Ilya Kaminsky | Wisława Szymborska

#APStogether August 5, 2020

Read Map, Wisława Szymborska's collected poems, with Ilya Kaminsky in the third installment of #APStogether, our series of virtual book clubs. Details about how #APStogether works can be found here.

Welcome to the Republic of Szymborska. As we watch (and live through) all the mess and tragedy happening around us (and inside us), let’s console ourselves with a poet who knows what it means live in a moment of crisis. A poet who survives. A poet who laughs amidst misfortune. A poet who delights. How did she do it? How does she manage to smile as she looks in the face of history (i.e. tragedy)? What is the secret to her light touch? Her playfulness, wisdom? I invite you to spend ten days answering these questions together, as we explore Map: Collected and Last Poems of Wisława Szymborska.

Reading Schedule
Day 1 | August 6: Calling Out to Yeti. Pages 19-55. (I will likely post about poems on pages 32, 42, 48, 51.)

Day 2 | August 7: Salt. Page 59-103. (I will likely post about poems on pages 70, 75, 88, 92.)

Day 3 | August 8: No End of Fun. Pages 109-150. (I will likely post about poems on pages 109, 113, 116, 118, 126, 131, 133.)

Day 4 | August 9: Could Have. Pages 155-192. (I will likely post about poems on pages 162, 169, 176, 179, 184, 192.)

Day 5 | August 10: A Large Number. Pages 197-233. (I will likely post about poems on pages 197, 199, 203, 211, 216, 225, 232.)

Day 6 | August 11: The People on the Bridge. Pages 237-276. (I will likely post about poems on pages 243, 245, 254, 258, 269.)

Day 7 | August 12: The End and the Beginning. Pages 281-316. (I will likely post about poems on pages 285, 286, 290, 294, 296, 306, 310.)

Day 8 | August 13: Moment. Pages 321-352. (I will likely post about poems on pages 328, 332, 333, 336, 341, 344, 349.)

Day 9 | August 14: Colon & Here. Pages 355-393. (I will likely post about poems on pages 357, 367, 387, 393.)

Day 10 | August 15: Here & Enough. (I will likely post about poems on pages 401, 403, 404, 412, 413, 422.)

Day 1 | August 6
Reading: Calling Out to Yeti. Pages 19-55

Let’s begin our conversation with “Classifieds,” the poem on page 32. Why so late into the book? As per the translator’s own afterword:

“It took her three volumes… to become the poet Wisława Szymborska, or so her own editing suggests.”

As we begin, ask yourself: how much of this book is authored by Szymborska, and how much by her translators Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Barańczak? And, yet: note how little credit (in very tiny letters on the cover!) the publishers give them.

Fun fact: “We have translated virtually all of the poems… with exception of a very few that Szymborska herself conceded were untranslatable. You’re lucky, she said about 1 of them, you only wasted 3 weeks on it. It took the Dutch translator 6 months to give up.”

More fun facts: Her collected works number some 350 poems. Asked why she had not published more, she answered, “I have a trash can at home.”

Szymborska’s poems always happen in the midst of life. So it is fitting for us to begin with “Classifieds.”

From the start, we see that this is a poet of tonal variation: from miraculous to humorous to mundane to philosophical to compassionate.

What drives this variation? Vocabulary: we are given “Sinanthropus’s jaws,” and “old folks’ homes.”

More on variation/juxtaposition: note how easily abstraction of the first three lines coexists with the list of random details in the last five lines of this stanza.

I TEACH silence
in all languages
through intensive examination of:
the starry sky,
the Sinanthropus’s jaws,
a grasshopper’s hop,
an infant’s fingernails,
a snowflake.

As always in Szymborska: ideas go hand in hand with emotion:

WHOEVER’s found out what location
compassion (heart’s imagination)
can be contacted at these days
is herewith urged to name the place,
and sing

As always in Szymborska: no matter how light-touch the piece might be, the reality lurks very close at hand. How chilling to read this in the time of COVID-19 pandemic, knowing what has just happened in America’s own nursing homes.

“WANTED: someone to mourn
the elderly who die
alone in old folks’ homes.
Applicants, don’t send forms
or birth certificates.
All papers will be torn”

As always in Szymborska: there is playfulness, and a little bit of pain. But even pain seems to coexist with the delight of her light touch.

“FOR PROMISES made by my spouse,
who’s tricked so many with his sweet
colors and fragrances and sounds—
dogs barking, guitars in the street—
into believing that they still
might conquer loneliness and fright,
I cannot be responsible.
Mr. Day’s widow, Mrs. Night.”

A question for the reader: Think about the form of this poem. Could you write a piece in a similar form yourself? See how Szymborska does something similar again in “Advertisement.”

In the 1960s, Szymborska began to make collages that she sent, in the form of postcards, to a circle of friends. This collage makes me think of her “Classifieds.”

Something to consider: as we go forward, see how this poet develops over the years. See what she chooses to retain, note how certain strains from this piece’s texture will appear many years later in her work, in pieces such as “The Three Oddest Words.”

