Wisława Szymborska

(b. 1923)

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Poland's Blithe Spirit
On discovering Wislawa Szymborska -- and the "little insurrections of sense and sanity" at the heart of the Nobel laureate's poetry

by David Barber

May 22, 1997

To the purist there is no such thing as poetry in translation: the poetic by definition is that which cannot survive the confounding of tongues. A truism, surely, and yet ordinary experience suggests that it's truer for some poets than for others. There are translations we labor over in the gloomy certainty that we are divining only the murkiest approximation of the sound and sense of the original (Dante immediately comes to mind), and there are poets whose tenor can alter so markedly from translator to translator (compare the various editions of Rilke, for example) that there is little question that we're having to make do with muffled echoes and diluted essences. But there are also certain poets who can speak to us across the linguistic divide with such unforced ease that they seem to be blithe spirits hovering over the rubble of Babel. Not surprisingly, they are generally those who have forsaken verbal dazzle and rhapsodic utterance in pursuit of a lighter and airier mode of expressive feeling, a translucent style, an art of apparent artlessness.

The poetry of the current Nobel laureate, Wislawa Szymborska, answers to just that description, happily so for the great many of us who know her native Polish only as an alien tangle of chafing consonants and briery inflections. Szymborska, whose poem
"A Word on Statistics" appears in the May, 1997, Atlantic, in a translation by Joanna Trzeciak, is nevertheless a writer to whom most American readers have yet to be properly introduced. As was the case with her émigré countryman Czeslaw Milosz before he received the Nobel in 1980, much of her work has not been readily available to the English-speaking reader, and what reputation she's had in our republic of letters seems to have been confined mostly to a circle of cogniscenti that keeps its radar tuned to the political and literary frequencies of Eastern Europe. That kind of noble obscurity is hardly uncommon for modern European poets who are, well, obscure -- and who make for heavy lifting even when Englished by the most capable hands. It would be a mistake, however, to think that Szymborska's relative neglect has anything to do with inscrutability. She is a supremely lucid and sublimely beguiling poet, as accessible as she is ineffable. With their brisk and bracing wit, vivacious intelligence, and buoyant sense of play, hers are poems of abundant charm -- so charming, in fact, that it can take a while to realize just how disquieting they are.

That was my own experience, at any rate, when first happening upon
View with a Grain of Sand (1995), a volume of Szymborska's selected poems translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Claire Cavanagh that appeared a year or so before the Swedish Academy catapulted Szymborska's name into the headlines. The book has no introduction and contains a sparse three lines of biographical lowdown, unusual restraint in our age of overkill but a fitting tribute to Szymborska's innate effervescence. Even the uninitiated American ear should have little trouble picking up the conviviality of her poetry right away -- its comic sparkle, its jaunty conversational tempo, its immunity from pretense, its exuberant range of subjects and sympathies -- and shouldn't have to strain hard to detect the resonant vibrations beneath those inviting surfaces.

This is not to suggest that Szymborska sounds anything like a poet writing from out of our own vernacular. There is almost no autobiographical element in these poems, and very little that can be safely ascribed to personal or intimate entanglement. They have nothing to confess -- not with well-scrubbed sincerity, at least -- and what they have to declare is usually merrily skewed or consummately oblique. Most notably of all, perhaps, they are more vigorously intellectual than the staple lyric poetry that dominates the American scene, more at ease with metaphysical speculation than with the raw materials of emotion and experience. Yet far from being stumbling blocks, these qualities account for much that is attractive and arresting in her verse. Szymborska is an inspired ironist of the first order, a warm and wily creature of reason who cherishes the life of the mind much too ardently to let any excursion into ideas turn into a forced march.

A Szymborska poem typically begins with a bemused observation or jesting proposition, often delivered in an overtly assumed voice or animated persona. She excels at the infectiously mischievious setup: a wink and a nudge, and she's off and running. Take the opening lines of "Advertisement":

I am a tranquilizer.
I'm effective at home.
I work in the office.
I can take exams
or the witness stand.

Or these, from "On the Banks of the Styx":

Dear individual soul, this is the Styx.
The Styx, that's right: Why are you so perplexed?
As soon as Charon reads the prepared text
over the speakers, let the nymphs affix
your name badge and transport you to the banks.

There is a lively element of absurdist theater in Szymborska's affection for these puckish gambits and devices -- an impresario's gusto in summoning the subversive muses of farce, burlesque, and masquerade -- but I have yet to read a poem of hers that amounts to a pretext for mere cleverness or cheek. No matter how cockeyed the premise, however teasing and needling the tone of light raillery, Szymborska's soliloquies always seem to be staging little insurrections of sense and sanity and acute moral reckoning. She may be putting on a one-woman show, with all her sly diversions and winsome impersonations, but it's an act that's been booked into Plato's cave.

One does not need to be deeply steeped in modern European mayhem to conceive how a writer born in Poland in 1923 might have arrived at an aesthetic of such self-effacing artifice. Suffice it to say that nothing could be further removed from (or more obstinantly resistant to) the dictates of Socialist Realism than one of Szymborska's droll riffs on hard times in the Neolithic ("Our Ancestors' Short Lives"), the wanton pleasures of the unconscious ("In Praise of Dreams"), the popularity of silent-film comedies among the angels ("Slapstick"), or the importance of good dentistry in diplomatic protocol ("Smiles"). Even at its most antic and impertinent, however, the telltale Szymborskian posture has much more Sphinx in it than jester: what saves these capering frolics from contrived frivolity is their unswerving sense of the exquisite precariousness of human principles and ideals, their mordant slant, as glimpsed in these closing couplets from "Birthday" on the intellect's ingrained predicaments:

While trying to plumb what the void's inner sense is,
I'm bound to pass by all these poppies and pansies.
What a loss when you think how much effort was spent
perfecting this petal, this pistil, this scent
for the one-time appearance, which is all they're allowed,
so aloofly precise and so fragilely proud.

Confirmed tragicomedienne that she is, Szymborska everywhere reminds us that being serious need not mean being solemn. One of the constant marvels of her poetry is how it propagates its own fertile forms of "aloofly precise and fragilely proud" discourse, attaining a spacious amplitude of thought and feeling while appearing to indulge in flights of fancy. A neat trick, this ability to entertain profundity while defying gravity, and it's a testimony to this poet's unassuming aplomb that one never senses a moment's straining for calculated effects. Much of the brilliance of her verse lies in how it deflects the subtlety and shrewdness of its discernments, the way it coolly dissects modern anxiety under the guise of debonair banter. Although occasionally Szymborska will avail herself of pointed parody ("There's nothing more debauched than thinking," she writes tartly in "An Opinion on the Question of Pornography," ". . . frenzied, rakish chases after the bare facts, / the filthy fingering of touchy subjects"), her customary method is to let the freighted import of those touchy subjects insinuate itself through her expert shadings and siftings of subtext. In "Notes from a Nonexistent Himalayan Expedition," a heart-to-heart chat with the abominable snowman serves as a foil for evoking the specter of all-too-human monsters ("Yeti, crime is not all / we're up to down there. / Yeti, not every sentence there / means death"). In "Tarsier" a pipsqueak of a primate delivers a succinct oration on the blessings of "living on a human fingertip" with the prim dignity of a practiced courtier ("I am a tarsier -- the father and grandfather of tarsiers -- a tiny creature, nearly half of something, / yet nonetheless a whole no less than others"), a trenchant little disquisition on Social Darwinism carried off with a masterful poker face.

What is all the more remarkable about Szymborska's habitual ironic distance is that it does not signal a retreat into stoic detachment. She is finally not so much a satirist or a skeptic as an uncommonly fine-tuned poet of the subjunctive mood: cross-examining the given by way of incongruous supposition and syllogism, fending off disillusionments great and small by practicing a kind of radical wishful thinking. I was also surprised to discover, amid all the brainy hilarity, how poignant a writer Szymborska often can be. If there is one poem of hers that promises to be an anthology piece for the ages, it would have to be "Cat in an Empty Apartment," in which a huffy feline's fit of pique ("Die -- you can't do that to a cat. / . . . Footsteps on the staircase, / but they're new ones. / The hand that puts fish on the saucer / has changed, too") emerges as an elegy more haunting and heart wrenching than one would have ever imagined.

