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Unfathomable Life

View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems
By Wislawa Szymborska
Translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh
(Harvest/Harcourt Brace, 214 pp., $20)

“Again, and as ever, ... the most pressing questions / are naive ones.” The remarkable poet Wislawa Szymborska closes, with this remark, a late poem, “The Century’s Decline,” on the collapse of Marxist utopian hopes, after uttering one of her deliberately “naive” questions: “How should we live?” Szymborska, one of a generation of notable Polish poets (she was born in 1923), was brought to American attention by Czeslaw Milosz in his history of Polish poetry, by two slim collections of translations, and by Stanislaw Baranczak in Spoiling Cannibals’ Fun, his recent anthology of Polish poetry of the last two decades of Communist rule. Now Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, his collaborator in that anthology, have brought out the largest selection of Szymborska—100 poems—in English.

They draw from seven of Szymborska’s volumes, ranging from Calling Out to Yeti, her third collection, which appeared in 1957, through The End and the Beginning, which appeared in 1993. Their admirable versions, most of them readable as English poems owing to the exceptional gifts of the translators, make it possible to follow Szymborska’s career, as she evolves from the high-spirited young poet—inspired equally by Marxist aspirations and by an antic sense of words—through the mature poet asking, in her “naive” way, embarrassing political questions, to the older poet grieving for companions lost and hopes betrayed.

In spite of the translators’ inventive substitutions, Szymborska’s language-play as rendered in English is probably only a shadow of the felicitous original. Szymborska “translates well” because her poems, with all their local linguistic liveliness, adhere to a determined simplicity of narration. They are also resolutely “anonymous”: their speaker is identified only rarely by gender, and never by age or nationality or ethnicity or local habitation. No lyric writer has ever been more confident of the universality of human response. Szymborska writes not for Poles alone, nor for women alone, nor for the twentieth century alone: she believes fiercely in a common epistemology and a common ethic, at least within the Western culture she writes from and to.

This new collection, regrettably, lacks an introduction that would set Szymborska in context for English-speaking readers. In a brief essay on the poet published in 1994 in Salmagundi, Baranczak recalls her beginnings:

Under the circumstances of Polands own version of Stalinist culture, any literary work that dared be either innovative or candid was doomed. Even though she was a sincere believer in Communism at this point, Szymborska was also too good a poet not to have sinned on both these accounts at once. The first collection that she prepared for publication was initially accepted but later scrapped, as aesthetically and ideologically not orthodox enough. Her debut, a heavily re-worked collection titled, with characteristically Socialist-Realist self-assertion, Thats What We Live For, came out at last in 1952, much later than the first books of most of her coevals. Symbolically enough, Szymborska’s second collection, published in 1954, was titled Questions Put to Myself.... [In a recent interview], she sums up the “mistake” underlying her early writing by saying that she tried then “to love humankind instead of loving human beings.

The difficulty in writing anonymously and generally—allegorically, almostis that one will distance oneself from the personal, the local, the intimate. Szymborska feared, early on, her own tendency toward the overview, and the lofty aloofness it fostered. As she (in an early poem) ascends to the chilly Himalayas, she addresses the Yeti who is thinking of visiting the earth:

Yeti, we’ve got Shakespeare there.
Yeti, we play solitaire
and violin. At nightfall,
we turn lights on, Yeti.

Up here it’s neither moon nor earth.
Tears freeze.
Oh Yeti, semi-moonman,
turn back, think again!

The still void of the Himalayas appeals to her, yet she half-ironically defends the earth’s virtue and its “sentences,” even as she flees its crime and its unjust “justice”:

Yeti, crime is not all
we’re up to down there.
Yeti, not every sentence there
means death.

Later, speaking through the voice of Cassandra, Szymborska admits the prophetesss distance in relation to her countrymen, a distance she fears in herself:

I loved them.
But I loved them haughtily.
From heights beyond life.

DESPITE HER AESTHETIC fastidiousness, and the intellectual haughtiness that is natural to her, Szymborska reluctantly admits, in her most famous early poem, that her “final exam” will be a historical and ethical one: as long as there is cruelty, her voice must be at the service of suffering. Here is the poem entire, which includes (as a simpler protest poem would not) the recurrent temptation to a skeptical impatience with ethical imperatives. The poem incorporates, besides its moral import, that necessary component to art, imaginations dream (here stimulated by the Brueghel painting described in the first stanza): 

               Breughel’s Two Monkeys

This is what I see in my dreams about final exams:
two monkeys, chained to the floor, sit on the windowsill,
the sky behind them flutters,
the sea is taking its bath.

The exam is History of Mankind.
I stammer and hedge.

One monkey stares and listens with mocking disdain,
the other seems to be dreaming away—
but when it’s clear I don’t know what to say
he prompts me with a gentle
clinking of his chain.

Szymborska’s narrative manner will not change notably over her writing life, but her rendition of suffering will enlarge as she sees the full brutality of life in Poland from the 40s through the 80s. A poem of 1985 called “Tortures” begins each of its five stanzas with the sentence, “Nothing has changed.” The first stanza remarks on the unchangingness of the body over the centuries: “it has a good supply of teeth and fingernails; / its bones can be broken; its joints can be stretched.” The second concerns the bodys responsiveness: “The body still trembles as it trembled / before Rome was founded and after, / in the twentieth century before and after Christ.” The third notes the contemporary multiplication of offenses “requiring” torture—“new offenses have sprung up beside the old ones— / real, make-believe, short-lived, and nonexistent”—yet the bodys cry “was, is, and will be a cry of innocence.” The poem rises to a climax in its fourth stanza:

Nothing has changed.
Except perhaps the manners, ceremonies, dances.
The gesture of the hands shielding the head
has nonetheless remained the same.
The body writhes, jerks, and tugs,
falls to the ground when shoved, pulls up its knees,
bruises, swells, drools, and bleeds.

THE UNIVERSALITY OF suffering is Szymborska’s chief life-theme, and reiterative narration (interspersed with epigram) is her usual rhetorical mode. Of course, neither theme nor mode, nor both together, would suffice to make a poem. Every lyric poem is the trace left by an emotion; and the entire trace (not merely the thematic or narrative content of the poem) defines the emotion, as a footprint defines a foot. Szymborska is a most ingenious constructor of traces. And her ingenuity is not factitious; it is, rather, philosophical. Each line in a poem—and each white space in a poem—must be weighed for the new imaginative information they bring.

Consider “Utopia,” surely one of the classic treatments of the Soviet utopia as it was consolidated in Poland. The poem begins with the promise and desirability of utopia, both moral and intellectual, but sees that each promise has left suffering in its wake. Szymborska does justice both to the initial suffering under the ancien régime that provoked a hope for a new system, and to the later suffering caused by that system’s betrayal of its utopian promises. Each successive line bears meditation, as—in the fiction of the poem—a populace, wrung by their destructive experience in the (politically irrational) ocean, at last comes ashore on a (Marxist) island:

Island where all becomes clear.

Solid ground beneath your feet.

The only roads are those that offer access.

Bushes bend beneath the weight of proofs ...

If any doubts arise, the wind dispels them instantly....

Unshakable Confidence towers over the valley.

Its peak offers an excellent view of the Essence of Things.

And then, after twelve such dawning statements about utopia, the poem makes its bleak sardonic turn:

For all its charms, the island is uninhabited,
and the faint footprints scattered on its beaches
turn without exception to the sea.

As if all you can do here is leave
and plunge, never to return, into the depths.

Into unfathomable life.

Utopia is uninhabitable. It will always lose to unfathomable, dangerous, and chaotic life. Szymborska’s poem enacts both the conviction of the early Marxists and their gradual disillusion, step by step, space by space, thought by thought.

SINCE SZYMBORSKA’S sibylline and oracular sentences—formed in that same apodictic mode so congenial to universal system—risk being themselves examples of Unshakable Confidence, her admission that life is always unfathomable means that her sentences must also consider themselves provisional. An unexpected energy, often reactive (as in the case of her plunge into the ocean, away from the totalization of utopia) upsets and revivifies her lines. We deduce the extent of the anterior suffering by the energy needed to counteract it. Plunging into the sea—“never to return”—is usually a figure for suicide: Szymborska, writing “Utopia” in the ’70s, is in a Poland where self-liberation and suicide are hardly distinguishable.