"Brueghel’s Two Monkeys"
Note tonal variations: This is a nightmare poem (“This is what I see in my dreams about final exams”) and yet there is always a comic element at play (“the sea is taking its bath”).

Note the juxtapositions: of large (“the exam is History of Mankind”) and local (an awkward “I” in “I stammer and hedge”).

The nightmare continues, as does the mocking (“One monkey stares and listens with mocking disdain”) and yet there is so much tenderness: (“when it’s clear I don’t know what to say / he prompts me with a gentle / clinking of his chain”).

And, yet, this compassion is twofold, isn’t it? Much to say about this duality: the speaker is being examined, but it’s the monkey that’s in chains.

The poem was written many decades ago, yet I can’t help but think about our very own moment of environmental crisis. So many dualities: the humanity is, as ever, self-centered and failing to examine its failings. It is nature that examines us, and yet it is nature that’s in chains.

I love that final “clinking,” at the end: so much feeling in the sound a chain makes via an image in this line.

Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire note: While “Two Monkeys” refers to the painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1562), “it is more specifically relevant to Poland: written in 1957, it was widely interpreted as a condemnation of the repressive atmosphere of the recent Stalinist period. Coincidentally, many scholars throughout the ages have seen this painting as a protest against political repression (notably the Spanish occupation of the Netherlands).”

"Notes from a Nonexistent Himalayan Expedition"
The title of Szymborska’s first famous book, Calling Out to Yeti (published in 1957), is drawn from this poem. To my mind, much of this poet’s metaphysical worldview can also be traced here.

In fact, Calling Out to Yeti is not Szymborska’s first book. But it is the book that has established her as an original, inimitable voice. It is the book that gave her poetry a new perspective on things. What kind of perspective? The poet speaks about human species/condition, as if trying to explain it to someone who knows nothing about it, as if explaining it for the very first time ever: how strange we are.

This awe, marvel, humor, this bewilderment at our strangeness is something that will continue in Szymborska’s work for decades.

First of all, who is Yeti?

A creature in Himalayan folklore, Yeti later came to be referred to as Abominable Snowman in western popular culture.

Szymborska is calling out to Yeti over and over via the repetitious structure of this piece: the content and form work hand in hand.

While at it, Szymborska juxtaposes various wildly different bits and pieces of our strangeness, both lighthearted and tragic:

“Yeti, down there we’ve got Wednesday,” the poet addresses.

“We’ve inherited hope—
the gift of forgetting.
You’ll see how we give
birth among the ruins.”

By the end: it is about the strangeness of our being on this planet.

By the end: it is about the strangeness of our need to speak “inside four walls of avalanche,” stomping our feet.

By the end: this piece is an ars poetica: it describes Szymborska’s perspective on the world as well as her view of what poetry itself is doing.

Day 2 | August 7
Reading: Salt. Page 59-103.

I wonder if “Travel Elegy” is another letter to Yeti? Altho Szymborska takes us from Paris- Leningrad-Caucasus I read this not as a mere piece on tourism but a letter to beyond, a confession about our human condition, our tourism of being on this planet at all.

“Everything’s mine but just on loan,
nothing for the memory to hold,
though mine as long as I look.”

The tone here is helpless, yet precise, even willful:

“I won’t retain one blade of grass
as it’s truly seen.

Salutation and farewell
in a single glance.

For surplus and absence alike
a single motion of the neck.”

In our daily lives, each hour is so long. And yet, it is gone in no time: “Salutation and farewell / in a single glance”

But of course, one may read this poem for travel notes, too, if you insist: Google Earth zooms us over the streets of Krakow:

These lines are from a powerful poem, “Starvation Camp Near Jaslo”

“History rounds off skeletons to zero.
A thousand and one is still only a thousand.”

This poem isn’t often cited among Szymborska’s most famous poems. But it’s the first poem of hers that I ever read: back in late 1980s, it appeared in a Russian anthology, in Anna Akhmatova’s translation:

"Write it down. Write it. With ordinary ink
on ordinary paper: they weren’t given food,
they all died of hunger.

Joanna Trzeciak notes: Jaslo wasn’t itself the site of a starvation camp. The camp was set up in Szebnie, near Jaslo, three times during the German occupation of Poland during WWII. Different sources have estimated the death toll at anywhere from 4,000 to over 10,000.

Let’s move to a very different theme. I’m interested in the evolution of Szymborska’s love poems. A few lines from “Flagrance,” from 1957’s Calling out to Yeti:

So here we are, the naked lovers,
lovely, as we both agree,
with eyelids as our only covers

Wislawa with the second biggest love of her life, Kornel Filipowicz

And here are a few lines from “I am too close for him to dream of me” from the book called Salt, which appeared five years later:

I am too close for him to dream of me.
I don't flutter over him, don't flee him
beneath the roots of trees. I am too close.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
too close. I hear the word hiss
and see its glistening scales as I lie motionless
in his embrace. He's sleeping,
more accessible at this moment to an usherette
he saw once in a traveling circus with one lion
than to me, who lies at his side.

There are many more love poems in her oeuvre, of course. But I am interested in “Going Home,” which was published ten years later. To tell the truth, I am not sure if “Going Home” is in fact a love poem, but something tells me it might be:

He came home. Said nothing.
It was clear, though, that something had gone wrong.
He lay down fully dressed.
Pulled the blanket over his head.
Tucked up his knees.
He’s nearly forty, but not at the moment.
He exists just as he did inside his mother’s womb,
clad in seven walls of skin, in sheltered darkness.
Tomorrow he’ll give a lecture
on homeostasis in megagalactic cosmonautics.
For now, though, he has curled up and gone to sleep.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s come back to “I am too close…” Read it in MAP. Compare it to Czesław Miłosz’s translation. I’d be curious to hear people’s ideas about different translations (but please remember: it isn’t a bar fight, it is literature!).

Perhaps you know other different translations of other Szymborska poems that we have read so far? Might you want to share some with us?

Joanna Trzeciak notes that “the three final lines of this poem hearken back to the medieval theological dispute over the corporeality of angels (including fallen ones). Although often attributed to Saint Thomas Aquinas, this alleged quibble was more plausibly a common place mockery of medieval disputes flowing from the pens of such writers as Isaac D’Israeli in his Curiosities of Literature.”

To brighten up your day, here is a very short video of Szymborska, with English subtitles.
"Pardon me, hounded hope, for laughing from time to time"

Day 3 | August 8
Reading: No End of Fun. Pages 109-150.

Writing about Szymborska’s poems, Edward Hirsch asserts that her lines “take place on the edge of an abyss. It’s the poetry of the close shave. It’s not only accidents we contend with, but history itself, with its hatreds and more deaths than we can count. Against which: the imagination, the joy of writing.”

Hirsch: The title “The Joy of Writing” points not to the art of poetry, but to the joy—the jouissance—of writing, the deep pleasure of the activity itself. The poem alertly raises some basic questions about… the relationship between words and things.

Hirsch: This is not a rhetorical question but a genuine problem which the poem sets out to investigate. It suggests that the poem is not a set up, a construct thought up wholly in advance, but an ongoing process of listening and making. Why does thisimaginary doe, as soon as it is inscribed, seem to take on a life of movement through an equally imaginary woods? And where is it going?

“Why does this written doe bound through these written woods?”

But then, the poet asserts her control. Note the fourth stanza:

“Not a thing will ever happen unless I say so
Without my blessing, not a leaf will fall,
Not a blade of grass will bend beneath that little hoof’s full stop.”

The poem as a shield against death. That is what the joy of writing consists of for Szymborska:

“The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
Revenge of a mortal hand.”

Szymborska: “I prefer the absurdity of writing poems/ to the absurdity of not writing poems."

O how these lines from “Landscape” will echo ten years later in her poem “Lot’s Wife”!

“Even if you called I wouldn’t hear you,
and even if I heard I wouldn’t turn,
and even if I made that impossible gesture
your face would seem a stranger’s face to me.”

A useful observation: Joanna Trzeciak notes that“Landscape” has similar images to Milosz’s piece “Dining Room,” the fourth poem in his 1943 cycle “The World."


“My soul is as plain as the stone of a plum”—as we keep discussing the evolution of love poems in Szymborska, this poem offers quite a few sober lines on the subject. As does “Laughter."

“That little girl I was— / I know her, of course”: as I read “Laughter” I can’t help but think of Shklovsky’s idea of uses of ostranenie (estrangement) in literature.

I also sense that use of ostranenie in the next poem, “The Railroad Station”: “My absence joined the throng / as it made its way toward the exit.”

I am drawn to the uses of negation in “The RailroadStation.” It’s magnetic.

“While they kissed
with not our lips,
a suitcase disappeared,
not mine.

The railroad station in the city of N.
passed its exam
in objective existence
with flying colors.”

In a way repetition and imagery make the nearly bureaucratic language emote:
“Somewhere else.
Somewhere else.
How these little words ring.”

Is it just me, or almost every poem here is an ars poetica? Take, for example “Soliloquy for Cassandra.” Cassandra speaks about her ignorant countrymen here, but of course it is also the poet speaking about us, her readers:

“I loved them.
But I loved them haughtily.
From heights beyond life.
From the future. Where it’s always empty
and nothing is easier than seeing death.
I’m sorry my voice was hard.Look down on yourselves from the stars, I cried”

To my mind, “Soliloquy for Cassandra” is one of the keys to Szymborska. I’ve heard critics complain, at times, that this poet’s “distant, cold.” This piece addresses the complaint, yes. And, while at it, we also get some serious heartbreak:

It turns out I was right.
But nothing has come of it.
And this is my robe, slightly singed.
And this is my prophet’s junk.
And this is my twisted face.
A face that didn’t know it could be beautiful.

Even in the “prophetic” poems, such as “Soliloquy forCassandra,” Szymborska still refuses the poetic “pose”: the robe is singed, but“slightly.” Cassandra might be a prophet, but cares little for “prophet’s junk.”

What is the last word? “Beautiful”: the face of Cassandra is beautiful. Though it didn’t know it could be so.

But I said “Soliloquy for Cassandra” is ars poetica. Why? Because of this line:

“Look down on yourselves from the stars, I cried.”

As you read through Szymborska’s work you realize very quickly that she is a master of perspective. She looks at humans as if from the perspective of the moon. She reports about humans to stars, to snowmen.

To see your strangeness: “look down on yourselves from the stars”

Let’s consider this perspective. After all, many great writers do take this perspective of estrangement. I already mentioned Shklovsky. I could have mentioned Chekhov, too. Here is Sebald on Nabokov:

Nabokov’s main narrative technique is to introduce, through barely perceptible nuances and shifts of perspective, an invisible observer—an observer who seems to have a better view not only than the characters in the narrative but than the narrator and the author who guides the narrator’s pen. It is a trick that allows Nabokov to see the world, and himself in it, from above. In fact, his work contains many passages written from a kind of bird’s eye view.From a vantage point high above the road, an old woman picking herbs sees two cyclists approaching a bend from different directions. From even higher up, from dusty blue of the sky, an aircraft pilot sees the whole course of the road and two villages lying twelve miles apart. And if we could mount even farther up, where the air grows thinner and thinner, we might perhaps, says the narrator, at this point see the entire length of the mountain range and a distant city in another land—Berlin, for instance. This is to see the world through the eye of the crane. […] Writing, as Nabokov practiced it, is raised on high by the hope that, given sufficient concentration, the landscapes of time that have already sunk below the horizon can be seen once again in a synoptic view.

Did Szymborska learn this perspective from someone like Nabokov or Shklovsky? Not necessarily. There are many other examples. She has a little essay, “Nervousness,” citing Milosz’s importance for her work. Milosz has a series of poems, “The World,”where he explores just this kind of perspective. A number of scholars drew parallels between that poem of his and Szymborska’s later work. (Some scholars also drew parallels between Szymborska and another polish poet, Tadeusz Różewicz.)

Where did Milosz get it? Many would say William Blake.Perhaps. But I think he got it from the marvelous children’s writer Selma Lagerlöf, about whose book, Wonderful Adventures of Nils, he wrote:

“A book I loved [as a child] places a hero in a double role.He is one who flies above the earth and looks at it from above but at the same time sees it in every detail. This double vision may be a metaphor of the poet’s vocation.”

“Distance is the soul of beauty.”
—Simone Weil

“Look down on yourselves from the stars, I cried.”
—Wislawa Szymborska

I hope you will go ahead and look at another poem, “Pietà.” Here is some interesting information about it from Magnus J. Krunski and Robert A Maguire who say that this poem is “set in Bulgaria, which Szymborska visited in 1955. The heroine is the woman known through the Soviet Bloc in the 1950s as “Mother Vaptsarova.” Her son Nikola Vaptsarov… was a common laborer and a well-known poet. For his activities as an underground fighter during WWII, he was executed by the pro-Nazi regime (July, 1942). Vaptsarova lived in a hut… [and it] had become de rigueur for political and literary celebrities to visit her during trips to Bulgaria… {Szymborska} did not publish this particular poem until 1967. Conditions being what they were in Poland in the 1950s, it would have been impossible to show Vaptsarova as a victim of the media, and to treat her with such sympathetic irony.”

As you read the next few pages you will see that in fact there are two very different poems about mothers, published around the same time, both quite heartbreaking. The second piece is “Vietnam.”

Day 4 | August 9
Reading: 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:

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.”

Day 5 | August 10
Reading: A Large Number. Pages 197-233.

A Large Number is the title of her mid-career book, and indeed, by the mid-70s, Szymborska goes full force investigating all kinds of large unanswerable questions. She opens the book with “A Large Number,” telling us straight:

“Four billion people on this earth,
but my imagination is still the same.
It’s bad with large numbers.
It’s still taken by particularity.”

Note: Non omnis moriar, in the second stanza, comes from the Latin of Horace (Odes, Book 3, Ode XXX) —“I shall note wholly die”

She will be approaching impossibly large general subjects all through the book: the socialist ideal of utopia in “Utopia,” the mathematical concept of “Pi.” No subject is too big to avoid her desire to prove its need for nuance.

But I want to come back to our conversation about her evolution as a love poet. We are given a “Thank-You Note” that begins with the following lines:

“I owe so much
to those I don’t love.”

According to Billy Collins, Szymborska here “expresses her indebtedness to everyone she does not love, because they allow her to be comfortable, to see things calmly for what they are.”

“They themselves don’t realize
how much they hold in their empty hands.”

But reading “Thank-You Note,” I think instantly of these famous lines from Marina Tsvetaeva:

Мне нравится, что вы больны не мной,
Мне нравится, что я больна не вами,
Что никогда тяжелый шар земной
Не уплывет под нашими ногами.

[…] Спасибо вам и сердцем и рукой
За то, что вы меня — не зная сами! —
Так любите: за мой ночной покой

I won’t pretend that these lines are translatable into English. So, here is a quick prose gloss. Echoes. Echoes.

“I like, that you are sick not with me, I like it, that I am not sick with you, that never will the heavy globe drift away under our feet […] Thank you, heart and hand, that you—without knowing it—love me so: for my night calm.”
— Marina Tsvetaeva

Before we look at “Lot’s Wife,” here is the biblical account in its entirety: “But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt” (Genesis 19:26)

We don’t get to know her name, do we?

Szymborska turns a single sentence into two dozen possible explanations. A waterfall of a poem.

Clare Cavanagh: The poem joins the company of Szymborska’s many poem-lists in which a harried speaker struggles to keep up with a reality that resists all efforts to contain it in lyric form. [Here we have] not just the speaker’s own confusion—she herself doesn’t know precisely why she did it—but [also][ our confusion about the speaker. Who is turning back here? The answer seems clear enough—Lot’s wife herself. And to what does she return? The picture begins to blur the minute we ask the question.

This poem is incredibly intense. Yet, part of its intensity is its ability to contain its distance: “I felt age within me. Distance.”

Remember Wallace Stevens’ 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird? Well, here are numerous ways of looking at “Lot’s Wife”:

“It seemed to me that they were watching from the walls of Sodom
and bursting into thunderous laughter again and again.
I looked back in anger.
To savor their terrible fate.
I looked back for all the reasons given above.
I looked back involuntarily.
It was only a rock that turned underfoot, growling at me.”

For me, the drama of this piece is in its changing perspectives, yes. But I also find drama in an accumulation, a cascade of these perspectives, in the speed at which they are given to us via the syntax. I find drama in the variation of images.

More echoes: Anna Akhmatova was one of the earliest well-known admirers of Szymborska. She translated a few of her poem into Russian. I recall this here because Szymborska’s “Lot’s Wife” brings to mind Akhmatova’s “Lot’s Wife,” which Szymborska no doubt read before writing her own.

“Who will mourn for this woman?” Akhmatova asks, “Is she not the least of losses? / My heart alone will never forget / She who gave her life for a single glance.”

“The Terrorist, He’s Watching” is one of Szymborska’s most famous poems. I love this piece for its sense of suspense. We know how it all is going to end, yes. But the proverbial Devil is in details.

Remember Cassandra’s words, “look at yourself from the stars, I cried”? The poem at hand poem follows that advice.

The whole piece is observed from the distance. But there’s so much emotional pressure that is implied by the fact of who is doing the watching.

By which I mean to say: note the incredible job the title is doing in this poem. On the first glance, the title is super simple. But note how much it does to set up the perspective of this poem, how much it contributes to its emotional pressure. We haven’t entered the poem yet, and the title has already put us on edge.

Instructive to compare the construction of this poem to “Photograph from September 11”: vivid echoes between the two pieces. Echoes occur both in content and structure.

I have already mentioned Szymborska’s various skillful uses of negation, but perhaps they reach their highest point in the wonderful piece called “In Praise of My Sister”:

“My sister doesn’t write poems,
and it’s unlikely that she’ll suddenly start writing poems.
She takes after her mother, who didn’t write poems,
and also her father, who likewise didn’t write poems.
I feel safe beneath my sister’s roof”

The sense of excess in this piece is very fine, she says so much, and so passionately, about her sister’s lack of interest in writing poetry that this excess, by the end, becomes the essence of poetry itself:

“But her entire written opus consists of postcards from vacations
whose text is only the same promise every year:
when she gets back, she’ll have
so much
much to tell.”

The humor here becomes something else: ecstatic.

Day 6 | August 11
Reading: The People on the Bridge. Pages 237-276.

Ten years pass. In her next book, People on a Bridge, Szymborska continues to explore our collective strangeness.

Let’s try a different translation for a moment. Look at Adam Czerniawski’s translation of “People on a Bridge,” which you can compare to the version in MAP.

Joanna Trzeciak notes “People on a Bridge” alludes to a woodblock print titled Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi Bridge and Atake by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858). Szymborska found the inspiration for the poem in a postcard received from a friend.

“This isn’t by any means an innocent picture. / Here time has been stopped” she writes. Time and its strangeness appear quite a bit in Szymborska’s writing. We mark time to mark our imperfections.

It is time that we see lurking behind the avalanche of jackets, blouses, suits, and handbags in “Clothes.” It is time that we overhear in “View with a Grain of Sand.”

“A second passes.
A second second.
A third.
But they’re three seconds only for us.

Time has passed like a courier with urgent news.
But that’s just our simile.
The character is invented, his haste is make-believe,
his news inhuman.”

Speaking of time: here is a little collage from Szymborska. Drown your sadness in wine, the proverb goes. Is that what she suggests, that time is our sadness?

How naïve we are, trying to see through time: “Hitler’s First Photograph” mocks the present for its ignorance of the future.

And who’s this little fellow in his itty-bitty robe?
That’s tiny baby Adolf, the Hitlers’ little boy!
Will he grow up to be an LLD?
Or a tenor in Vienna’s Opera House?
Whose teensy hand is this, whose little ear and eye and nose?
Whose tummy full of milk, we just don’t know:
Printer’s, doctor’s, merchant’s, priest’s?
Where will those tootsy-wootsies finally wander?
To a garden, to a school, to an office, to a bride?