How much nuance and inference might we English-speaking readers be missing in poems this sidelong and covert? Can we be at all sure that we're catching the right drift when so much depends on undercurrents of intonation and leavenings of intimation? Impossible to tell, but one comes away with the inescapable impression that even in her own tongue Szymborska must be something of a will o' the wisp, infinitely adept at eluding the routine sentiment and overt statement, always managing to dance just beyond the reach of simple comprehension. One might further conjecture that her work loses less than most in the leap from one language to another because in a sense it has already been translated -- its emotional intensity transmuted into a lexicon of swift and supple fluency, its cerebral complication made to seem effortlessly offhand. Here is how Szymborska herself puts it, in the clinching lines of a characteristically sprightly poem, "Under One Small Star": "Don't bear me ill will, speech, that I borrow weighty words, / then labor heavily so that they may seem light."

Speech, I'd wager, isn't about to hold a grudge.

David Barber is The Atlantic Monthly's assistant poetry editor. His first book of poems,
The Spirit Level (1995), won the Terrence Des Pres prize for poetry.

Also by David Barber:
"A Visionary Poet at Ninety," on Stanley Kunitz (June, 1996, Atlantic); "The Lather," a poem (September, 1995, Atlantic).





Sun., January 09, 2005 Tevet 28, 5765


Pen Ultimate

Passerby, your Thinkpad prepare


By Michael Handelzalts


Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska's forte is in the way she looks upon the world we live in (and which she has been living in for quite some time, being in her eighties), and her ability to see it through a drop of water and to reflect it in all its simple complexity. Last month's short visit by Wislawa Szymborska, the 1996 Nobel Prize laureate for literature, in Israel, passed by virtually unnoticed by the media (Haaretz and Ha'ir excepted). Some admirers of her poetry - but not all - were lucky enough to attend one of her three public appearances. Some begrudged the media's lack of sensitivity toward and interest in poetry in general, and Szymborska's in particular.

Szymborska herself wrote in one of her poems that the muse is stingy with public applause as far as poetry is concerned. She has no illusions as to the public appeal of poetry, and accepts it with a degree of resignation, as in the poem "Some Like Poetry": Some - / that means not all. / Not even the majority of all but the minority." She looked genuinely modest when she stepped on stage in Beit Ariela in Tel Aviv, to read some of her work, and yet one could see a mischievous twinkle in her blue eyes. In another poem ("Stage Fright"), she writes: "Poets means poetry, writers means prose - / prose includes all, even poetry / but poetry has to be poetic - / according to the poster announcing it, with the `P' adorned and illustrated / with strings of a winged harp."

Szymborska is fully aware that poetry means working with language: "Why does this written doe bound through these written woods? / For a drink of written water from a spring / whose surface will xerox her soft muzzle? ... Lying in wait, set to pounce on the blank page, / are letters up to no good, / clutches of clauses so subordinate / they'll never let her get away ... 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?" (from "A Joy of Writing," translated into English by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanaugh).

But in the world of poetry that usually takes itself so seriously, Szymborska possesses a fair measure of zany humor, which shines joyfully through her fairly new (2003) collection in Polish of "Rhymes for Adults," with its limericks, couplets and one-liners, all relishing rhyme without reason, feasting on sounds and impossible puns, for instance: "Mandarins of a dynasty called Ming / Never have heard of "a drink" / when afflicted with pain in the neck / slurped home-made rice wine by the keg / rubbed each other shoulders and cried 'ping.'"

Her forte, for non-Polish speakers, is in the way she looks upon the world we live in (and which she has been living in for quite some time, being in her eighties), and her ability to see it through a drop of water and to reflect it in all its simple complexity, or complex simplicity, all the interwoven threads of world culture reverberating. Her poetry, odd as it may sound, is not dependent on language. This should not diminish the praise due to her all translators, her representative in Hebrew being Rafi Weichert, who has translated and published four collections of poems to date.

In the latest collection, published to coincide with her visit, he translated a short poem called "Epitaph." I looked for its English version, and found a valiant effort, which goes as follows:


Here lies, oldfashioned as parentheses,

the authoress of verse. Eternal rest

was granted her by earth, although the corpse

had failed to join the avant-garde, of course.

The plain grave? There's poetic justice in it,

this ditty-dirge, the owl, the meek cornflower

Passerby, take your PC out, press "POWER,"

think on Szymborska's fate for half a minute"


(translated by Baranczak and Cavanaugh).

Qui giace come virgola antiquata

L’autrice di qualche poesia. La terra l’ha degnata

dell’eterno riposo, sebbene la defunta

dai gruppi letterari stesse ben distante.

E anche sulla tomba di meglio non c’è niente

di queste poche rime, d’un gufo e la bardana.

Estrai dalla borsa il tuo personal, passante,

e sulla sorte di Szymborska medita un istante.”


(traduzione di Pietro Marchesani) (*)


As the title suggests, those are words to be inscribed on a tombstone as in the Greek and Latin tradition, according to which the deceased arrests the attention of a passerby and makes him stop in his tracks and reflect in brief - by reading the inscription - on life's short span, human mortality and the futility of it all. The terse Latin version is "Viator! Quod tu, et ego; quod ego, et omnes" (**) - meaning, "Passerby, what you are now, I have been; what I am now, you all will be." The genre is called "Siste, viator" ("Stop, passerby") and many verses have been composed in that vein, some of them pretty funny, as if to ridicule death and thus conquer the human fear of it.

So I stood for a moment, and read Szymborska's own epitaph, and my reading stumbled on the PC, which somehow seemed to be out of place, in the poem and on a tombstone. I racked my brains and tried to figure it out, then checked the Polish version. There she asks the passer-by to pick up his "mozg elektronowy," or "electronic brain" - an outdated Polish word for "computer," which is pronounced by digital Poles according to their language's pronunciation and sounds like "compooter."

Szymborska makes a point in this poem of being old-fashioned, and she uses an outdated word for a reason: It draws the brain into the game. But in the epitaph context there are some useful technical terms that are part of the up-to-date digital lingo, which could have served the English version of the poem better. For example:


Here lies, like an apostrophe outdated

one who had penned few poems. The deceased

rests in peace, though she was not incorporated

in any literary group, clique or list.

There is nothing more on this grave, so bare

than an owl, a thyme and this rhyme

passerby, your Thinkpad prepare

and of Szymborska's fate think for some time.


In her Nobel lecture, Szymborska said: "I've said very little on the subject [of poetry], next to nothing, in fact. And whenever I have said anything, I've always had the sneaking suspicion that I'm not very good at it." And she added: "In the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal." Then she concluded: "It looks like poets will always have their work cut out for them."

Siste, Viator.


(*)   Added on this site.

(**)  I prefer: "Quod tu es, ego fui; quod nunc sum, et tu eris"




Here lies, like an apostrophe outdated

one who had penned few poems. The deceased

rests in peace, though she was not incorporated

in any literary group, clique or list.

There is nothing more on this grave, so bare

than an owl, a thyme and this rhyme

passerby, your Thinkpad prepare

and of Szymborska's fate think for some time.

 Translated by Michael Handelzalts in Haaretz



Aqui jaz, antiquada como os tremas, a autora de uns poemas.

Não pertencendo embora o corpo a nenhum grupo literário hodierno,

a terra lhe mandou dar descanso eterno.

E também nada mais tem na sepultura de importante

que estas rimas, a coruja e o pegamasso.

Tira da pasta o cérebro electrónico, ó viandante,

para na sorte da Szymborska meditares um pedaço.


Tradução de Júlio Sousa Gomes, em Wisława Szymborska, Paisagem com grão de areia, Relógio d’Água, Lisboa, 1998. ISBN 972-708-490-7.









Wed., December 15, 2004 Tevet 3, 5765


Nobel poet charms in Polish


By Michael Handelzalts


 Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for literature, was the star of a moving poetry event last night at Beit Ariela in Tel Aviv. The central auditorium at the municipal library was packed, and people fought for room on the stairs and spilled over into two side halls. There were quite a few people there who spoke only Hebrew.

Wislawa Szymborska worked from 1953-1981 as poetry editor and columnist for a literary weekly. The prolific Szymborska has published numerous collections of poetry, which have been translated into many languages, including Hebrew.

Last night's event included laudatory speeches, poems set to music, Israeli poets reading Szymborska' poems in Hebrew translation, and readings by the guest of honor herself.

 Her humble appearance and the seemingly understated tone of her poetry contradicted and underscored the adoring "star" treatment she received from the welco ming audience.

 Speakers included Polish Ambassador Jan Piekarski, Prof. Zohar Shavit (as a city council member), Avigdor Levin, director of the municipal culture department, author Miriam Akavia, who knew Szymborska before the world fell in love with her and without whom this visit would probably not have occured.

 Then came the poets, and Szymborska removed her headphones to listen to them reading her work in Hebrew.

 The audience was clearly excited, as were the poets who got to sit near the evening's muse.

 Then came the main event: Szymborska read nine poems, and Rafi Weichert (who translated all of her work published in Hebrew, and was the co-star of the evening) read them in translation.






Wislawa Szymborska, Discorso all’Ufficio oggetti smarriti, Adelphi 2004

Andrea Molesini

“Quel che dico non è carino – scrisse Wislawa Szymborska nel 1993, recensendo un libro sugli animali notturni – ma indagare la natura della Natura in genere conduce a conclusioni sgradevoli.” La poesia della Szymborska fa questo di mestiere: studia il giorno qualsiasi di una creatura qualsiasi con la foga appassionata di un collezionista, e i dettagli si rivelano tanto più sorprendenti quanto più sono davanti agli occhi di tutti. “L’ispirazione – disse la poetessa di Cracovia nel discorso in occasione del Premio Nobel (1996) – qualunque cosa sia, nasce da un incessante ‘non so’.” Discorso all’Ufficio oggetti smarriti raccoglie poesie scritte dai primi anni Cinquanta a oggi e tradotte, con maestria straordinaria, da Pietro Marchesani. È un libro a un tempo allegro e straziante, giocoso e terribile. Una meditazione sulla morte che fa sentire un po’ meno soli.

Recita Epitaffio: “Qui giace come virgola antiquata / L’autrice di qualche poesia. La terra l’ha degnata / dell’eterno riposo, sebbene la defunta / dai gruppi letterari stesse ben distante. / E anche sulla tomba di meglio non c’è niente / di queste poche rime, d’un gufo e la bardana. / Estrai dalla borsa il tuo personal, passante, / e sulla sorte di Szymborska medita un istante.” Dove si riconosce lo spirito dello sfrontato, divertito epitaffio che Hitchcock aveva scritto per sé: “This is what happens to bad little boys.” Sì, i bambini cattivi muoiono. E anche i fabbri, i fumatori, i non fumatori, gli scienziati, i vagabondi, i ricchi, i poveri, gli atleti, gli storpi, i brutti, i belli, i malandrini. L’onnipotenza del caso fa sorridere, come la nostra limitata intelligenza. Gli esseri umani sono fragile cosa – ripete la Szymborska verso dopo verso – ma possono vedere, raccontare, giocare, ridere con le parole: non è poco, a ben guardare.

Il libro procede per frasi secche, in un ordine che sembra dimentico degli schemi lirici, e lascia il lettore nudo con il dramma che scorre sotto il ghiaccio della superficie, ma gli fa sentire il suono della corrente sotto quella crosta dura. Poesia di una mente invernale, abituata all’asprezza della luce del Nord, al riflesso abbagliante della pianura innevata, al dettaglio inflessibile; una mente che osserva le leggi della Natura con sgomento ammirato. La Natura non conosce pietà, o morale. Di certo, non è socialista. Il nostro bisogno di sentirci qualcuno sembra non interessi alle ere geologiche. La vanità è la materia di cui siamo fatti; l’umorismo l’unguento che ci serve, peccato scarseggi: “Pesanti e dense come colla sunt lacrimae rerum. / Ma tutto questo sta sullo sfondo e solo a lato. / In lui c’è un’orrenda oscurità e in essa un bimbo. // Dio dello humour, fa’ di lui qualcosa alla svelta. / Dio dello humour, fanne qualcosa una buona volta.”

La Szymborska è un poeta dall’anima feroce e cortese, innervata dalla grazia di uno stile muscolare. Dice cose terribili con parole gentili. Teme il caso perché è neutrale, senza giudizio, senza passioni, senza ironia, come la morte: “Un settore di piccole tombe al cimitero. / Noi, i longevi, lo oltrepassiamo furtivi, / come i ricchi oltrepassano i quartieri dei poveri. […] Quello laggiù e quella accanto, e quelli di lato: / prima che riuscissero a crescere fino alla maniglia, / a guastare un orologio, / a fracassare il loro primo vetro.” È la forza del particolare a suscitare sgomento e pietà per il destino di tutti e di ciascuno, per la nostra piccola e persino famigerata voglia di gioire del mondo a dispetto di quel che vi accade. Gioia giusta e perdonabile, dopotutto: “Non so agli altri – / per essere felice e infelice / a me basta e avanza questo: // una dimessa provincia / dove anche le stelle sonnecchiano / e ammiccano nella sua direzione / non significativamente.” Non va dimenticato che “La vita è il solo modo / per coprirsi di foglie, / prendere fiato sulla sabbia, / sollevarsi sulle ali […] e persistere nel non sapere / qualcosa d’importante.”

La cortesia dei non vedenti è forse la poesia più atroce e struggente del libro, lucida come un sasso levigato dalla corrente: “Il poeta legge le poesie ai non vedenti […] Legge – perché ormai è troppo tardi per non farlo – / del ragazzo in giubba gialla su un prato verde, / dei tetti rossi nella valle, calcolabili, / dei numeri mobili sulle maglie dei giocatori / e della sconosciuta nuda sulla porta socchiusa. […] Ma grande è la cortesia dei non vedenti, / grande la comprensione e magnanimità. / Ascoltano, sorridono e applaudono. / Uno di loro persino si avvicina / con il libro aperto alla rovescia, / chiedendo un autografo che non vedrà.”

C’è qualcosa di persino troppo umano in questo modo di parlare il mondo, qualcosa di così schietto da far rabbrividire, così quando “sulla terrazza appare una ragazza, / ah, bella, / troppo bella […] Basia ha sbirciato in preda al panico il marito. / Krystyna ha posato d’istinto la sua mano / su quella di Zbyszek. / Io ho pensato: ti telefonerò, / ti dirò – non venire ancora, / è prevista pioggia per qualche giorno. // Solo Agnieszka, una vedova, / ha accolto la bella con un sorriso.” Una donna non può non pensare: ci sono passata anch’io.

In queste liriche c’è la forza di un predicatore che sentenzia senza essere noioso, che giudica senza condannare, che ride quando non dovrebbe; c’è un vescovo che bestemmia, un barbone che pontifica, un uomo che cerca solo di essere un po’ uomo, e una donna che teme la bellezza della rivale in amore. C’è la verità delle piccole temibili cose che avvengono sotto gli occhi di tutti, un giorno dopo l’altro, che succedono e che non guardano in faccia nessuno, né chiedono di essere capite. Una poesia-saggio, più che una poesia-racconto. Ha l’arguzia di un allegro dopocena fra amici di vecchia data, o di certe battute felici che si sentono al bar; ha la pazienza della signora che serve il tè al matrimonio dell’amica e al funerale del marito. C’è l’irriverente intelligenza di Montaigne e di Auden, c’è la visionarietà calcolatrice di Czeslaw Milosz, c’è la riflessività geometrica e appassionata di Zbigniew Herbert.

Poesie incuranti, all’apparenza, della melodia, perché la loro musica è tutta interiore, sta tutta in quel gelo che riflette la meraviglia per il senso e il non-senso del mondo, sfaccettato e scintillante come un cristallo nella luce del mattino. Una poesia che canta il destino di morte della specie, ma lo fa in un modo solare; una poesia asciutta e disperata come quella di Philip Larkin o di Samuel Beckett, ma più dolce e più ironica, femminile. Una poesia che ricorda, nella fitta maglia dei particolari menzionati, che la vita è fragile, che basta un soffio del Caso a cancellarla: un gradino di legno marcito, un’auto che infila un tornante senza frenare, il passo distratto di un bambino che attraversa la strada e non ha ancora fracassato “il suo primo vetro”. Quell’intervallo tra il primo vagito e l’ultimo respiro è tutto quel che abbiamo: non è molto, forse, ma non c’è un altrove in cui rifugiarsi. Così restiamo soli con quel “non so” che di quando in quando genera, nei prescelti, l’ispirazione.





W. Szymborska

Discorso all’ufficio oggetti smarriti

traduzione e postfazione di P. Marchesani, Adelphi, Milano 2004

Recensione di Alessandro Ajres

eSamizdat 2005 (III) 1, pp. xx-xx 

Adelphi offre al pubblico italiano un altro splendido regalo poetico dopo quello di Vista con granello di sabbia confezionato nel 1998 e giunto ormai alla sesta edizione. Mossa dall’ottenimento recente (1996) del premio Nobel da parte di Wisława Szymborska, quella raccolta fece scoprire al nostro paese una poetessa eccezionale. La sorpresa è stata tale e tanto positiva, che da allora anche in Italia si è continuato a tener d’occhio l’attività della scrittrice di Cracovia. Ne ha pubblicato alcuni versi Mondadori; Scheiwiller è uscito intanto con La fine e l’inizio (1998), Taccuino d’amore, Posta letteraria ossia come diventare (o non diventare) scrittore (2002), Uno spasso e Ogni caso (2003) e Attimo (2004). Il nuovo volume deve molto alle esperienze editoriali appena precedenti in Italia, ma deve qualcosa anche alla raccolta americana Poems New and Collected del 1998. Discorso all’ufficio oggetti smarriti, in effetti, contiene ben 18 delle 26 poesie che compongono Taccuino d’amore, seppure con numerosi cambiamenti apportati nella traduzione, mentre la disposizione e la scelta dei brani ricordano da vicino quelle del volume americano. Si tratta di un testo che mira a coprire tutto l’arco della carriera artistica di Wisława Szymborska, dal 1945 a oggi, ampliando i confini temporali di Vista con granello di sabbia (compresi tra il 1957 e il 1993).

Il reperimento e la pubblicazione di poesie antecedenti la raccolta Appello allo yeti (1957) è un’operazione che in Polonia suscita sempre nuove polemiche intorno a Wisława Szymborska. Il motivo non è tanto il suo iniziale appoggio al regime comunista, bensì l’ostinata volontà di continuare in qualche modo a farle scontare questo “errore”. E questo malgrado il tempo trascorso, la sua presa di distanze dalle autorità statali e l’appoggio a Solidarność, malgrado un linguaggio da sempre universale e sempre più post-ideologico, come fa notare Pietro Marchesani in una postfazione brillante quanto le sue traduzioni dei versi. Discorso all’ufficio oggetti smarriti non ha solo il merito di recuperare parte della produzione immediatamente post-bellica di Wisława Szymborska, ma anche di aiutare a costruirsi una propria idea coloro che si si sono imbattuti in quest’accusa di un’artista schierata a fianco del potere. Come ricorda Adam Wlodek, redattore nel dopoguerra di Walka e marito della scrittrice dal 1948 al 1952, tra manoscritti e testi pubblicati, le poesie che caratterizzano gli inizi della carriera di Wisława Szymborska ammontano a una trentina circa. Di questa Nie wydany zbiór [Raccolta non pubblicata], il volume di Adelphi recupera: “Un tempo conoscevamo il tempo a menadito…” e “Uscita dal cinema”. Dalle raccolte Per questo viviamo (1952) e Domande poste a me stessa (1954) troviamo “In rime banali” e “Gli animali del circo” tratte dalla prima, “La musa in collera”, “Innamorati” e “La chiave” dalla seconda. Si tratta, in pratica, di tutti i testi di quel periodo di cui l’autrice ha autorizzato la ristampa. In essi sono già ben presenti i temi principali che attraverseranno l’intero corpus della sua produzione poetica, composto di poco più di 250 componimenti. C’è l’impegno civile degli “Animali del circo”: “Divertimento pessimo quel giorno: / gli applausi scrosciavano a cascata, / benché la mano più lunga d’una frusta / gettasse sulla sabbia un’ombra affilata”; c’è soprattutto il tentativo di rendere il sentimento amoroso e i suoi tormenti, come nella “Chiave”: “La chiave c’era e non c’è più. / Come entreremo in casa? / Qualcuno la potrà trovare, / la guarderà – per farne cosa? / Camminando la rigira su e giù / come un ferro da buttare. // Ma se lo stesso accadesse / all’amore che io provo per te, / non solo a noi, al mondo intero / questo amore mancherebbe. / Sollevato nell’altrui mano / non aprirà nessuna casa / e sarà solo una forma / e che ruggine la roda”.

L’ampliamento degli orizzonti tratteggiati in Vista con granello di sabbia avviene in senso temporale e quantitativo, ma anche seguendo determinate inclinazioni tematiche. Tra esse, proprio quella che conduce verso il tentativo di cogliere il segreto dell’amore risulta la più battuta. Discorso all’ufficio oggetti smarriti contiene, così, alcuni capolavori assoluti del genere, miniature che primeggerebbero anche in un’antologia mondiale dedicata ai componimenti amorosi. Come fa notare giustamente Marchesani, è il caso di “Gli sono troppo vicina perché mi sogni” e “Sogno”; ma è anche il caso di “Accanto a un bicchiere di vino”: “Quando lui non mi guarda, / cerco la mia immagine / sul muro. E vedo solo / un chiodo, senza il quadro”. Spesso viene trattata la fine di un rapporto tra due amanti, la faccia triste del sentimento. L’addio può essere un’“Opera buffa” (“Noi – per sempre un po’ così, / con berretti di sonagli, / barbari dai loro trilli / incantati”), può essere “Senza titolo” (“Ma non accadrà nulla. Nessuna improvvisa / inverosimiglianza. Come in un dramma borghese, / questo sarà un lasciarsi del tutto regolare, / neanche un apriti cielo per solennizzare”); dietro allo sforzo di ridimensionare l’abbandono di un amante si nasconde comunque sempre il terrore di chi ha già conosciuto quei momenti e li accosta spesso all’immagine della morte. In “Ballata” si legge “Questa è la ballata / su una donna ammazzata / che d’un tratto si è alzata // […] Le tracce dell’assassino / tutte brucia nel camino. / Foto e spago dal cassetto, / fino all’ultimo pezzetto. // Non è stata strangolata. / Né uno sparo l’ha ammazzata. / Ma una morte invisibile”. La contiguità tra amore e morte è rafforzata nella più recente poesia “Il primo amore”, a proposito del quale scrive la poetessa: “Altri amori / ancora respirano profondi dentro me. / A questo manca il fiato anche per sospirare. // Eppure proprio così com’è, / è capace di fare ciò di cui quelli / ancora non sono capaci: / non ricordato, / neppure sognato, / mi familiarizza con la morte”. Il primo amore, ormai completamente sepolto dentro di noi, avvicina alla morte quanto un addio: entrambi spostano lo sguardo su qualcosa che non è più.