For intellectualsand Szymborska is oneepistemological perplexity is also a form of suffering. The clean and perpendicular lines of her poetry reflect her wish to be absolutely exact, even transparent. “Don’t bear me ill will, speech, that I borrow weighty words, / then labor heavily so that they may seem light.” And yet language is heavy with anthropocentric perspectives. Thus the simplest sentence“The window has a wonderful view of a lake”immediately sets up Szymborska’s rigorous denials:

but the view doesn’t view itself.
It exists in this world
colorless, shapeless,
soundless, odorless, and painless.

The lake’s floor exists floorlessly,
and its shore exists shorelessly.
Its water feels itself neither wet nor dry
and its waves to themselves are neither
singular nor plural.

How, then, can one speak of the view, the floor of the lake, the shore, the waves? Is it possible to de-anthropomorphize language, and not say “the sun sets,” or “time passes”? 

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.

EVERY POEM BY Szymborska is a struggle against taking common ways of expression for granted, or thinking that a single phrase can cover all the possibilities. In a revolt against her own genre—the generalizing poem—she multiplies instances in order to cover all bases, certain that any one example will be humanly insufficient. Her poem “Clothes,” about medical suspicion and relief, wittily offers a multiple-choice checklist which will certainly, she intimates, cover your apprehensive visit to the doctor as well as hers:

You take off, we take off, they take off
coats, jackets, blouses, double-breasted suits,
made of wool, cotton, cotton-polyester...
for now, the doctor says, it’s not too bad,
you may get dressed, get rested up, get out of town,
take one in case, at bedtime, after lunch...
you see, and you thought, and we were afraid that,
and he imagined, and you all believed;
it’s time to tie, to fasten with shaking hands
shoelaces, buckles, velcro, zippers, snaps,
belts, buttons, cuff links, collars, neckties, clasps
and to pull out of handbags, pockets, sleeves
a crumpled, dotted, flowered, checkered scarf
whose usefulness has suddenly been prolonged.

It is the awful normalcy and generality of the dreaded verdict-visit that comes through in Szymborska’s rendition: all over the world people are stripping in doctor’s offices and expecting the worst. For Szymborska, the awful is, all too often, the normal, and her even tone embraces, in one of her most accomplished poems, the act of terrorism itself—which is, of course, entirely normal to its perpetrator:

               The Terrorist, He’s Watching

The bomb in the bar will explode at thirteen twenty.
Now it’s just thirteen sixteen.
There’s still time for some to go in,
and some to come out.

The terrorist has already crossed the street.
The distance keeps him out of danger,
and what a view—just like the movies:

A woman in a yellow jacket, she’s going in.
A man in dark glasses, he’s coming out.
Teenagers in jeans, they’re talking.
Thirteen seventeen and four seconds.
The short one, he’s lucky, he’s getting on a scooter,
but the tall one, he’s going in.

Thirteen seventeen and forty seconds.
That girl, she’s walking along with a green ribbon in her hair.
But then a bus suddenly pulls in front of her.
Thirteen eighteen.
The girl’s gone.
Was she that dumb, did she go in or not,
We’ll see when they carry them out.

Thirteen nineteen.
Somehow no one’s going in.
Another guy, fat, bald, is leaving, though.
Wait a second, looks like he’s looking for something in his pockets and
at thirteen twenty minus ten seconds
he goes back in for his crummy gloves.

Thirteen twenty exactly.
This waiting, it’s taking forever.
Any second now.
No, not yet.
Yes, now.
The bomb, it explodes.

A poem such as this one was inconceivable, stylistically, before the twentieth century; it defines an epoch, a type, an ethic. It stands for Lockerbie and Belfast, Jerusalem and Oklahoma. It was, one could say, hanging in the air waiting to be written, one of those poems that inscribes itself without effort on the mind receiving it.

THOUGH SZYMBORSKA excels in such grim impersonal narratives, she is equally able to evoke—always obliquely, always originally—intense tenderness. The death of someone beloved, for example, is narrated from the point of view of his “Cat in an Empty Apartment”:

Nothing seems different here,
but nothing is the same.
Nothing has been moved,
but there’s more space.
And at nighttime no lamps are lit....
Someone was always, always here,
then suddenly disappeared
and stubbornly stays disappeared....

Just wait till he turns up,
just let him show his face.
Will he ever get a lesson
on what not to do to a cat.
Sidle toward him
as if unwilling
and ever so slow
on visibly offended paws,
and no leaps or squeals at least to start.