Clare Cavanagh: It is a shockingly inappropriate opening for the twentieth century’s most infamous biography: could Hitler have ever been an infant? “Where will those tootsy-wootsies finally wander?” the speaker asks, and the question would have been genuinely open back in 1889, unimaginable as that is in hindsight: in Braunau, “a small, but worthy town…no one hears howling dogs, or fate’s footsteps.”

Beware of the ways we tell tales, Szymborska warns.

I am thinking of Hamlet here. Soon after the play begins, the reader knows there won’t be any happy ending. Yet, it is the delaying of the horror via poetry, what keeps us hooked. Note all the details in this poem, note the role these details play. Note the subtext. Wonderful to see how first lines in Szymborska’s poems work: often she begins with an assertion, almost a thesis statement. She makes a proposition (“my sister doesn’t write poems” or “nothing can ever happen twice” or “we are children of our age, / it is a political age” etc.) and then looks at it from a myriad perspectives, pushing that ticket as far as it can go.

She will go on exploring this assertion throughout “Children of Our Age,” and then she will tersely undercut it at the end:

Meanwhile, people perished,
animals died,
houses burned,
and the fields ran wild
just as in times immemorial
and less political.

Lots of question marks in her poems. Question marks might be Szymborska’s favorite piece of punctuation. She is the kind of a poet for whom existential angst means one must keep asking questions. (In her Nobel lecture she asserts you cannot be a poet without admitting: I do not know.) Yet, where another writer might despair at human ignorance, at all the unknowing, at questions—Szymborska finds this to be a reason for amazement.

By now the attentive reader knows: from her skepticism comes not despair, but a kind of joy. (This becomes more and more apparent as we keep reading into her final books.)

Day 7 | August 12
Reading: The End and the Beginning. Pages 281-316.

I love overhearing the echoes in Szymborska’s poems. See for instance, the ending of “Some People Like Poetry”:

but what is poetry anyway?
More than one rickety answer
has tumbled since that question first was raised.
But I just keep on not knowing, and I cling to that
like a redemptive handrail."

Compare it to the final lines from “A Note,” written decades later:

“and to keep on not knowing
something important.”

The lines “to be a dog, / or stroke its warm fur; / to tell pain / from everything it’s not; / to squeeze inside events” remind me of one of Szymborska’s collages

“But I just keep on not knowing, and I cling to that / like a redemptive handrail.” The question of not knowing is quite present in her work. In the same book, we find “Elegiac Calculation”

“How many of those I knew
(if I really knew them),
men, women
(if the distinction still holds)
have crossed that threshold
(if it is a threshold)
passed over that bridge
(if you can call it a bridge)”

“Maybe all this / is happening in some lab?” she asks. What is it, this strange world to which we are so entangled? To which we owe everything?

“Every tissue in us lies
on the debit side.
Not a tentacle or tendril
is for keeps […]

I can’t remember
Where, when, and why
I let someone open
this account in my name.

We call the protest against this
the soul.
And it’s the only item
not included on the list.”

“We call the protest against this / the soul”: what I love about Szymborska’s poetry is that the warmth of the soul pops up in most unpredictable places. She refuses to die, yes. But does so without bluntness. Her language is a sense of humor.

She refuses to die because dying would be bad for her cat. Here are some lines from "Cat in an Empty Apartment"

“Die—you can’t do that to a cat.
Since what can a cat do
in an empty apartment?
Climb the walls?
Rub against the furniture?”

I love how this poem takes on a cat’s point of view: “Nothing has been moved, / but there is more space”

The reader realizes this is a poem at the edge of the abyss:

“Someone was always, always here,
then suddenly disappeared
and stubbornly stays disappeared.”

And, yet there is humor:

“Just wait till he turns up,
just let him show his face.
Will he ever get a lesson
on what not to do to a cat.”

Szymborska hits us with grim realization, with laughter, with empathy, and then with the sober fact of death: no second chances.

We the readers have this unspoken realization even as the cat plots the actions that will never take place:

“Sidle toward him
as if unwilling
and ever so slow
on visibly offended paws,
and no leaps or squeals at least to start.”

And, here is a cat Szymborska wanted you to see in one of her collages:

Protest against the mechanization of our life is the soul. After every crisis, instead of numbness, comes “cleaning up.”

“Someone has to shove
the rubble to the roadsides
so the carts loaded with corpses
can get by.

Someone, broom in hand,
still remembers how it was.
Someone else listens, nodding
his unshuttered head […]

Someone has to lie there
in the grass that covers up
the causes and effects
with a cornstalk in his teeth,
gawking at clouds.”

“The little soul,” Szymborska says in her great poem “Torture,” recalling Hadrian’s famous, ages-old piece. Here it is in W. S. Merwin’s translation of Hadrian’s “Little Soul”

“Little soul little stray
little drifter
now where will you stay
all pale and all alone
after the way
you used to make fun of things”

Earlier, I said that Szymborska is a poet who finds herself in the midst of life. What did I mean by that?

