#APStogether • August 5, 2020
“It took her three volumes… to become the poet Wisława Szymborska, or so her own editing suggests.”
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,
WHOEVER’s found out what location
compassion (heart’s imagination)
can be contacted at these days
is herewith urged to name the place,
“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”
“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.”
“We’ve inherited hope—
the gift of forgetting.
You’ll see how we give
birth among the ruins.”
“Everything’s mine but just on loan,
nothing for the memory to hold,
though mine as long as I look.”
“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.”
“History rounds off skeletons to zero.
A thousand and one is still only a thousand.”
"Write it down. Write it. With ordinary ink
on ordinary paper: they weren’t given food,
they all died of hunger.
So here we are, the naked lovers,
lovely, as we both agree,
with eyelids as our only covers
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.
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.
"Pardon me, hounded hope, for laughing from time to time"
“Why does this written doe bound through these written woods?”
“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 joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
Revenge of a mortal hand.”
“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.”
“While they kissed
with not our lips,
a suitcase disappeared,
The railroad station in the city of N.
passed its exam
in objective existence
with flying colors.”
How these little words ring.”
“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”
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.
“Look down on yourselves from the stars, I cried.”
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.
“Distance is the soul of beauty.”
“Look down on yourselves from the stars, I cried.”
“We read the letters of the dead like helpless gods,
but gods, nonetheless, since we know the dates that follow.”
“We see the faces people make behind their backs.”
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 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.”
“The Master rejects outright the ridiculous thought
that a table out of sight goes on being a table nonstop”
“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.”
“leaving tomorrow, that is, sixty years ago;
Never again, but still at nine A.M. sharp”
“Forgive me, distant wars, for bringing flowers home.”
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
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.
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,
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
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),
(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
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
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,
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
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,
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
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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