The mass of men may “lead lives of quiet desperation,” as Thoreau wrote, but the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012) did just the opposite: She lived a life of quiet amazement, reflected in poems that are both plain-spoken and luminous. Many of them are gathered now in “Map: Collected and Last Poems.”
Born in the countryside, Szymborska moved in 1931 to Krakow, city of kings and culture, and lived there until her death. Though her life was most eventful inwardly, there was no escaping history in Poland. Indeed, Szymborska lived in four quite different Polands: the anxious interwar Poland that had regained its independence in 1918 after more than a century’s absence from the map of Europe; the Poland of the Nazi occupation, the death camps and uprisings, which began shortly after she turned 16; postwar Poland under Soviet domination, where she herself was a Communist until breaking with the party in 1966, about the time she was finding her voice as a poet; and, last, post-Soviet Poland, free, successful, blessedly ordinary.
Szymborska neither evades nor fetishizes her country’s travails. She can be tough and blunt toward them, as in the poem “Starvation Camp Near Jaslo,” where “the meadow’s silent, like a witness who’s been bought.” But Szymborska is always more interested in the individual. After saying, “History rounds off skeletons to zero. / A thousand and one is still only a thousand,” the poem goes off to wonder about that uncounted individual. In “Innocence,” she muses on young German girls blissfully unaware they were “conceived on a mattress made of human hair,” and in “Hitler’s First Photograph” she has a little macabre fun at the Führer’s expense: “And who’s this little fellow in his itty-bitty robe? / That’s tiny baby Adolf, the Hitlers’ little boy!” Of course, as with any newborn, you can’t help wondering what his future will turn out to be: “Whose tummy full of milk, we just don’t know: / printer’s, doctor’s, merchant’s, priest’s?”
Great as these subjects are, they aren’t enough for Szymborska, who is simply interested in everything here on earth, “beneath one of the more parochial stars” — not only what happened, but what might have happened and what nearly didn’t. “I might have been myself minus amazement, / that is, / someone completely different.” That amazement takes her mind racing off in all directions: to delight in “the admirable number pi,” to wonder what angels’ favorite form of human culture is (answer: slapstick) and to delve into the onion’s “pure onionhood,” its “unanimous omninudity.” She contests the contemporary feel-good spirit. The poem “In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself” begins: “The buzzard never says it is to blame. / The panther wouldn’t know what scruples mean. / When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame. / If snakes had hands, they’d claim their hands were clean.” It ends: “On this third planet of the sun / among the signs of bestiality / a clear conscience is number one.”
Szymborska’s skepticism, her merry, mischievous irreverence and her thirst for the surprise of fresh perception make her the enemy of all tyrannical certainties. Hers is the best of the Western mind — free, restless, questioning, in every way the opposite of the terrorist who plagues civilized life in our time. Yet she makes an effort to enter the terrorist’s mind, his perceptions if not his psychology. In the minutes before his bomb goes off, he watches those who leave and enter the cafe, including a fat bald guy who “goes back in for his crummy gloves.” (This poem is also typical of Szymborska’s weaker side, a tendency to be chatty and topical, resulting in poems worth reading once but which leave nothing for a second look.)
Szymborska’s great theme is vivid presence and its transience, “this very passing moment that’s just passed.” She even tries to make it happen on the page: “When I pronounce the word Future, / the first syllable already belongs to the past.” And of course what happens to syllables also happens to those who utter them. In “The Day After — Without Us,” she observes: “The next day / promises to be sunny, / although those still living / should bring umbrellas.”
Since nothing is as fleeting as love, it’s a natural subject for Szymborska. She can be as lyrical as Auden: “So here we are, the naked lovers, / lovely, as we both agree, / with eyelids as our only covers / We lie in the dark, invisibly.” But (again like Auden) she can also be humorously cynical, as in “True Love”: “Perfectly good children are born without its help. / It couldn’t populate the planet in a million years, / it comes along so rarely. / Let the people who never find true love / keep saying that there’s no such thing. / Their faith will make it easier for them to live and die.”
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