I meant: she is someone who writes with equal relish about a bodybuilder’s contest (“From scalp to sole, all muscles in slow motion / The ocean of his torso drips with lotion”) and on Heidegger’s concept of Nothingness.

I meant: she is a poet who, even in her bleaker moments, finds a surprise, awe, astonishment even, at the strange fact of our being here at all.

I meant: in her first book published after the fall of the Berlin Wall, she attests that “reality demands / that we also mention this: / life goes on.”

And so on p. 290, she gives us a tour of famous slaughter grounds of history, from Borodino to Hiroshima. Guess what? It turns out they are a place like any other. Gas stations. Ice cream parlors.

“Perhaps all fields are battlefields,” she says, “those we remember / and those that are forgotten.”

It is a sobering (and also somewhat surprising) perspective for a Polish poet, given that country’s traumatic history. What is the demand of reality here?

That we take into account how—despite all the crisis—the world mysteriously renews itself.

“On tragic mountain passes
the wind rips hats from unwitting heads
and we can’t help
laughing at that.”

Day 8 | August 13
Reading: Moment. Pages 321-352.

How interesting to compare these lines from “The Three Oddest Words” to her other negations, to see how her perspectives develop. Say, compare it to “The Railroad Station” or to the ending of “Frozen Motion.”

“When I pronounce the word Nothing,
I make something no nonbeing can hold.”

Her capitalization of “Nothing” reminds me of my favorite literary anecdote: A German poet, Hölderlin, right before they put him in a mad house, was running around the apartment, possessed as if after a visitation from the divine, shouting:

“Nothing! Nothing is happening to me!”

The word “nothing” appears quite a lot in Szymborska. For instance, “Nothingness unseamed itself for me too” alludes to Heidegger’s well known essay, “What is Metaphysics?”

Curiously, when an interviewer asked Szymborska about the influence of existentialist philosophy on her worldview, she responded: “existentialists are monumentally and monotonously serious; they don’t like to joke.”

Speaking of Nothing: it is rather hard not to mention here another famous WS:

“Why, then the world and all that’s in’t is nothing;
The covering sky is nothing; Bohemia nothing;
My wife is nothing; nor nothing have these nothings,
If this be nothing.”

And what happened to our conversation about Szymborska’s love poetry? There is a lovely piece, “A Memory.” To be honest, I am not sure if it can be considered a love poem. Not at all. And, yet, I want it to be. It is many things…

We were chatting
and suddenly stopped short.
A lovely girl stepped onto the terrace,
so lovely,
too lovely
for us to enjoy our trip.

Basia shot her husband a stricken look.
Krystyna took Zbyszek’s hand
I thought: I’ll call you,
tell you, don’t come just yet,
they’re predicting rain for days.

Only Agnieszka, a widow,
met the lovely girl with a smile.

…a note of compassion, a recollection, a playful scene, a glance. But emotion is here, and is unmistakable; a poem of jealousy, fear, pain, ends up with a bit of wonder, yes? The speaker looks back through the years, the poem ends up with a smile.

I love how often playfulness is paired with metaphysics in Szymborska’s work. Take, for instance, “A Few Words on the Soul”: “We have a soul at times. / No one’s got it nonstop, / for keeps.”

Have you read Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight? It’s the first novel Nabokov wrote directly in English.

Check out the last paragraph on pages 121 and 122. You will be astounded by what he says and how it relates to Szymborska’s statement in “A Few Words on the Soul.” I don’t put it lightly. You will be astounded. I know I was.

There is so much wonder at our “unknowing” in her work. I mentioned this earlier. But here it is, again: that unknowing, the soul:

It won’t say where it comes from
or when I’s taking off again,
though it’s clearly expecting such questions.

We need it
but apparently
it needs us
for some reason too.

Here is a collection of random objects from Szymborska’s flat, now collected in one of Krakow’s museums:

I tell my students to beware of generalizations. But like any practicing poet, I know all too well that there are exceptions to any rule. Which is why I find Szymborska’s “A Contribution to Statistics” (p. 341) such a delight. Here are a few lines from that poem:

“Out of a hundred people

those who always know better

doubting every step
—nearly all the rest,

glad to lend a hand
if it doesn’t take too long
—as high as forty-nine […]”

But soon the light irony of her use of bureaucratic lingo, of trying to explain what cannot be explained, gives way to emotion:

“hunched in pain,
no flashlight in the dark
sooner or later…”

This “contribution” to statistics intrigues me. Yes, I admire the way it brings together humor and blunt statement. But there is more: by the end, the poem becomes almost a kind of wisdom literature. To be honest, when it comes to “wisdom literature” I consider myself a skeptic. But the use of specifics here, all the percentages, all the numbers, does keep my attention for a moment, and then it comes: the emotional punch in the gut:

—a hundred out of a hundred.
Thus far this figure still remains unchanged.”

Is it a surprise that the most interesting, most durable poem about 9/11 was written by a Polish poet. You can find it on p. 344:

They jumped from the burning floors—
one, two, a few more,
higher, lower.

The photograph halted them in life,
and now keeps them
above the earth toward the earth.

Each is still complete,
with a particular face
and blood well hidden.

There’s enough time
for hair to come loose,
for keys and coins
to fall from pockets.

They’re still within the air’s reach,
within the compass of places
that have just now opened.

I can do only two things for them—
describe this flight
and not add a last line.

I marvel at “Photograph from September 11”—so many of Szymborska’s characteristic themes and poetic devices are included in this piece. So much of this (use of detail, treatment of time, perspective, etc.) have already been covered in our conversation about her work. And, yet, how fresh it still feels: how emotional these details become for this poet’s American readers, how much is said in the final line’s negation, their final refusal to “add a last line”! It’s as if Cassandra from the early poem is here again: she is looking directly at Americans, telling us what she sees.

Day 9 | August 14
Reading: Colon & Here. Pages 355-393.

Szymborska’s “ABC” is one of those pieces where she takes an ages-old form—this time abecedarian—and breathes new life into it: there’s gossip, there’s tenderness, there’s grief, and, as ever, it is all happening at the same time, in just a few lines:

I’ll never find out now
What A. thought of me.
If B. ever forgave me in the end.
Why C. pretended everything was fine.
What part D. played in E.’s silence.
What F. had been expecting, if anything.
Why G. forgot when she knew perfectly well.
What H. had to hide.
What I. wanted to add.
If my being around
meant anything
to J. and K. and the rest of the alphabet.

This is late Szymborska. In pieces, such as “Teenager” the poet, in her eighth decade, is looking back. It is a portrait piece: but whose portrait is it? the young girl’s? the octogenarian speaker’s? Here are a few stanzas from that poem:

She shows me poems,
written in a clear and careful script
I haven’t used for years.

I read the poems, read them.
Well maybe that one […]

The conversation stumbles.
On her pathetic watch
time is still cheap and unsteady.
On mine it’s far more precious and precise.

Nothing in parting, a fixed smile
and no emotion.

Only when she vanishes,
leaving her scarf in her haste.

A scarf of genuine wool,
in colored stripes
crocheted for her
by our mother.

I’ve still got it.

Moral of the story? Whenever Szymborska tells you “no emotion”—expect emotion!

In her late years, Szymborska continued showering us with delightful details. Her poetry continued investigations into various different perspectives. For instance, “The Courtesy of the Blind” (p. 367) is a plainspoken, delightful narrative—but from whose perspective? Seeing the change of that perspective in the final stanza is quite moving.

Another late poem, “Here,” also showers us with delicious details; it shows us the planet as a whole, as if seen from above.

We know we have seen this perspective before, but it feels somehow truer. Why? Perhaps because—after so many (terrible) years, so much (historical, personal) pain—there is still a sense of freshness, a sense of wonder? Here are some lines from that poem:

I can’t speak for elsewhere,
but here on Earth we’ve got a fair supply of everything.
Here we manufacture chairs and sorrows,
scissors, tenderness, transistors, violins,
teacups, dams, and quips. […]

And I know what you’re thinking next.
Wars, wars, wars.
But there are pauses in between them too.
Attention!—people are evil.
At ease—people are good.
At attention wastelands are created.
At ease houses are constructed in the sweat of brows,
and quickly inhabited.

Life on Earth is quite a bargain.
Dreams, for one, don’t charge admission.
Illusions are costly only when lost.
The body has its own installment plan.

And as an extra, added feature,
you spin on the planet’s carousel for free,
and with it you hitch a ride on the intergalactic blizzard,
with times so dizzying
that nothing here on earth can even tremble.

After so many years of poetry: what is the lesson? how to live here on earth? Yes, with a sense of wonder.

Day 10 | August 15
Reading: Here & Enough (The End).

As a practicing poet, I keep coming back to look at Szymborska’s combination of inventive syntax and plainspoken language eg: her use of periods in “Lot’s Wife,” which I mentioned before. Easy to see it again in the little poem “Divorce.”

Reading the ending of this piece, I am reminded of Isaac Babel’s statement that "no iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place."

I love the short poem “Chains.” Published in Szymborska’s final collection, it echoes early work. Remember “Brueghel’s Two Monkeys,” that clinking of the chain? Here we are again, 50 years later: who is being examined now? what has changed, if anything?

“A scorching day, a doghouse and a dog on a chain.
A full dish of water a few steps off.
But the chain is too short and the dog can’t reach.
Let’s add one more detail to the picture,
the much longer,
less visible chains
that allow us freely to pass by.”

“Identification,” another late poem, is also one of my favorites. I am especially moved by the final three lines, how they make the language go haywire to show the human distress:

“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—”

“Vermeer” is a lovely lyric. I feel it enters into conversation with Czesław Milosz’s well-known “A Song on the End of the World.” In her prose book, Nonrequired Reading, she describes hearing him read not long after WWII. Echoes. Echoes.

WS with Czesław Milosz

Here is Szymborska’s “Vermeer.” It is one-sentence long. A bit of solace, a fitting poem to end this conversation:

“So long as that woman from Rijksmuseum
in painted quiet and concentration
keeps pouring milk day after day
from the pitcher to the bowl
the World hasn’t earned
the world’s end.”

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