When I learned that Wislawa Szymborska died, I went into my office and pulled all her books off my shelf. They’ve been stacked on the kitchen table now for the past couple of days and I find myself reaching out and opening the books as I make my way through to cook dinner and get to the laundry. Sort of drive by quick reads. But I first turned to her poem Lot’s Wife.
Szymborska won the Nobel Prize in 1996. At that point, her work was largely unknown to American audiences, but she was already much loved in her native Poland. Scott surprised me with her book, View With a Grain of Sand, after hearing one of her poems. He’s found some of my favorite poets for me over the years. Part of Szymborska’s hold on me probably comes from discovering her work just as I became a mother. It’s not that Szymborska writes about motherhood. But 1996 was a year of profound discovery for me.
Lot’s Wife is one of my touchstone poems. It hasn’t lost it’s power or freshness after many, many reads. It’s a list poem with Lot’s wife detailing the reasons she might have looked back. But the poem works as a paradox because the more reasons she gives for having looked back, the more uncertain we are that we know the truth, or that we will ever know the truth.
It is notoriously difficult to capture the music of poems when translating and still preserve the meaning, images and mystery that the poet intended. My favorite translations of Szymborska’s work come from Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanaugh. The list poem usually has elements of repetition in sound as well as subject or theme. The music of Lot’s Wife works through repetition and the changes to that repeated rhythm. Szymborska did this masterfully, with a light touch. The craft seems effortless until you study closely and you realize how carefully she structured each line for length and rhythm.
Here’s an example:
I felt age within me. Distance.
The futility of wandering. Torpor.
I looked back setting my bundle down.
I looked back not knowing where to set my foot.
Serpents appeared on my path,
spiders, field mice, baby vultures.
They were neither good nor evil now–every living thing
was simply creeping or hopping along in the mass panic.
I looked back in desolation.
Many of Szymborska’s poems displayed an incredible humor and playfulness. In one of her later poems, Thoughts That Visit Me on Busy Streets, Archimedes shows up wearing jeans and she drapes Catherine the Great in resale clothes. There’s a piece remembering Szymborska in Slate magazine by Dana Stevens, featuring a poem that personifies the alphabet. She set dogs to poetry as well.
According to her obituary in the NY Times, she didn’t write for a few years after winning the Nobel. From that article:
Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish exile who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980, said of Ms. Szymborska’s Nobel selection: “She’s a shy and modest person, and for her it will be a terrible burden, this prize. She is very reticent in her poetry also. This is not a poetry where she reveals her personal life.”
Reading Szymborska makes me feel like more of a poet. Not that I will ever reach the level of her abilities, but she makes poetry accessible. There’s a generous spirit about her work and she’s invited me, you and all of us in. Her poem, In Praise of My Sister, is one of those poems.
In Praise of My Sister
My sister doesn’t write poems.
and it’s unlikely that she’ll suddenly start writing poems.
She takes after her mother, who didn’t write poems,
and also her father, who likewise didn’t write poems.
I feel safe beneath my sister’s roof:
my sister’s husband would rather die than write poems.
And, even though this is starting to sound as repetitive as
the truth is, none of my relatives write poems.
My sister’s desk drawers don’t hold old poems,
and her handbag doesn’t hold new ones,
When my sister asks me over for lunch,
I know she doesn’t want to read me her poems.
Her soups are delicious without ulterior motives.
Her coffee doesn’t spill on manuscripts.
There are many families in which nobody writes poems,
but once it starts up it’s hard to quarantine.
Sometimes poetry cascades down through the generations,
creating fatal whirlpools where family love may founder.
My sister has tackled oral prose with some success.
but her entire written opus consists of postcards from
whose text is only the same promise every year:
when she gets back, she’ll have
much to tell.
Szymborska’s work reminds me that the everyday holds extraordinary possibility. That I have to keep my eyes open. There’s a humble, lithe accuracy in what she shared with us. Again, here’s a bit from her NY Times obituary:
In her Nobel lecture, Ms. Szymborska joked about the life of poets. Great films can be made of the lives of scientists and artists, she said, but poets offer far less promising material.
“Their work is hopelessly unphotogenic,” she said. “Someone sits at a table or lies on a sofa while staring motionless at a wall or ceiling. Once in a while this person writes down seven lines, only to cross out one of them 15 minutes later, and then another hour passes, during which nothing happens. Who could stand to watch this kind of thing?”
Update: It’s been just over a year since Symborska passed away. Recently, I was contacted by Culture.pl, the online magazine promoting Polish Culture abroad, run by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute and funded by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage of Poland. They kindly asked if I’d include a link to their site. It’s worth checking out. You’ll find essays and stories about Symborska and other Polish writers.