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By Wislawa Szymborska
Selected and translated by Joanna Trzeciak
New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001
ISBN # 0-393-04939-6
159 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
October 2013

This is the fourth or fifth collection of Wislawa Szymborska’s poetry which I’ve read. Her sensitivity to the human condition, her profound insights, her delightful language just astound me and leave her right near the top of my list of favorite poets. I’m delighted to see that I still have another volume of her work on my book shelf awaiting my pleasure.

Quite a number of love poems open the first section and “Love at First Sight” seemed exceptional to me. She speaks about two lovers who’ve recently meet and fallen in love, and asks whether they may have actually not been as “unknown” to each other as they supposed. Perhaps she suggests there were indirect meetings in their past:

“. . . maybe face to face once in a revolving door . . .

Maybe three years ago
or last Tuesday
some leaf flew
from arm to arm . . .

There were doorknob and doorbells
where touch lay on touch
Suitcases next to one another in the baggage check . . .”

I just loved the speculations!

Translator and editor Juanna Trzeciak began the volume with very touching and even humorous love poems, then immediately slaps the read out of that reverie with several very heavy war poems, and one exceptionally powerful poem is about a group of Jews in a railroad cattle car heading to a prison camp.

A bit later we read the poem “Turn of the Century” which moved me deeply. It begins:

“It was supposed to be better
than the rest, our twentieth century.”

It cites many of the early dreams of a coming near utopia for the century and an about face of humanity. Of course, now in the early days of the 21st we know how untrue that was. But, then, early on:

"God was at last to believe in man:”

Yet what God seemingly didn’t take into account is that:

“good and strong
are still two different people.”

She speaks of the universality of the political and the sameness of torture over the centuries.

“Nothing has changed
Except many manners, ceremonies, dances,
Yet the gesture of areas shielding the head
has remained the same.”

In “The End and the Beginning” she writes of war.

“After every war
someone has to clean up.
Things won’t
straighten themselves up, after all.”

But time goes on, the war generation passes, people forget.

“Those who knew
what was going on here
must make way for
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.”

Thus, the pattern continues.

This poem is followed by one called “Hatred:”

“It alone gives birth to causes.

. . .

Smart, able, hard working.
Need we say how many songs it has written?
How many pages of history it has numbered?
How many human carpets it has unrolled
over how many plazas and stadiums?”

. . . They say hatred is blind. Blind?
With eyes sharp as a sniper’s
it looks bravely into the future
– alone.”

The next section contains a number of poems dealing with nature of all sorts. I especially liked the open lines of “Bird’s Returning.

“Again this spring the bird returned too early.
Rejoice reason, instinct too can err.”

The poem “Seen from Above” seems to me philosophically profound. She speaks of how we humans can see this dead beetle – symbol of nearly all living things save humans – as being little loss to the world. She concludes:

“Important supposedly applies only to us.
Only to our life, only to our death, a death,
which enjoys a forced right of way.”

Very profound!

“No Title Required” is a lovely poem which argues that our distinctions between “important” events and “non-important” ones is really tenuous if not a completely false dichotomy. The poem is a powerful philosophical statement.

The section of poems “. . . the unthinkable is thinkable. . .” is a set of very bizarre poems that try to express the thinking and saying of the unthinkable and unsayable. The poems are fascinating, but I’m not sure of what they do and don’t say. However, they are marvelous fun and profound challenges. Just a few “apologies” from “Under a Certain Little Star” will give some taste of the challenges of the poems in this section.

“My apologies to chance for calling it necessity.
My apologies to necessity in case I’m mistaken.
. . .
My apologies to the tree felled for four table legs.
My apologies to large questions for small answers.
. . .
My apologies to everything that I can’t be everywhere.
My apologies to all for not knowing how to be every man and woman.
. . .
Do not hold it against me, O speech, that I borrow weighty words,
and then labor to make them light.”

Toward the end of this collection are a couple of very funny poems, the first being “Rubens’ Women.” This is both brilliant and hilarious and treats the heavy naked women which he paints and whom she calls “Herculasses.” The work is quite funny and tongue in cheek, comparing them to today’s ideal of the skinny movie stars.

She follows that with a poem about giving poetry readings (to a handful most of whom have come in out of the rain and the rest are relatives), and wishes the poet could attract the crowds which boxers do.

Once again I come to the end of a collection of Wislawa Szymborska’s poetry knowing I was in the hands of a master poet, an extremely sensitive woman to the human condition, and someone who takes her words very seriously. She remains still one of the poets at the top of my list of favorites.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett