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Wislawa Szymborska

I have spent the day with Wislawa Szymborska’s Poems New and Collected, and I am enraptured by her, spellbound and deeply pleasured by her, grateful to her and to Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, who put her words into English. I will spend many more days with her, Inshallah. Her book will have to be squeezed into the small bookcase I have set aside to take to Seth’s house, books I can’t bear to part with. There is a wonderfully engaging photograph of Szymborska on the inside back cover of the paperback edition of the book. She was born a year before my mother, and she looks like a woman full of stories. The first of her poems that shredded my consciousness was “Tortures.” There is another translation and another interesting portrait photograph on a blog here (scroll down a bit, to the third picture and just below it). This version, which I think is a much more powerful translation, first appeared in The People on the Bridge (1986) but is included in the collected works:


Nothing has changed.
The body is reservoir of pain;
it has to eat and breathe the 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 tortures, 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 nonexistent.
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 the hands shielding the head
has nonetheless 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.

The first images that came to my mind were of people in Argentina, and then rapidly a succession, as Szymborska intended, of others. I had to walk off the energy of that one. I typed it out for the blog and then went back to the book. I stopped opening at random and began at the end, read her most recent poems; then tracked backwards all the way to the ones first published in 1957, when she was a mere child of 34, still finding her voice. The ones that speak to me most powerfully are the later ones, the ones from 1986-1997 (she was 63 to 74). Maybe that’s because I’m 62, and I yearn for voices of people who have loved the spectacle and grieved with it for this long.

And then, last, after reading all the poems in the book for the first time, and marking many that I want to go back to again and again, I let myself read her Nobel Prize Lecture from 1996. My hope is that everyone who reads will get this book and hold it, take it in, turn the pages, enjoy it in their hands and eyes. Don’t settle for excerpts on a blinking screen that hurts your eyes and strains your neck. (I do hope by the time our children are old, improvements will be made in computer technology to eliminate the ways reading from a monitor hurts our bodies.) But before I stop talking about her work, let me quote just a few more pieces, as much for the pleasure of putting the words through my fingers as for the joy of sharing them with whoever reads this.

Some People (from New Poems, 1993-1997)

Some people flee some other people.
In some country under a sun
and some clouds.

They abandon something close to all they’ve got,
sown fields, some chickens, dogs,
mirrors in which fire now preens.

Their shoulders bear pitchers and bundles.
The emptier they get, the heavier they grow.

What happens quietly: someone’s dropping from exhaustion.
What happens loudly: someone’s bread is ripped away,
someone tries to shake a limp child back to life.

Always another wrong road ahead of them,
always another wrong bridge
across an oddly reddish river.
Around them, some gunshots, now nearer, now farther away,
above them a plane seems to circle.

Some invisibility would come in handy,
some grayish stoniness,
or, better yet, some nonexistence
for a shorter or a longer while.

Something else will happen, only where and what.
Someone will come at them, only when and who,
in how many shapes, with what intentions.
If he has a choice,
maybe he won’t be the enemy
and will let them live some sort of life.

It takes time to see that. It takes years and years of grief and hope and stories lived and heard to see what she sees there. She puts it all in such few words. Such memorable words. Easy to memorize. Every word the right word, in the right place. This next one is (in my opinion) a Zen poem from a book called The End and the Beginning (1993) but included, of course, in the anthology I have in my hands:

No Title Required

It has come to this: I’m sitting under a tree
beside a river
on a sunny morning.
It’s an insignificant event
and won’t go down in history.
It’s not battles and pacts,
where motives are scrutinized,
or noteworthy tyrannicides.

And yet I’m sitting by this river, that’s a fact.
And since I’m here
I must have come from somewhere,
and before that
I must have turned up in many other places,
exactly like the conquerors of nations
before setting sail.

Even a passing moment has its fertile past,
its Friday before Saturday,
its May before June.
Its horizons are no less real
than those that a marshal’s field glasses might scan.

This tree is a poplar that’s been rooted here for years.
The river is the Raba; it didn’t spring up yesterday.
The path leading through the bushes
wasn’t beaten last week.
The wind had to blow the clouds here
before it could blow them away.

And though nothing much is going on nearby,
the world is no poorer in details for that.
It’s just as grounded, just as definite
as when migrating races held it captive.

Conspiracies aren’t the only things shrouded in silence.
Retinues of reasons don’t trail coronations alone.
Anniversaries of revolutions may roll around,
but so do oval pebbles encircling the bay.

The tapestry of circumstance is intricate and dense.
Ants stitching in the grass.
The grass sewn into the ground.
The pattern of a wave being needled by a twig.

So it happens that I am and look.
Above me a white butterfly is fluttering through the air
on wings that are its alone,
and a shadow skims through my hands
that is none other than itself, no one else’s but its own.

When I see such things, I’m no longer sure
that what’s important
is more important than what’s not.

That has been of note to Szymborska from the beginning; it’s in her poems all the way back. What’s important and what’s not. There is so much we don’t know. Not knowing. Being here, and feeling the whole history of what was before here, feeling the onrush of what will be after, feeling the truth of forgetfulness, of the sweep of the river. In the earlier collections there are love poems, of course, and identity poems; there are poems about writing poetry and reading it; there are poems about “blood and hopes” and about the prophet Cassandra, about Troy. There’s a poem about Vietnam. There are poems about Job and Kyoto and poems that make us laugh. She expresses gratitude for those she didn’t love, “The relief as I agree/ that someone else needs them more.” There’s a wonderful poem in which she counts us: “A Contribution to Statistics.”

And then, at the beginning of the book, there is that Nobel Prize Lecture. Again, the words are so right it would be easy to memorize. There is no other way the words could be arranged, they feel so right. And yet–how is it possible–she created these words, or words like them, in Polish. She didn’t craft the words in English. So there is some interplay I will never understand, going on between her and her translators. I don’t know how the words can be so right. Her lecture might be called an ode to “I don’t know.” She celebrates “I don’t know,” caresses it, blesses it, thanks it. She says,

Poets, if they’re genuine, must also keep repeating, “I don’t know.” Each poem marks an effort to answer this statement, but as soon as the final period hits the page, the poet begins to hesitate, starts to realize that this particular answer was pure makeshift, absolutely inadequate.

Read her as soon as possible.

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