Essayist * Editor * Columnist * Translator * Nobel Laureate
. . . and one of my favorite poets
I know, I know, I say that all the time.
Described as a "Mozart of Poetry," she achieved a goal sought unsuccessfully by most poets - her book sales often rivaled those of prominent prose authors.
Ms Szymborska never failed to amaze me with the deceptive simplicity of her poetry. For her, the personal and the political existed on the same plane, and her poetry came from the places they intersected.
No poem brought that home to me more so than Photograph From September 11th. It is difficult poem to read because of the subject matter and choice of narrative. But it is probably one of the most powerful pieces I've ever read.
She continued writing poetry until she left us in 2012, peacefully in her sleep, at the age of 88.
Here are a few of her poems. They are not light reading. They can be uncomfortable, and they challenge us to rethink the way we look at the lives we live.
The End and the Beginning
After every war
someone has to tidy up.
Things won't pick
themselves up, after all.
Someone has to shove
the rubble to the roadsides
so the carts loaded with corpses
can get by.
Someone has to trudge
through sludge and ashes,
through the sofa springs,
the shards of glass,
the bloody rags.
Someone has to lug the post
to prop the wall,
someone has to glaze the window,
set the door in its frame.
No sound bites, no photo opportunities,
and it takes years.
All the cameras have gone
to other wars.
The bridges need to be rebuilt,
the railroad stations, too.
Shirtsleeves will be rolled
Someone, broom in hand,
still remembers how it was.
Someone else listens, nodding
his unshattered head.
But others are bound to be bustling nearby
who'll find all that
a little boring.
From time to time someone still must
dig up a rusted argument
from underneath a bush
and haul it off to the dump.
Those who knew
what this was all about
must make way for those
who know little.
And less than that.
And at last nothing less than nothing.
Someone has to lie there
in the grass that covers up
the causes and effects
with a cornstalk in his teeth,
gawking at clouds.
A Few Words on the Soul
We have a soul at times.
No one’s got it non-stop,
Day after day,
year after year
may pass without it.
it will settle for awhile
only in childhood’s fears and raptures.
Sometimes only in astonishment
that we are old.
It rarely lends a hand
in uphill tasks,
like moving furniture,
or lifting luggage,
or going miles in shoes that pinch.
It usually steps out
whenever meat needs chopping
or forms have to be filled.
For every thousand conversations
it participates in one,
if even that,
since it prefers silence.
Just when our body goes from ache to pain,
it slips off-duty.
it doesn’t like seeing us in crowds,
our hustling for a dubious advantage
and creaky machinations make it sick.
Joy and sorrow
aren’t two different feelings for it.
It attends us
only when the two are joined.
We can count on it
when we’re sure of nothing
and curious about everything.
Among the material objects
it favors clocks with pendulums
and mirrors, which keep on working
even when no one is looking.
It won’t say where it comes from
or when it’s taking off again,
though it’s clearly expecting such questions.
We need it
it needs us
for some reason too.
Children of Our Age
We are children of our age,
it's a political age.
All day long, all through the night,
all affairs--yours, ours, theirs--
are political affairs.
Whether you like it or not,
your genes have a political past,
your skin, a political cast,
your eyes, a political slant.
Whatever you say reverberates,
whatever you don't say speaks for itself.
So either way you're talking politics.
Even when you take to the woods,
you're taking political steps
on political grounds.
Apolitical poems are also political,
and above us shines a moon
no longer purely lunar.
To be or not to be, that is the question.
And though it troubles the digestion
it's a question, as always, of politics.
To acquire a political meaning
you don't even have to be human.
Raw material will do,
or protein feed, or crude oil,
or a conference table whose shape
was quarreled over for months;
Should we arbitrate life and death
at a round table or a square one?
Meanwhile, people perished,
and the fields ran wild
just as in times immemorial
and less political.
Love at First Sight
They're both convinced
that a sudden passion joined them.
Such certainty is more beautiful,
but uncertainty is more beautiful still.
Since they'd never met before, they're sure
that there'd been nothing between them.
But what's the word from the streets, staircases, hallways--
perhaps they've passed by each other a million times?
I want to ask them
if they don't remember--
a moment face to face
in some revolving door?
perhaps a "sorry" muttered in a crowd?
a curt "wrong number"caught in the receiver?--
but I know the answer.
No, they don't remember.
They'd be amazed to hear
that Chance has been toying with them
now for years.
Not quite ready yet
to become their Destiny,
it pushed them close, drove them apart,
it barred their path,
stifling a laugh,
and then leaped aside.
There were signs and signals,
even if they couldn't read them yet.
Perhaps three years ago
or just last Tuesday
a certain leaf fluttered
from one shoulder to another?
Something was dropped and then picked up.
Who knows, maybe the ball that vanished
into childhood's thicket?
There were doorknobs and doorbells
where one touch had covered another
Suitcases checked and standing side by side.
One night. perhaps, the same dream,
grown hazy by morning.
is only a sequel, after all,
and the book of events
is always open halfway through.
See how efficient it still is,
how it keeps itself in shape -
our century's hatred.
How easily it vaults the tallest obstacles.
How rapidly it pounces, tracks us down.
It's not like other feelings.
At once both older and younger.
It gives birth itself to the reasons
that give it life.
When it sleeps, it's never eternal rest.
And sleeplessness won't sap its strength; it feeds it.
One religion or another -
whatever gets it ready, in position.
One fatherland or another -
whatever helps it get a running start.
Justice also works well at the outset
until hate gets its own momentum going.
Its face twisted in a grimace
of erotic ecstasy.
Oh these other feelings,
Since when does brotherhood
ever finished first?
Does doubt ever really rouse the rabble?
Only hatred has just what it takes.
Gifted, diligent, hard working.
Need we mention all the songs it has composed?
All the pages it has added to our history books?
All the human carpets it has spread
over countless city squares and football fields?
Let's face it:
it knows how to make beauty.
The splendid fire-glow in midnight skies.
Magnificent bursting bombs in rosy dawns.
You can't deny the inspiring pathos of ruins
and a certain bawdy humor to be found
in the sturdy column jutting from their midst.
Hatred is a master of contrast -
between explosion and dead quiet,
red blood and white snow.
Above all, it never tires
of its leitmotif - the impeccable executioner
towering over its soiled victim.
It's always ready for new challenges.
If it has to wait awhile, it will.
They say it's blind. Blind?
It has a sniper's keen sight
and gazes unflinchingly at the future
as only it can.
To find out more about one of the world's finest poets, you can try The Poetry Foundation, Nobel PrizeDotOrg, PoetsDotOrg, & The New York Review of Books.
Here is a partial Bibliography: Poems New and Collected; View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems; Here; Miracle Fair: Selected Poems of Wislawa Szymborska; Monologue of a Dog; Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts; Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces; Nothing Twice: Selected Poems; People on a Bridge: Poems; Poems, New and Collected: 1957-1997.
|1996 Nobel Prize in Literature: |
"... for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality."