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By Wislawa Szymborska
Introduced and translated by Adam Czerniawski
London: Forest Books, 1996
ISBN # 0-948259-70-1
78 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
October 2013

This is the fourth book of Wislawa Szymborska’s poetry I have read. It is by far the most philosophical of the three and as philosophical a book of poetry as any I’ve ever read by any author. She deals with huge questions of the meaning of human existence (if any) and especially focuses on the question as to whether the “famous” of history are really any more interesting or important than the masses of us who pass, nearly nameless, into total obscurity within a short time after our deaths.

Her second to last poem in this small collection is a summary of her views, but not presented in her own voice. The poem is titled “Unwritten poem reviewed.” It is told in the voice of a rather harsh critic who attacks a poem she’s written (and the reviewer even quotes from this poem) for being a bit shallow, vague and definitely unclear in her views of human existence. Szymborska’s message is that’s exactly what human existence is: a bit shallow, vague (as to meaning and worth) and unclear in how to understand it or make sense of it.

This is a marvelous collection, often funny, always unsure and questioning, quite often very challenging. For me the book holds special meaning since I happen to view the world in much the same way as Szymborska, but could never even imagine expressing my views in such a profound and gripping manner as she does.

For any reader who is of inquiring and philosophical mind, who wonders what is the meaning of human existence, or if there even such a thing (as the meaning, she grants the existence), this is a volume worth owning and keeping around to pick up now and again and be prodded into thought by her persistent questions.

“Happy Love” is a wonderful poem celebrating happy love, and how the lovers themselves, tend to believe it only exists for them. She concludes about so-called “happy love”:

“Fine babies are born without its assistance.
Never, never could it populate the earth
given its rare occurrence.”

She writes a chilling poem, “The terrorist, he watches” written from the point of view of the terrorist sitting across the street from a bar where he has planted a bomb. Very powerful, especially since it from the terrorist’s point of view.

“Reality” is a reflection on the differences between dreams and reality. Reality simply doesn’t let up, whereas dreams disappear upon waking, and life goes on. She writes:

“The volatility of dreams
allows memory to shake them off.
Reality needn’t fear being forgotten.
It’s a tough nut.
It sits on our shoulders,
lies heavily on our hearts,
bars the way.
There is no escape from her,
she accompanies each flight.
There is no stop
on the route of our journey
where she isn’t waiting.”

One of the poems which touched me very much is titled “May be left untitled.” It challenges the distinction we all tend to make between what in our own histories is “important” and what isn’t. In essence, what we individuals do, most especially the non-famous among us, which is most of us, is just as important as what the famous and powerful do, at least on some level, a larger level of existence. I think this way all the time. Like Szymborska suggests in her poem, this attitude in my own life has given me a sense of value to my life and a greater sense of freedom to be the “me” I wish to be. The poem contrasts the fame of so-called historical events with the everyday events in her own life. At the end she celebrates her NOW.

“It just so happens I am and I look.
Nearby a white butterfly flutters in the air
with wings that are wholly his
and the shadow that flies over my hands
is not other, not anyone’s, but his very own.

Seeing such sights I lose my certainty
that what is important
is more important than the unimportant.”

Bob Corbett


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