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The Boston Phoenix Small Victories

Poland's Nobel-winning poet chooses her weapons: wit, humility, and lyrical observation.

By Graham Christian

MAY 26, 1998: 

POEMS NEW AND COLLECTED 1957-1997, by Wislawa Szymborska, translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh. Harcourt Brace, 273 pages, $27.

Wislawa Szymborska, well known in her native Poland (where she was named Poet Laureate in 1996), has long had her advocates in the US, and some of her poems have been available in English since at least 1981. But her sudden leap into Nobel Prize fame last year has changed her world -- and ours. In that year the largest translated selection of her work was View with a Grain of Sand, but Szymborska's work has been so well received -- almost popular, for poetry -- that Harcourt Brace has now issued a larger volume that collects in English all the poems the writer herself wants to preserve. These 164 poems demonstrate how quietly superb Szymborska truly is.

She is in her middle 70s now. From what little we know of her life, she seems always to have lived in Poland, through the years of German occupation and then of Soviet domination; and her labors seem always to have involved literature, whether she was an editor, translator, or author. Her poems do not arrive with banners trumpeting her political courage, her lonely heroism, or her towering intellect: she is not a writer of this kind. Her perspective is that of a comic fatalist; she is a fantasist, but her whimsy is informed by our century's science. She is perhaps the best possible exemplar of the subversive qualities of humor. To laugh at the god Apis, as Alexander Herzen has said, is to demote him from godhood to ordinary bull. Szymborska has harnessed the power of this kind of laughter, as in these lines from "View with a Grain of Sand":

Time has passed like a courier with urgent news.
But that's just our simile.
The character is invented, his haste is make-believe,
his news inhuman.

Or, from "No End of Fun":

So he's got to have happiness,
he's got to have truth, too,
he's got to have eternity --
did you ever!

He has only just learned to tell dreams from waking;
only just realized he is he;
only just whittled with his hand né fin
a flint, a rocket ship . . .

Where humanity is so small -- so laughably small -- what meaning can the orotund, self-loving pronouncements of totalitarian governments possibly have? Szymborska's protest, her activism, lies in her ability to take a God's-eye view of our condition (though there are no gods of a familiar kind in her world) -- to see us as a stone might, or from the collapsed perspective of eternity itself.

No doubt the Nobel committee was drawn to Szymborska's explicitly political work -- poems like "Starvation Camp Near Jaslo," "The Terrorist, He's Watching," and "Children of Our Age" -- but, in fact, these are among her weaker pieces. She is happiest with a vehicle for her observations, as in "A Byzantine Mosaic," in which the frozen (and fictional) imperial couple regards its offspring with dismay:

". . . Not a princeling but a sinner have I borne thee.
Pink and shameless as a piglet,
plump and merry, verily . . ."

"I am thy twin in horror . . ."

Absolute authority, as Szymborska knows, fears and despises a free vitality.

Szymborska has no real counterpart in English or American literature of this century except, perhaps, the equally fine Stevie Smith, who shares with her a feeling for the acid strength of apparent whimsy. It is not surprising that she has translated French literature of the 16th and 17th centuries into Polish, for at times her lines have an almost Baroque flourish. Andrew Marvell or Sir Thomas Browne might almost have written the splendid "Water":

A drop of water fell on my hand,
drawn from the Ganges and the Nile,

from hoarfrost ascended to heaven off a seal's whiskers,
from jugs broken in the cities of Ys and Tyre.

Likewise, Louise Labé or Richard Crashaw might have begun a poem, as she does, with an address to her heart, or with apostrophes to chance, to happiness, to hope, and so on. But Szymborska renews the heritage of these mannerisms with the knowledge of our own time.

More impressive and constant even than her comedy or her metaphysical wit is Szymborska's deeply grounded humility: she admits, in the Nobel lecture included in this volume, that her motto, and the beginning of all her poems, is "I don't know." She has a justified and appropriate pride in the calling of the poet -- in "The Joy of Writing," for instance, she says, "Not a thing will ever happen unless I say so . . . /The joy of writing./The power of preserving./Revenge of a mortal hand" -- but in poems like "Snapshot of a Crowd," where she imagines herself as though she had disappeared into the "statistical . . . shamelessly predictable," she shows how completely she has liberated herself from the Catherine wheel of the artistic ego. It is this freedom that fuels her glowing lyricism, that permits her to see a bird in this way:

O swallow, cloud-borne thorn,
anchor of the air,
Icarus improved,
coattails in Assumption,

o swallow, calligraphy,
clockhand minus minutes . . .

This style of near-ecstatic utterance (what Szymborska would self-mockingly call "the sacred folly of description") is balanced by her awareness of the temporary and contingent nature of her achievement (and, by extension, human achievement as well):

[I] write, at isolated moments, a tiny fish or two
whose glittering scales, so fleeting,
may only be the dark's embarrassed wink.

What consoles her in this sometimes hostile world is the small, embattled tenacity of vitality itself: "[t]he unrepentant urge to start all over tomorrow." For Szymborska, both our failure and our salvation lie in littleness, an enforced humility not unlike her own; even death, whose absolute dominion she concedes everywhere, meets its limit in us:

In vain it tugs at the knob
of the invisible door.
As far as you've come
can't be undone.

And besides -- the truly damning touch for Szymborska -- death "can't take a joke."

Most of Szymborska's readers in English will be constrained by an ignorance of her native language; we are the beneficiaries of translators whose work we cannot judge. Still, something like a general shape can be discerned, and if her poems are as immediate, as delicious, as wise as this in English, they can hardly be less so in Polish. It is striking that there has been relatively little change in her voice over the four decades represented in this collection; she is not given to phases or periods, as many 20th-century poets in English are. In the later '80s, perhaps as her audience widened, her approach became looser and less disciplined, but more recent poems, such as "Love at First Sight" and "The Silence of Plants," suggest that she has recovered her earlier concentration, and she promises a period of late mastery. Szymborska has become, with the suddenness of a shot of lightning, a necessary presence in modern literature, without whom our world has until now been the poorer.

Graham Christian is a writer and independent scholar living in Somerville.

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