Il tema della morte ricorre in questa raccolta spesso anche da solo, a volte congiuntamente a quelli della malattia e della vecchiaia. In particolare questa presenza è palpabile nei versi di “Nuove poesie”, sezione nella quale il testo di Adelphi raccoglie i componimenti più recenti di Wisława Szymborska, apparsi su quotidiani e riviste tra il giugno 2003 e maggio 2004. “Il giorno dopo – senza di noi” prova a immaginare una giornata qualsiasi successiva al nostro funerale; “Incidente stradale” restituisce la stessa indifferenza del mondo per il trapasso di qualcuno; mentre “Intervista con Atropo” è un vero e proprio dialogo con la morte: “Qualcuno l’aiuta? E se sì, chi? / Un paradosso niente male – appunto voi, mortali. / Svariati dittatori, numerosi fanatici. / Benché io non li costringa. / Per loro conto si danno da fare”. Malattia e vecchiaia fanno capolino nella “Passeggiata del risuscitato”, “All’ospizio” e “Relazione dall’ospedale”: “Tirammo a sorte chi ci doveva andare. / Toccò a me. Mi alzai dal tavolino. / L’ora della visita in ospedale si avvicinava”.

Rispetto a Vista con granello di sabbia, in questa raccolta più recente di Adelphi la storia e i suoi passaggi compaiono più spesso. Il testo che apre l’opera, “Un tempo conoscevamo il mondo a menadito…”, riguarda il bottino lasciato in eredità ai sopravvissuti dalla seconda guerra mondiale, e cioè la conoscenza del mondo. Dalla raccolta Uno spasso vengono tratti i versi di “Vietnam”, mentre da Un attimo è riportata “Fotografia dell’11 settembre”: “Solo due cose posso fare per loro - / descrivere quel volo / senza aggiungere l’ultima frase”. Salta agli occhi la presenza di poesie intorno allo sterminio degli ebrei e la ferocia nazista, quali “Ancóra” (“Tuo figlio abbia un nome slavo, / ché qui ogni capello viene contato, / ché qui bene e male sono distinti / in base al nome e ai lineamenti”) e “Campo di fame presso Jasło”. L’importanza della traccia storica, nelle sue implicazioni politiche, è ribadita da “Riabilitazione” e “Agli amici”, e poi fissata definitivamente dal componimento che chiude il libro: “Monologo di un cane coinvolto nella storia”. In esso, l’alternarsi dei cicli storici, il destino di continua ascesa e declino dell’individuo, è filtrato attraverso la figura di un cane. Niente di stupefacente, dato che il regno animale viene messo da Wisława Szymborska sullo stesso piano di quello umano. Ella ne fa uso, da una parte, per creare immagini che schiudano al lettore il suo messaggio; d’altro canto, tale corrispondenza è così forte, che è impossibile sorvolare sulla volontà dell’autrice di appartenere contemporaneamente ai vari “ordini” della natura. Nella poesia che dà il titolo alla raccolta, si legge: “Mi si è spenta per sempre qualche stella, svanita. / Mi è sprofondata nel mare un’isola, e un’altra. / Non so neanche dove mai ho lasciato gli artigli, / chi gira nella mia pelliccia, chi abita il mio guscio. / […] Da tempo ho chiuso su tutto ciò il mio terzo occhio, / ci ho messo una pinna sopra, ho scrollato le fronde”.

Colta l’importanza di questo gioco di specchi tra i vari elementi della natura, il lettore non dovrà che farsi prendere per mano e lasciarsi portare tra i sentieri dell’anima di Wisława Szymborska. Lo sforzo, uno dei pochi richiesti a chi si avvicina alla sua opera, verrà ripagato con moneta dal valore incalcolabile. Il linguaggio utilizzato dalla scrittrice, del resto, è moderno e diretto, non dà mai l’impressione di essere destinato a un pubblico di letterati, critici o iniziati; la sua produzione è drammatica e ironica, mai retorica. Per dirla con Marchesani: “non si tratta della poesia di un virtuoso della parola e della forma, ma della poesia di chi sa e deve esprimere il suo umano sentire”. La chiarezza si impone come una delle prime caratteristiche all’artista che insegua certi scopi, pur senza smettere di lavorare sulle potenzialità del linguaggio: rimandi interni, giochi verbali e fonici, colloquialismi, neologismi sono frequenti nei versi della poetessa polacca. L’esercizio di tali arguzie letterarie non è mai fine a se stesso, tuttavia, ma si rivela parte effettiva del testo, parte del messaggio da trasmettere. Ne fornisce un esempio emblematico “Le tre parole più strane”: “Quando pronuncio la parola Futuro, / la prima sillaba già va nel passato”. Gli strumenti utilizzati da Wisława Szymborska, vero artigiano della parola, restituiscono nel migliore dei modi, dunque, l’universalità dei temi che le sono cari. Il suo verso si sviluppa a partire dal suo pensiero su una superficie piana e levigata.


November 6, 2005

Poet of second glances

Monologue of a Dog New Poems Wislawa Szymborska; translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak; foreword by Billy Collins Harcourt: 96 pp., $22

By Peter Filkins, Peter Filkins is the translator of Ingeborg Bachmann's collected poems, "Darkness Spoken," due out in January. He teaches at Simon's Rock College of Bard, in Great Barrington, Mass.

THE awarding of the 1996 Nobel Prize to the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska marked a triumph of the often underrated powers of discernment and good humor. Even now, in our cynical times, her poems offer a restorative wit as playful as it is steely and as humble as it is wise. Most poets jostle for center stage, but Szymborska looks on from afar, her wry acceptance of life's folly remaining her strongest weapon against tyranny and bad taste.

Thankfully, fame has not changed her. In "Monologue of a Dog" (translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak, who present the original Polish on facing pages), Szymborska is in top form. One need only turn to "A Few Words on the Soul" to hear the same even-keeled tone that has dismantled platitudes for decades. "We have a soul at times. / No one's got it non-stop, / for keeps," she states blandly, but what at first seems merely humorous or humble turns weighty when we recall that the poet is 82. The fissure of that line-break between "non-stop" and "for keeps" poignantly underscores her tenuous hold in the face of time. Rather than bemoan or dwell on her own state, however, Szymborska points the camera toward others, observing that the soul

… 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.

This list is not arbitrary. Buried in it are the displacement and suffering that characterized much of the last century. The "shoes that pinch" belong to the refugee as well as the tourist; the meat that "needs chopping," the forms that "have to be filled" recall not just the pleasant distraction of daily chores but also the witch's brew of butchery and tedium that is history's elixir of choice.

Szymborska's voice may be understated, but she is not a poet to be underestimated. Writing on "The Silence of Plants," she is puzzled at "how to answer unasked questions" presumably waiting to be posed by plants, even though she is "a nobody" to them. This seems an odd problem to write about, but the poet willfully involves us in the strangeness of her condition: There is no way of talking to plants, and yet we talk among "[u]ndergrowth, coppices, meadows, rushes" all the time. "Talking with you is essential and impossible," the poet declares, aware that such talking, fruitless as it may seem, is "[u]rgent in this hurried life / and postponed to never." The silence infusing this dark grace note is as eternal as those plants, and it is a credit to the supple translation that "never" is here imbued with the concreteness of a noun.

Billy Collins notes in his brief foreword that "Szymborska's poetry manages to be plain-spoken and mysterious at the same time." This is what makes it a poetry of second glances. In "Moment," Szymborska describes "[w]oods disguised as woods alive without end" where "birds in flight play birds in flight." She then demonstrates her uncanny ability to slow a moment down to a grain of time when she announces in the last stanza, "This moment reigns as far as the eye can reach. / One of those earthly moments / invited to linger." The poem turns on the fulcrum of that last line, for in the urge to invite those woods and birds "to linger," the poet suddenly finds herself wanting to keep hold of them and knows she cannot. The human spirit flourishes within such limits, however, and the persistence of that spirit is what Szymborska's poems evoke and sustain.

