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view with a grain of sand (Poetry)

By Wislawa Szymborska
Translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh
New York: Harcourt Brace & Co. 1993
ISBN # 0-15-600216-7 (pbk)
214 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
January 2013

This collection is the first set of poems of Wislawa Szymborska which I have read and she has quickly become one of my favorite poets. I’ve already ordered several more collections of her poems.

I don’t know a poet who writes about more diverse topics and in more diverse moods. There is virtually no topic she won’t tackle and poems may be very serious, hilarious, and weird, with or without rhyme and many other surprises thrown in. At the same time the poems are rewarding and challenging to one’s view of the world and view of the nature of poetry. This volume was an astonishing experience for me and I can’t wait for the next volume to arrive.

The title poem appears a bit more than half way through this collection and is one of several that are about the language of poetry and human speech, rather than about the world itself. She is extremely clever in her play on words which mean one thing in one context and something different in a different context. In her play with language, she introduces words that one won’t find in any dictionaries or other word sources, but, in the context used are clear as to what they are to mean and are simply brilliant in their impact.

Perhaps in both the created words and in her love of alliteration and word play the English reader should come to deeply appreciate the astonishing job that the translators have done to turn this poetry from Polish into English. It’s was almost unbelievable to me that they were so successful. I so wish I knew some Polish, or was close to someone who did so I could understand what some of those alliterations would have sounded like in “straight” translations into English. I think in such a situation one would come to even more delight in the work of the two translators.

Many of the poems are short, very concrete sets of images that call attention to universal insights. She says the unexpected about the rarely thought and in doing so challenges, clarifies, enlightens and delights the reader.

Reading several of her poems about paintings and painters I am amazed at the difference between her words and those of art critics. The critics give us some ideas, larger frames of times, details of certain art movements, influences and such. Typically a thesis is advanced. Szymborska paints her own verbal portraits which enlighten us and enlarge the view, but it would be both difficult and counter-productive to try to convert her powerful images into ideas and theses. The poems are best savored like a favorite meal or glass of lovely wine.

Her poem “Poetry Reading” was simply laughing-out-loud funny. She compares giving a reading to the more robust crowds at a boxing match. I especially loved her humble assessment of the “crowd.”

“To be a boxer or not to be there
at all. O Muse, where are our teeming crowds?
Twelve people in the room, eight seats to spare ……

it’s to start this cultural affair;
Half come inside because it started to rain.
The rest are relatives. O Muse.”

“Pieta” is a very powerful and sad poem of the anguish of the dead hero’s mother.

Then there is a wide variety of tiny word pictures, many on topics one would never expect as the focus of a poem.

“Allegro Ma Non Troppo” is a poem that seems to capture her clever wit, love of alliteration and marvelously unusual images and play with words.

“Life, you’re beautiful (I say)
you just couldn’t get more fecund,
more befrogged or nightingaily,
more anthillful or sproutspouting

. . .

Oh how grassy is this hopper,
how this berry ripely rasps.
I would never have conceived it
if I weren’t conceived myself!

Life (I say) I’ve no idea
what I could compare you to.
No one else can make a pine cone
and then make the pine cone’s clone.”

Her poems probe the mystery of the meaning of life and she just can’t put her finger on it – not because she an inadequate poet. Quite the contrary, perhaps she’s a great patron of being thankful for meaninglessness itself.

“The Terrorist, He’s Watching” is a chillingly cold poem of a terrorist standing across the way from a bomb he’s set in a café. He is watching and commenting on who goes in and who comes out of his target place, as he counts the last seconds until the explosion. Brilliantly told.

It’s hard to image a hilarious and convincing poem about an onion, but oh my, does she have one in which she celebrates:

“In an onion there’s only onion
from its top to its toe,
onionymous monomania
unanimous omninudity.”

And that’s just a small sample of the delights awaiting the reading of “The Onion.”

She even has a poem: “Hitler’s First Photograph” which could have been about any innocent child’s first days.

“The Century’s Decline” focuses on the hopes and beliefs that the 20th century would finally be the ONE of . . . fill in the list of good things . . . but like virtually all others:

“God was finally going to believe
in a man both good and strong
but good and strong
are still two different men.”

In “No Title Required” she contrasts a tiny moment of what we might well regard as a mere nothing, yet she concludes:

“When I see such things I‘m no longer sure
that what’s important
is more important than what’s not.”

I love the thought!

The poem “Nothing’s A Gift” was another favorite of mine, a poem which discusses the body and that it is an unrequested gift, but little by little life claims it all back, all except ... .” Marvelous thought.

My first reading of Wislawa Szymborska has been an exciting and joyful experience. I am keenly awaiting the arrival of several more volumes of her poetry.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett