The first book I’ve read this year was a Christmas present, and I have to say it was a very enjoyable read. I’d heard of Wislawa Szymborska before, and read a few of her poems, but until now, not a whole collection. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2010, this slender hardcover is an elegant volume of poetry. What I particularly appreciate about it is that it’s bilingual: each poem is printed first in Polish, then in English, with the versions facing each other. This makes comparison easier, of course, and even though I speak no Polish, I found it interesting to have both versions.
The title poem introduces themes and motifs that recur in the following pieces. There’s a sense of ambivalent wonder at the precarious and seemingly random position of man in the universe. This sounds both grand and flat at the same time, I know, and doesn’t quite do Szymborska justice, but it’s hard to put into words this odd sentiment that permeates the collection. Her speaker is an acute observer, both taken by and taken aback by the human condition.
The human condition is marked by an absent-minded sort of self-centeredness, a barely held balance between vanity and uncertainty. We assume, for example, that each of us is unique, each face is that person’s and nobody else’s, especially when it comes to our own. In “Thoughts that Visit Me on Busy Streets,” Szymborska explores the possibility that this may not be the case: What if Nature “repeats earlier ideas / by supplying us with preworn faces” that didn’t make the history books?
I love the peculiar lists that pop up throughout, like this one from the title poem “Here“: “Here we manufacture chairs and sorrows, / scissors, tenderness, transistors, violins, / teacups, dams, and quips.”
Or this one in “Dreams“: “the precision / a specific watch, an entire fly, / on the table a cloth with cross-stitched flowers, / a bitten apple with teeth marks.”
The simultaneity of our individual lives is well-captured in, for example, “Highway Accident“: “Someone is draining macaroni. / Someone is raking leaves. / Squealing children race around the table. / Someone’s cat deigns to be patted. / Someone is crying — / as always when bad Diego / betrays Juanita on TV” — the world is a busy place, full of people feeling, breathing, doing and ceasing to do things, and it’s impossible to be aware of it all at the same time. To be ‘here,’ as Szymborska puts it, is to be part of this maelstrom of human activity and perception.
The voice in Szymborska’s poems is natural, conversational in places, but even the seemingly simpler poems cast shadows that vie for your attention. Disaster and violence have left their mark in the worlds created here. Allusions to war appear in many poems, and quite naturally so, like here in “Portrait from Memory“:
“Everything seems to agree. […] But there’s no resemblance. […] should he be wearing […] / A soldier’s uniform in ’39? Camp stripes?” Can we, this speaker seems to wonder, accurately show a person without putting them into their proper context? But then, with these contexts always changing, what IS the proper context? Both “Teenager” and “Hard Life with Memory” also tackle this problem. In “Teenager,” for example, the speaker meets her teenage self and has trouble identifying with her.
One poem that was particularly memorable to me is “Assassins.” The speaker lists various day-to-day activities in the lives of assassins, showing them to be average people, really. They “pray, wash their feet, feed the birds, / make phone calls while scratching their armpits,” and “drink citrus juice from the fridge” — the only blood in the poem is that of the assassins themselves, if they accidentally cut their finger or, “if they’re women,” when they get their period. What makes an assassin? Szymborska’s poem questions the ways we define ourselves and others by refocusing our gaze.
Finally, I’ll include another poem from the collection here for your enjoyment — and a few links to more if you like what you see.
“Identification” by Wislawa Szymborska
(transl. Clare Cavanagh & Stanislaw Baranczak)
It’s good you came—she says.
You heard a plane crashed on Thursday?
Well so they came to see me
The story is he was on the passenger list.
So what, he might have changed his mind.
They gave me some pills so I wouldn’t fall apart.
Then they showed me I don’t know who.
All black, burned except one hand.
A scrap of shirt, a watch, a wedding ring.
I got furious, that can’t be him.
He wouldn’t do that to me, look like that.
The stores are bursting with those shirts.
The watch is just a regular old watch.
And our names on that ring,
they’re only the most ordinary names.
It’s good you came. Sit here beside me.
He really was supposed to get back Thursday.
But we’ve got so many Thursdays left this year.
I’ll put the kettle on for tea.
I’ll wash my hair, then what,
try to wake up from all this.
It’s good you came, since it was cold there,
and him just in some rubber sleeping bag,
him, I mean, you know, that unlucky man.
I’ll put the Thursday on, wash the tea,
since our names are completely ordinary—
Source: Poetry (September 2010).
- Poems by Wislawa Szymborska (via the Poetry Foundation)
- 5 poems by Wislawa Szymborska (via Nobel Prize website)
- Wislawa Szymborska’s biography & publications (via Wikipedia)