"I can't speak for others," the poet demurely avows, yet such modesty is what allows her to speak so directly to us. Writing on "The Ball" that is the Earth afloat in space, Szymborska reduces the immeasurable to the measurable by describing the planet as "this sleepy backwater / where even the stars have time to burn / while winking at us / unintentionally." The placement of this last chilly modifier saves the poem from the sentimental or maudlin — and strengthens the poet's claim that "for me this is / misery and happiness enough." She will speak for us after all, but like those glittering stars, unintentionally. Rare is the poet who trusts her audience to look below the surface of such simplicity. Even more rare is the humane light that Wislawa Szymborska casts so adroitly and comically on the human condition in the 26 poems gathered here.


(  Words Without Borders )        The Online Magazine for International Literature

MONOLOGUE OF A DOG: NEW POEMS by Wisława Szymborska
Translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Barańczak. With a foreword by Billy Collins.
Harcourt, 2005.

Reviewed by W. Martin

Of the countries of the European Union, Poland boasts a comparatively high number of living or late poets who are known to the general public of American readers. This familiarity has often had to do more with circumstances of geopolitics than of poetics. Czesław Miłosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Tadeusz Różewicz, Wisława Szymborska, and Adam Zagajewski all established their fame internationally during the Cold War, particularly in its last decade, and were received widely as “witnesses” of History, representatives of the tragic sense of life. Their reception was couched in terms of a compensatory function, of providing poetry with a connection to “reality” (imagined as synonymous with catastrophe) that those in the West, spared the traumas of totalitarianism, supposedly had no understanding of.

These poets sometimes wrote from experiences and sometimes with a gravity that were impressive to their colleagues in western countries and rightly so. But the discourse surrounding their reception was often focused less on their work than on the “aura of nightmare [added] to the vagueness that has always characterized the presence of Central and Eastern European countries in the Western imagination,” as Miłosz described it in 1988. All too often the poetry itself was overshadowed by the expectations—of being profound, of vindicating poetry—that it was supposed to fulfill. The positive flip side of this situation, of course, was that these poets did in fact find followings in the West. But other Polish poets who were less legible in terms of this basic pattern rarely found readers in the West before 1989, and younger ones have scarcely done so since.

Despite the fact that the Cold War has been over for sixteen years, the duct of reception it created for Polish poets appears to be firmly in place, at least in the United States. Although there have been several anthologies of new and younger Polish poets, almost all of those poets who have published single books in English since 1990 already had at least one published before then. Not much has changed in how the older, familiar Polish poets get read either, or better put: in how they get marketed and sold. It is always great to have more work by Szymborska available in English, but her newest book, Monologue of a Dog. New Poems, furnished as it is with a foreword by former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, is a case in point for this situation.

Collins, who is America’s best-selling poet at the moment, is obviously good for selling far more copies of this book than Szymborska, with her hard-to-pronounce last name, could ever hope to on her own. But his presentation of the poet in his foreword unfortunately sensationalizes her work in populist-political terms, parroting the received Cold War discourse about Polish poetry while giving it a new, post-9/11 spin. Collins argues that one “unforeseeable” consequence of 9/11 was that it brought Szymborska’s work to “a wider audience of stunned Americans, now hungry for poems that were responsive to the horror story of history.” He goes on to claim, waxing even more jingoistic, that this “turn[ing] to ‘foreign’ poetry for solace in those nervous days of psychic recuperation was a sign that America–its virginity suddenly lost–lacked a tradition of poetry that adequately addressed such realities as the horrors of war, the shock of military attack, and the atrocities of dictatorial regimes.”

Without thinking, Collins implicitly affirms here that poetry can adequately address atrocity and catastrophe. Can it? He affirms that poetry can respond to something he calls the “horror story of history.” But this potentiality has been questioned so often and so deeply by the very poets whose presence he invokes, by Szymborska herself, that for him to ignore that uncertainty bespeaks a reluctance to engage them on their own terms.

The twenty-six poems here speak to a variety of subjects from the position of a lyric “I” that is either overt or embedded, parabolic or personal, and in terms of the dialectical thinking and exploration of consciousness characteristic of all of Szymborska’s work. What is new in these poems, which date from the last fifteen years, is something that the Polish poet and critic Piotr Sommer discusses in a 1996 essay on the poem “Chmury” (“Clouds”). Sommer sees in that poem a breakdown of Szymborska’s parabolic mode and the development in Polish of a “new language for feeling death and for talking about the death of someone close.” This personal, rougher, elegiac language can be found throughout the book–certainly in poems like “A Memory” and “Negative,” which are directed to a departed addressee, but also in reflective poems like “List” (“I’ve made a list of questions / to which I no longer expect answers”), “Puddles,” and “First Love”. Idioms characteristic of Szymborska’s earlier work are present here, too, such as that of the semititular “Monologue of a Dog Ensnared in History,” which ranks with Zbigniew Herbert’s “Return of the Proconsul” as a classic example of the Polish parable poem. Likewise, the exquisite “First Love” travels from the deconstruction of a commonplace into a meditation on the poet’s own mortality. In “Receiver,” however, these parabolic and Pascalian modes of intellection yield to a pared-down language that through repetition and accumulation of simple lines voices the poet’s anxiety: “I dream the certainty / that someone dead is calling.”

Elegiac, personal, and often profound, these twenty-six poems problematize the subject’s human position confronted with loss. Their relationship to tragedy is circumspect, never spectacular; it is ironic, anxious, sad, never horrified or fearful. Although most of them have been published before, seven of them in Poems. New and Collected (1998), it is useful to have them together in one volume as a selection of Szymborska’s late work. Their sequencing is intelligent and makes following the transitions from poem to poem worthwhile. And the fresh and often inventive translation by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Barańczak once again makes Szymborska’s wit and philosophical playfulness available to American readers. All in all, this would be a lovely book. Billy Collins’s foreword, however, with its Cold War platitudes and post-9/11 sensationalism, does a disservice to Szymborska, for whose poetry the “patient word-work of distinguishing genuine from sham, false tone from true” has been integral.

W. Martin is a translator from Polish and German and a doctoral student at the University of Chicago.


Polish poet's light touch goes deep


Reviewed by Cynthia Haven


Sunday, November 27, 2005


Monologue of a Dog

New Poems

By Wislawa Szymborska; translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak HARCOURT; 96 PAGES; $22


By report, Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska considers her trash can her most valuable piece of furniture. Her preference shows in "Monologue of a Dog," Szymborska's first collection of new poems since her 1996 Nobel Prize. The new volume is a slender one, even with its length doubled by facing pages in Polish.

Given the number of Szymborska's collections that have come out since she won the Nobel, the casual reader in the English-speaking world might be deceived into thinking the poet has produced an avalanche of poems since the Swedish honor. And that now, at 82, she is justifiably slowing down, as her new book would attest. Not so. "Poems: New and Collected -- 1957-1997" was, by definition, mostly older poems, and 2001's "Miracle Fair" was a selection from that.

Perhaps the reason for the paucity is because it took a long while to edit the "I" out of her poems, which slip in and out of personal identity. The heart-breaking title poem assumes the voice of a dictator's dog; "Among the Multitudes" considers the wonder of being born human rather than with fins or feathers; another poem ponders her one-sided relationship with plants; "Plato, or Why" asks about the Ideal Being -- "Why on earth did it start seeking thrills/ in the bad company of matter? ... Wisdom limping/ with a thorn stuck in its heel?"

Or perhaps it's because, as she has written elsewhere, she has tried to borrow weighty words, and then labored to lighten them. As always with Szymborska, a poet who survived the Nazi and Soviet regimes in Poland, poems of war and dislocation are told with a feather touch that nonetheless, for all its lightness, lingers. "Some People" describes the plight of refugees: "Always another wrong road ahead of them,/ always another wrong bridge/ across an oddly reddish river."

Szymborska's lightness is never denial or indifference; it is a subtle means of defiance. Italo Calvino, who praised the literary virtue of leggerezza, which he called the "subtraction of weight," elaborated: "Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space. ... I have to change my approach, look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition and verification."

Szymborska, rather like Marin County poet Kay Ryan, is a master of such flight. As Calvino points out, a thoughtful lightness makes frivolity seem dull and heavy. Szymborska makes her sly points with a sidelong glance, her poetic equivalent of the averted vision that stargazers use for viewing distant galaxies.

For instance, is the book's last poem, "ABC," supposed to be a teasing take on Milosz's ABCs? While the other Polish-speaking Nobel laureate offers a learned compendium of prose observations, Szymborska takes a characteristically tongue-in-cheek slant, and stays in stanzas:


I'll never find out now

what A. thought of me.

If B. ever forgave me in the end.

Why C. pretended everything was fine.

What part D. played in E.'s silence.


Szymborska has been called the Greta Garbo of world poetry, shunning the spotlight in a celebrity-soaked era. She dislikes discussing herself and her poetry, avoids the camera as if it would steal her soul. In an era of self-promotion, it's a rather refreshing stance. But it has served a further function: The persona of the poems appears to be at one with the octogenarian behind them; she's all of a piece. The purity of her vision has remained unscathed by fashion and fame.

In a world where famous writers are encouraged to publish the contents of their wastebaskets, Szymborska's modesty and economy are welcome. So one wonders why the publishers felt the need to republish seven pieces, nearly a quarter of the book's 26 poems, from "Poems New and Collected." The volume seems further padded with a foreword by Billy Collins, the former U.S. poet laureate, which seems to have been written in his sleep with breezy cliched generalities, describing Szymborska as a poet "responsive to the horror story of history."

Szymborska is indeed a keen observer of misfortune -- "Photograph From September 11" shows that. But it's somehow wrongheaded to portray her as a "war poet," a poet of catastrophe. Szymborska herself would resist the pigeonhole, and in her poems reminds us that even during atrocities, the universe continues.

She continues to be fascinated by the world -- its statistics, the force of gravity, galaxies, the secret life of plants. Life is cruel, yes, but there is still the fascination of clouds drifting: "What on earth could they bear witness to?/ They scatter whenever something happens." In "The Ball," perhaps this elusive poet comes closest to stating a credo:


as long as Earth is still unlike

the nearer and more distant planets ...


as long as there's still no word

of better or worse mozarts,

platos, edisons out there ...


let's act like very special guests of honor

at the district fireman's ball ...

and pretend that it's the ball

to end all balls  


I can't speak for others --

for me this is

misery and happiness enough:


just this sleepy backwater

where even the stars have time to burn

while winking at us



Cynthia Haven writes for the Washington Post Book World, the Los Angeles Times and the Times Literary Supplement of London.



Dokument erstellt am 18.10.2005 um 09:44:19 Uhr
Erscheinungsdatum 19.10.2005


Sieh an, alles an seinem Platz

Neue, leichte, schwere, schöne Gedichte der polnischen Grande Dame Wislawa Szymborska

Wislawa Szymborska: Der Augenblick / Chwila. Gedichte, polnisch und deutsch. Übertragen und herausgegeben von Karl Dedecius. Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 2005, 111 Seiten, 11,80 Euro.


Es gibt diese Glücksmomente, in denen - aller Erfahrung zum Trotz - die Welt im Einklang mit sich selbst zu sein scheint und man selber im Einklang mit ihr: "Es ist neun Uhr dreißig Ortszeit. / Alles an seinem Platz und in manierlicher Eintracht. / Im Tal ein kleiner Bach als kleiner Bach. / Ein Pfad in Gestalt eines Pfades von immer nach immer. / Der Wald scheinbar ein Wald von Ewigkeit zu Ewigkeit, Amen, / und oben die Vögel im Flug in der Rolle fliegender Vögel. // So weit das Auge reicht, herrscht hier der Augenblick. / Einer der irdischen Augenblicke, / die man zu verweilen bittet."

Mit diesen beiden Strophen endet das Gedicht "Der Augenblick", das dem jüngsten Buch der polnischen Nobelpreisträgerin Wislawa Szymborska den Titel gegeben hat, und das ein eindrückliches Beispiel für die täuschend unaufwendige Einfachheit bietet, mit der diese Lyrikerin ihre Zweifel an der bloßen Wahrnehmung sät. Als Rollenspiel beschrieben, verlieren die Naturerscheinungen ihre Selbstverständlichkeit und behalten doch ihre anschauliche Schönheit, die nun freilich zu irisieren beginnt: Wir sehen einen Schauplatz, auf dem auch anderes (und uns anders mit-) gespielt werden könnte. Dass die Schlusszeilen unterschwellig auf das "Verweile doch! Du bist so schön!" verweisen, den Schlüsselsatz im Pakt des Doktor Faust mit dem Teufel, verleiht dem Ganzen eine zusätzliche (literar-) historische Dimension.

Als Szymborska 1991 den Goethepreis der Stadt Frankfurt erhielt, betonte sie in ihrer Dankesrede, wie wichtig es sei, dass die "Poesie die Materie der Welt nie gering schätzt, dass sie großen Wert auf die Beschreibung einer konkreten Situation legt, dass sie ein Herz hat für das Detail und den flüchtigen Augenblick. Sie bemüht sich, über ihre Erlebnisse redlich und zurückhaltend zu sprechen." Das ist ein zugleich bescheidenes und anspruchvolles Programm, das ihre Gedichte zudem mit schwebender Anmut (und zuweilen ironischem Witz) auf einem hohen Reflexionsniveau einlösen.

Nackte Wahrheit durchstöbert die irdische Garderobe

Karl Dedecius, der sich seit Jahrzehnten als Übersetzer und Herausgeber kenntnisreich um die Vermittlung polnischer Literatur in den deutschen Sprachraum verdient macht, hat die 22 Gedichte der Originalausgabe von Der Augenblick (Chwila, Krakau 2002) um acht weitere seither geschriebene ergänzt. Dreißig lyrische Texte ergeben einen schmalen Band, der durch seine thematische Breite und Vielfalt überrascht. Er enthält sprachliche und philosophische Reflexionen ("die Nackte Wahrheit / damit beschäftigt / die irdische Garderobe zu durchstöbern"), "Die Pfütze" ist einer genaueren Betrachtung nicht weniger wert als "Die drei seltsamsten Wörter" und mit Platons "Idealem Sein" wird ebenso unnachsichtig aufgeräumt wie mit dem Mythos der "Ersten Liebe": "Unsere einzige Begegnung nach Jahren / war ein Gespräch zweier Stühle / am kalten Tisch."

"Kleines Mädchen zieht die Decke vom Tisch" ist das bezaubernde Portrait eines die Welt erforschenden Kindes, das soeben "die Dinge erprobt / die sich selbst nicht bewegen können" und gerade den Gläsern und Tellern auf der Tischdecke zu freiem Flug und Fall verhilft: "Herr Newton hat noch nichts damit zu tun. / Soll er doch vom Himmel herabschaun und mit den Händen fuchteln. // Dieser Versuch muss gewagt werden. / Und wird es." Einen düsteren Gegenpol zu der spielerischen Heiterkeit dieser Verse bildet der beklemmende "Monolog eines ins Zeitgeschehen verwickelten Hundes", der von seinem Besitzer, einem Lagerkommandanten, bei dessen Flucht zurückgelassen und von nachrückenden Marodeuren angeschossen wird: "ich starb lange und qualvoll / im Gesumm der unverschämten Fliegen. / Ich, Hund meines Herrn."

