorist. Who else would know exactly when the bomb was timed to go off? Presumably the fat man is shabbily dressed, so the terrorist assumes that what he hasn't found in his pockets is a pair of gloves which are probably 'crummy'.

  • The following lines suggest a third person omnipresent in addition to the terrorist who watches the scenario:- The terrorist has already crossed the street. The distance keeps him out of danger, and what a view -just like the movies: Commented May 9 at 13:15
  • I don't see it. We see the scene from the terrorist's viewpoint; he has crossed the street to what he knows is a safe distance, and is watching the bar patrons go in and out. Commented May 9 at 14:27

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.