The equally wrenching elegy for Krzysztof Baczynski, a poet who died at 23 in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, exhibits another of Szymborska’s characteristically unexpected angles of approach. She heartbreakingly creates the poet as he would be had he continued to live till now, imagining him “Goateed, balding, / gray-haired,” eating his lunch:

Sometimes someone would
yell from the doorway: “Mr. Baczynski, phone call for you”—
and there’d be nothing strange about that
being him, about him standing up, straightening his sweater,
and slowly moving toward the door.

Syzmborska is not sentimental. She sees that the 65-year-old man would have coarsened “as if clay had covered up the angelic marble” of his exalted youth: “The price, after all, for not having died already / goes up not in leaps but step by step, and he would / pay that price, too.” She speaks from the knowledge of the price that she has herself paid for aging. But the ethical observation would be inert were it not for the poet’s initial leap of imagination extending Baczynski’s short life—a human wish so powerful it creates a full-scale scenario, down to the yearning phone call.

IT WOULD BE wrong to consider Szymborska without asking whether, the anonymity of her stance notwithstanding, she does not sometimes write “as a woman.” The answer is yes and no. Yes, she writes as Cassandra and as Lot’s wife, she writes on Isadora Duncan, on a prehistoric figure of the Great Mother, and on Rubens’s women; and all of these could legitimately be taken as reflections on femaleness. Yet the poem on Cassandra is chiefly a meditation on how prophets, any prophets, are hated; and Lot’s wife accounts for her halt by citing her “age ... Distance.... / The futility of wandering. Torpor. / ... in desolation. / In shame”—all of them gender-neutral factors. It seems to me that Szymborska writes most “as a woman” when she chooses a “humble” subject such as an onion (as a symbol of a non-dualist conception of nature); or when her imagination darts to a fantasy on Hitler’s actual baby-photograph:

And who’s this little fellow in his itty-bitty robe?
That’s tiny baby Adolf, the Hitlers’ little boy!...
Whose teensy hand is this, whose little ear and eye and nose?...

A little pacifier, diaper, rattle, bib,
our bouncing boy, thank God and knock on wood, is well,
looks just like his folks, like a kitten in a basket,
like the tots in every other family album.
Sh-h-h, let’s not start crying, sugar.
The camera will click from under that black hood.

The Klinger Atelier, Grabenstrasse, Braunen.
And Braunen is a small but worthy town—
honest businesses, obliging neighbors,
smell of yeast dough, of gray soap.
No one hears howling dogs, or fate’s footsteps.
A history teacher loosens his collar
and yawns over homework.

“Hitler’s First Photograph” is not Szymborska’s best poem, but its opening is startling and daring, its black humor confronting—as only a woman might think to dothe mystery of how babies turn out. Szymborska often approaches ethical issues from just such an odd (and perhaps implicitly female) vantage; her poem “Voices,” about what we now call ethnic cleansing, simply lets us in on conversations between Roman governors:

You can’t move an inch, my dear Marcus Emilius,
without Aborigines sprouting up as if from the earth itself....

These irksome little nations, thick as flies.
It’s enough to make you sick, dear Quintus Decius....

They drive us mild-mannered sorts to sterner measures
with every new mountain we cross, dear Gaius Cloelius.

If only they weren’t always in the way, the Auruncians, the Marsians,
but they always do get in the way, dear Spurius Manlius....

Little nations do have little minds.
The circle of thick skulls expands around us.
Reprehensible customs, Backward laws.
Ineffectual gods, my dear Titus Vilius....

This seditious little poem of communications among the Spurious and the Vile was probably protected from the censors in 1972 only by its historical setting. It may be that Szymborska’s resolute impersonality, anonymity and allegorical stance were forced into being by Polish censorship; but it is equally possible that her view of lyric as that which describes the irreducible human invariables evoked her geometrical abstraction of voice and her aloof narrations “from above.”

In a time when it is being metaphysically denied that any human universals exist, it is salutary to read Szymborska on the ancientness of human evil. Mercifully, Szymborska also notes the perpetual resurgence of hope and the deep rewards of human attachment. “My identifying features,” she says in the poem “Sky,” “are rapture and despair.” Both are found here, but perhaps more despair than rapture, in Szymborska’s stern and unforgiving scan of the savage world that she has learned to understand.

This article appeared in the January 1, 1996 issue of the magazine.