Ein einziges Mal gestattet sich die Szymborska (fast) einen Eingriff in den Verlauf der Welt: beim Betrachten der "Fotografie vom 11.September" 2001, geschrieben kurz nach dem mörderischen Anschlag auf das World Trade Center. Es handelt sich um eine jener Aufnahmen, auf denen die verzweifelten Menschen zu sehen sind, die aus den brennenden Gebäuden in den sicheren Tod sprangen: "Die Fotografie hielt sie an im Leben / und nun bewahrt sie sie auf", für immer fixiert in jenem flüchtigen Augenblick, in dem noch "genügend Zeit" war, "dass die Haare wehen / und aus den Taschen Schlüssel, / kleine Münzen fallen". Das Gedicht schildert die Opfer lakonisch und emotionslos: um dann mit den Zeilen zu enden: "Nur zwei Dinge kann ich für sie tun - / diesen Flug beschreiben / und den letzten Satz nicht hinzufügen."



A deft observer of ironies and oddities

By David Mehegan  |  February 5, 2006

Monologue of a Dog: New Poems
By Wislawa Szymborska
Translated, from the Polish, by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak. Polish texts included.
Harcourt, 96 pp., $22

Almost as though she does not want to be mistaken for a poet, the Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska usually begins with the plainest of phrases: ''I am who I am," ''We have a soul at times," ''I dream that I'm woken by the telephone."

Beguiled by these homely beginnings, one might suppose this to be a poet who will make no difficult demands. Somewhere in every Szymborska poem, however, is a line -- perhaps the second, perhaps the 15th -- of strangeness, of hardly-possibleness, a shift so lightly handled that before we know it, we are yanked away in a conveyance that feels like a sensible sedan with airbags and a spacious trunk, but in truth is a psychic magic carpet.

Szymborska, 82, lives in Krakow and has been publishing poems since 1952, all through the age of communism. Her mild indirection permitted her to comment on the oddness and ironies of existence without eliciting official repression. As Billy Collins writes in a useful foreword to this curiously tiny collection (only 26 poems), Szymborska's first book was blocked from publication by the authorities, not because it was counterrevolutionary, but because it was deemed to be obscure.

However, the attentive reader can discern political implications, such as in the title poem, narrated by the dog of a dictator. ''Only I was permitted / to receive scratching and stroking / with my head laid in his lap," the dog says. ''Only I could feign sleep / while he bent over me to whisper something." The fate of the dumb and oblivious loyalist comes as no surprise.

Szymborska's poem ''Photograph From September 11" has nothing to say of terrorism or world affairs, focusing rather on the still image of bodies falling from the burning twin towers, seeming to be suspended in air. ''Each is still complete," she writes, ''with a particular face / and blood well hidden." In her imagination she rescues them by not describing what happens next.

She is droll. In ''A Contribution to Statistics," human traits are numbered: ''Out of a hundred people / those who always know better / -- fifty-two . . . glad to lend a hand / if it doesn't take too long / -- as high as forty-nine, / always good / because they can't be otherwise / -- four, well, maybe five."

''First Love" lightly dismisses the middle-aged person's usual sentimental memories, but ends with a line like a knife in the heart. In ''Clouds," she notes the chilly indifference of ephemeral phenomena to human affairs: ''Compared to clouds, / life rests on solid ground, / practically permanent, almost eternal. / Next to clouds / even a stone seems like a brother, / someone you can trust." That anthropomorphic pebble is classic Szymborska.

Along with her clear-eyed surveillance of life, which is not disillusioned because it seems never to have had illusions, there are flashes of warmth. In ''A Little Girl Tugs at the Tablecloth," the toddler is about to discover the law of gravitation as the glasses and dishes, ''shaking with desire," approach the edge: ''what form of motion will they take . . . / will they roam across the ceiling? / fly around the lamp?"

In ''The Courtesy of the Blind," the poet, giving a reading, realizes that his rich visual images are probably lost to the listeners: ''He'd like to skip -- although it can't be done -- / all the saints on that cathedral ceiling, / the parting wave from a train, / the microscope lens, the ring casting a glow . . . / But great is the courtesy of the blind, / great is their forbearance, their largesse. / They listen, smile, and applaud."

Several Szymborska collections are in print, including ''Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems by Wislawa Szymborska," ''View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems," and ''Poems New and Collected 1957-1997." The last has the unusually intense ''Starvation Camp Near Jaslo" (''History rounds off skeletons to zero. / A thousand and one is still only a thousand") and the eerie ''Museum," in which human artifacts triumph over their users: ''The crown has outlasted the head. / The hand has lost out to the glove. / The right shoe has defeated the foot. / As for me, I am still alive, you see. / The battle with my dress still rages on."

Szymborska's collection of short prose pieces, ''Nonrequired Reading," includes this remark, suggestive of her own outlook, about the storyteller Hans Christian Andersen: ''Andersen had the courage to write stories with unhappy endings. He didn't believe you should try to be good because it pays . . . but because evil stems from intellectual and emotional stuntedness and is the one form of poverty that should be shunned."

David Mehegan is a member of the Globe staff.   



Published: 26 February 2013


“In Heraclitus’ River”


by Wisława Szymborska; introduced by Sophie Hughes



Exactly what hampered Wisława Szymborska’s poetic output in the few years after she was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1996 is not clear, but friends called her period of quiet, the “Nobel tragedy”. Though this writing block was short-lived, it is intriguing in light of her Nobel lecture, “The Poet and the World”, which focused on the matter of poetic inspiration. “Whatever inspiration is”, she suggested, “it’s born of a continuous “‘I don’t know’.”

Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh’s translation of “In Heraclitus’ River” from Poems: New and collected, 1957–1997, published in 1998, does away with the closing question mark which Joanna Trzeciak preserves in her version, which appeared in the TLS a year earlier. Without it, Szymborska’s reflections on her writing sound more resolute than she might have intended: she was a poet for whom uncertainty fuelled the imagination. Little surprise, perhaps, that the Academy’s approval knocked her off course for a while.

Szymborska’s willingness to explore what she didn’t know encouraged her reputation as an “accessible” poet. But, as this week’s poem shows, she was not adverse to abstraction. Nor was she animated by mere “curiosity”, but rather by a deep understanding of history, politics and philosophy – and the theories that continue to divide scholars. Szymborska delights in this unknowability. In “In Heraclitus’ River”, faced with a speaker who insists that “a fish quarters a fish with a sharp fish” and that “a fish invented a fish beyond fish”, readers are obliged to draw their own conclusions, transient though they may be.





In Heraclitus’ River

In Heraclitus’ river
a fish fishes for a fish,
a fish quarters a fish with a sharp fish,
a fish builds a fish, a fish lives in a fish,
a fish escapes from a besieged fish.


In Heraclitus’ river
a fish loves a fish,
your eyes – says she – glitter like fishes in the sky,
I want to swim together with you to the common sea,
oh, most beautiful of the school of fish.


In Heraclitus’ river
a fish invented a fish beyond fish,
a fish kneels before a fish, a fish sings to a fish,
asks a fish for an easier swim.


In Heraclitus’ river
I, the sole fish, I, a fish apart
(say, from the fish tree and the fish stone)
at certain moments tend to write small fish
in silver scales so briefly,
that could it be the darkness is winking in embarrassment?

Wisława Szymborska (1997)




W rzece Heraklita

ryba łowi ryby,

ryba ćwiartuje rybę, ostrą rybą,

ryba buduje rybę ryba mieszka w rybie,

ryba ucieka z oblężonej ryby.


W rzece Heraklita

ryba kocha rybę

twoje oczy — powiada — lśnią jak ryby w niebie,

chcę płynąć razem z tobą do wspólnego morza,

o najpiękniejsza z ławicy.


W rzece Heraklita

ryba wymyśliła rybę nad rybami,

ryba klęka przed rybą ryba śpiewa rybie,

prosi rybę o lżejsze pływanie.


W rzece Heraklita 

ja ryba pojedyncza, ja ryba odrębna

(choćby od ryby drzewa i ryby kamienia)

pisuję w poszczególnych chwilach małe ryby

w łusce srebrnej tak krótko,

że może to ciemność w zakłopotaniu mruga?


Wisława Szymborska (1997)