The English poet Tony Harrison wrote "The Bright Lights of Sarajevo" when on assignment for the Guardian newspaper during the bloody Bosnian War. "The Bright Lights of Sarajevo" observes the Sarajevans' determination to go on living despite their horrific circumstances, and particularly focuses on the nighttime courtship of young men and women. Love and life, this poem suggests, somehow manage to persist even in the most terrible times. The poem first appeared in the Guardian in 1995.
After the hours ...
... on the way,
or struggling up ...
... the case —
The young go ...
... fancied by some boy’s.
Then the tender ...
... made progress yet.
And I see ...
... the broken dead.
And at their ...
... Serb mortar shells.
The dark boy ...
... refilled with sand.
Select any word below to get its definition in the context of the poem. The words are listed in the order in which they appear in the poem.
The Bosnian War — Learn more about the history of the wider conflict in which the siege of Sarajevo took place.
Harrison's Influence — Read a discussion of the collection in which this poem was published.
The Siege of Sarajevo — Read an overview of the longest-running siege in modern history.
The Poet In His Own Words — Watch a conversation between Tony Harrison and fellow poet Simon Armitage.
Tony Harrison's Life — Read a biography of Harrison from the Poetry Foundation.
1After the hours that Sarajevans pass
2queuing with empty canisters of gas
3to get the refills they wheel home in prams,
4or queuing for the precious meagre grams
5of bread they’re rationed to each day,
6and often dodging snipers on the way,
7or struggling up sometimes eleven flights
8of stairs with water, then you’d think that the nights
9of Sarajevo would be totally devoid
10of people walking streets Serb shells destroyed,
11but tonight in Sarajevo that’s just not the case —
12The young go walking at a stroller's pace,
13black shapes impossible to mark
14as Muslim, Serb or Croat in such dark.
15In unlit streets you can’t distinguish who
16calls bread hjleb or hleb or calls it kruh.
17All take the evening air with a stroller's stride,
18no torches guide them, but they don’t collide
19except as one of the flirtatious ploys
20when a girl’s dark shape is fancied by some boy’s.
21Then the tender radar of the tone of voice
22shows by its signals she approves his choice.
23Then match or lighter to a cigarette
24to check in her eyes if he’s made progress yet.
25And I see a pair who’ve certainly progressed
26beyond the tone of voice and Match-flare test
27and he’s about, I think, to take her hand
28and lead her away from where they stand
29on two shell splash scars, where, in '92
30Serb mortars massacred the breadshop queue
31and blood-dunked crusts of shredded bread
32lay on this pavement with the broken dead.
33And at their feet in holes made by the mortar
34that caused the massacre, now full of water
35from the rain that’s poured down half the day,
36though now even the smallest clouds have cleared away,
37leaving the Sarajevo star-filled evening sky
38ideally bright and clear for bomber's eye,
39in those two rain-full shell-holes the boy sees
40fragments of the splintered Pleiades,
41sprinkled on those death-deep, death-dark wells
42splashed on the pavement by Serb mortar shells.
43The dark boy shape leads dark girl shape away
44to share one coffee in a candlelit café
45until the curfew, and he holds her hand
46behind AID flour sacks refilled with sand.