August 9, 2020 | Could Have. Pages 155-192.
I mentioned the use of perspective in Szymborska. What is it that we see? How much more can we see? In “The Letters of the Dead,” writing years after her Cassandra, Szymborska asserts:
“We read the letters of the dead like helpless gods,
but gods, nonetheless, since we know the dates that follow.”
But there is more. You remember that perspective of Cassandra, yes? Here it is, again. Except now, in this situation, after we have seen other people die, each one of us assumes the role of Cassandra:
“We see the faces people make behind their backs.”
The tone in “The Letters of the Dead” is typical Szymborska: irony and tenderness. We are “gods” but “helpless” at it. And then, the coin flips, and we are seen:
Everything the dead predicted has turned out completely different.
Or a little bit different—which is to say, completely different.
The most fervent of them gaze confidingly into our eyes:
their calculations tell them that they will find perfection there.
I posted “Going Home” the other day, but forgot to include a collage that this beautiful and moving little poem always makes me think of:
I wonder if anyone else is thinking of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” as they read Szymborska’s “A Speech at the Lost-and-Found.”
“I lost a few goddesses while moving south to north,
As well as many gods while moving east to west.”
“I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.”
Szymborska’s piece was published first (1972) though I doubt Bishop read any translations of it before publication of her collection Geography III in 1976. And yet. Echoes. Echoes.
“The Master hasn’t been among us long”: I love the humor and playfulness in “Interview with a Child.” I love its ideas: how apparent is our human strangeness in this poem, and how clear it is to the child:
“The Master rejects outright the ridiculous thought
that a table out of sight goes on being a table nonstop”
The magic is in rapid changes of perspective, the poet tells us.
The magic is in realizing our strangeness, predicament.
Did you notice “Little pitchers have big ears and pick up every sound” in the third stanza? Joanna Trzeciak says that in Polish the handle of a pitcher or a mug is called an ear.
It might be interesting here, too, to trace the development of Szymborska’s poems about children. “The world is never ready / for the birth of a child,” she says in” A Tale Begun” and then, many years later, she gives us a lovely, humorous, and wise poem called “A Little Girl Tugs at the Tablecloth.” Billy Collins says about this poem: “a child’s curiosity about the physical world around her is seen as a replication of Newton’s investigation of gravity.”
And Szymborska herself gives us this collage:
Did I say “poems about children”? I should have said “poems about perspective,” no? How limited our perspectives on the world are; how much wonder children’s perspectives bring.
Here are some words from Milosz (found in his unrelated essay on Simone Weil) that might be of use:
“In the twentieth century, as never before, poets were forced to resist [the] pressure of facts that run contrary to their somewhat childish nature… Simone Weil was courageous. If she considered something true, she would say it, without fear of being labeled… The poet of today, enmeshed in various professional rituals, is too ashamed to attain such frankness. Of what is he ashamed? Of the child in himself who wants the earth to be flat.”
Remember the lovely negations and instabilities in Szymborska’s “The Railroad Station”? Here is an echo for you, years later, in “Frozen Motion”:
“leaving tomorrow, that is, sixty years ago;
Never again, but still at nine A.M. sharp”
“Under One Small Star” is made up of apologies. Many of these apologies will resonate for our contemporaries in the U.S. For instance:
“Forgive me, distant wars, for bringing flowers home.”
In the poem, she keeps going back and forth between various abstract categories, from “necessity” to “memories” to “truth,” addressing them with a mixture of humor and regret:
<blockquote“Pardon me, hounded hope, for laughing from time to time.”
By the end, she leaves us with another lovely ars poetica:
“Don’t bear me ill will, speech, that I borrow weighty words,
then labor heavily so that they may seem light.”