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By Wislawa Szymborska
Translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh
New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2006
ISBN: 10-:0-15-101220-2
96 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
April 2013

Wislawa Szymborska sees, imagines and writes of the world with an unworldly imagination. She takes tiny, everyday relatively meaningless and uneventful scenes and elevates them to revelations of their uniqueness, importance, and the astonishment in their being what they are. In the process she brings we who read her a very gentle delight and wonderment at her imagination and insight.

This is a short book and easy reading and understanding, but tremendously clever with brilliant and unexpected insights.

I’m just going to share a few small samples of what this lovely volume contains.

Since I raised 7 children and have 19 grandkids, I was deeply drawn to the marvelous insights of “A Little Girl Tugs at the Tablecloth.”

“She’s been in this world for over a year
and in this world not everything’s been examined
and taken in hand.
The subject of today’s investigation
is things that don’t move by themselves.
They need to be helped along,
shoved, shifted, taken from their place and relocated.
don’t all want to go, e.g., the bookshelf,
the cupboard, the unyielding walls, the table.
But the tablecloth on the stubborn table
– when well-seized by its hems –
manifests a willingness to travel.
And the glasses, plates,
creamer, spoons, bowl,
are fairly shaking with desire.
It’s fascinating,
what form of motion will they take,
once they’re trembling on the brink:
will they roam across the ceiling?
fly around the lamp?
hop onto the windowsill
and from there to a tree?
Mr. Newton still has no say in this.
Let him look down from the heavens
and wave his hands.
This experiment must be completed.
And it will.”

The poem “A Memory” was just so touching, funny and right on the money. I could just picture it!

“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 Zbyszed’s hand
reflexively.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.”
Lastly, in her poem “Among The Multitudes” she reminds each of us:
“I am who I am.
A coincidence no less unthinkable
than any others.”
She then imagines many other sorts of “beings” she could have been, but she had had no choice.
“I could have been someone
much less separate.
Someone from an ant hill, shoal, or buzzing swarm.
An inch of landscape tousled by the wind.”
Or even:
“Someone much less fortunate
bred for my fur
or Christmas dinner,
something swimming under a square of glass”
In the end she sort of defines her own essence with an image of who she’s not:
“I might have been myself minus
that is
someone completely different.”
The poem “An Unexpected Meeting” presents a challenging philosophical notion. Two former friends run into each other and share a number of trivial memories and “catch up” as we say, on family and such (represented in the poem with various pets.” But then:
“We fall silent in midsentence,
All smiles, past help
Our humans
don’t know how to talk to one another.”
I find that to be a bit harsh. I wonder back on what the relationship might ever have been between these two. We are born into family, we have neighbors, school mates, co-workers, the friendly gas station attendant and so on. We exchange some pleasantries, share a few things. But how often do we ever go beyond the trivialities of polite society: “How are you? And the kids, the job? Do you ever see Charlie? What became of Grace? You still have that yellow car?” And so on. With whom do we really “talk?” The poem “Ballad” is very powerful. She open calling attention to a popular ballad called “Murdered Woman Suddenly Gets Up from Chair.” The poem comments:
“The thing happened fair and square
with curtains open, lamps at lit”
But she does get up and goes on. The murder is a “walkout” and “abandoning” but for the “dead” woman its all the same. It’s a very powerful and tragic poem. “The Railways Station” seems to me a marvelously clever creation. The opening two lines explain:
“My nonarrival in the city of N
took place on the dot.
Yes, she was supposed to go,
seems to have committed to being there,
but chose not to.
Now everything else happens to those who did go.
It was as the ending tells us,
a rendezvous that never happened.

“Even a rendezvous
took place as planned
Beyond the reach
of our presence. In the paradise lost of
Somewhere else.
Somewhere else.
How these little words ring.
“A Speech At The Lost-and-Found” is a very clever and funny poem of what one says at the lost and found counter. The speaker traces many things which she had “lost” over millions of years of evolution and ends with the humble admission:
“Gone, lost, scatter to the four winds.
It still surprises me
how little now remains,
one first person sing., temporaily
declined in human form, just now making such a fuss
about a blue umbrella left yesterday on a bus.”
“Astonishment” is a very typical Szymborska poem. She has the ability to just think of the entire world, human, animal, inanimate, intergalactic – all of it, and see connections and wonders in it all. I love the way it came together in “Astonishment”
Why after all this one and not the rest?
Why this specific self, not in a nest,
but a house? Sewn up not in scales, but skin?
Not topped off by a leaf, but by a face?
Why on earth now, on Tuesday of all days,
and why on earth, pinned down by this star’s pin?
In spite of years of my not being here?
In spite of seas of all these dates and fates,
these cells, celestials, and coelenterates?
What is it really that made me appear
neither an inch nor half a globe too far,
neither a minute nor aeons too early?
What made me fill myself with me so squarely?
Why am I staring now into the dark
and muttering this unending monologue
just like a the growling thing we call a dog?
Oh my, “True Love” is a very favorite poem for me. She rails against the notion of true love since it would be more than the world could bear and what would people do? She fulmugates:
“Look at the happy couple.
Couldn’t they at least try to hide it . . .”
She also think it would be an evolutionary disaster.
“Tact and common sense tell us to pass over it in silence,
like a in Life’s highest circles.
Perfectly good children are born without its help.
It couldn’t populate the planet in a million years,
it comes along so rarely.”

Bob Corbett


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