Taking time with Szymborska

One of the pleasures of disconnecting, if only for a few months, from the real world, and from its rush and press, the deadlines and overloads, its grinding work and gasping wishes, is to take the time to enjoy poetry again, both as a writer and a reader. The other night, with no obligations attached any more to the things I read, I took up the last collection of Wislawa Szymborska’s poems, as translated from Polish to English, Map: collected and last poems (Houghton, 2015).

W. Szymborska z filizanka

I learnt of Szymborska when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996, and have long cherished the collection published on the heels of that fame, View with a grain of sand (Harcourt, 1995). She wrote with an unsentimental irony and a witty enjoyment of inverted perspectives. Just how does a grain of sand view the world from its place on a window sill, which only we, not the grain, sees as a window, sees as a view?

And she reflects often on the past, with a deep appreciation of the terrors of the world – after all she was a survivor of East European socialism – and a fetching lightness of touch. So in “The Letters of the Dead,” she writes:

We read the letters of the dead like helpless gods,

but gods nonetheless, since we know the dates that follow.

We know which debts will never be repaid

Which widows will remarry with the corpse still warm

Poor dead, blindfolded dead

gullible, fallible, pathetically prudent.

And then at the end of this poem:

Everything the dead has predicted has turned out completely different.

Or a little bit different – which is to say, completely different.

The most fervent of them gaze confidingly into our eyes:

their calculations tell them that they’ll find perfection there.

For me Szymborska is one of those East European writers, like Milosz, Havel, Zbigniew Herbert, who represent a life of writing outside the whirligig of celebrity, consumption and false fame. Writing made against an often hostile world, and more courageous and authentic for that. Although in her early writing career she adopted the values and propaganda of the socialist party, she broke with the party from the mid-1960s, and then later in her career, if that is really the right word, contributed to samizdat publications as part of the dissident movement. Turning away from commercially modified productivity and socially sanctioned words, these writers present to me an alternative path. This near invisible blog is part of a new samizdat movement, in which culture may bloom from the outside truly, distinctly and originally, and abstain from becoming just another branded product.

Her opus, they say, is less than 350 poems. Asked why she did not publish more poems, she said she had a trash can at home. Her wit is exceptional, and her imagined worlds undying and yet knowing of their artifice. So let us conclude with the ending of “The Joy of Writing” from her 1967 collection, No End of Fun, which was reproduced in the feature on Szymborska with her Nobel Prize.

They forget that what’s here isn’t life.
Other laws, black on white, obtain.
The twinkling of an eye will take as long as I say,
and will, if I wish, divide into tiny eternities,
full of bullets stopped in mid-flight.
Not a thing will ever happen unless I say so.
Without my blessing, not a leaf will fall,
not a blade of grass will bend beneath that little hoof’s full stop.

Is there then a world
where I rule absolutely on fate?
A time I bind with chains of signs?
An existence become endless at my bidding?

The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
Revenge of a mortal hand.


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