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The Revenge of the Mortal Hand

Of the poetic voices to come out of Poland after 1945 Wislawa Szymborska’s is probably the most elusive as well as the most distinctive. She defies the usual categories (“classicist,” “political”) used to describe writers on the Polish postwar literary scene. Moreover, she is isolated both in her writing and in her life, avoiding autobiography and remaining intensely private.

What is known about her could also, however, be said of many of her generation. Born in 1923 in Kornik, near Poznan, she spent her childhood and early youth in wartime Poland. She started to publish her first poems in literary periodicals just after the war, in the brief period of hope that was brutally terminated in 1948 by the overt Stalinization of the country. When she was about to publish her first volume of verse, which was found wanting in the propaganda requirements of socialist realism, she was faced—as were many of her contemporaries—with the alternatives of silence or compromise.

This dilemma, which came as a surprise to many who had grown up during the war, resulted in grave divisions within Polish cultural life. Some young poets, like Zbigniew Herbert and Miron Bialoszewski, decided to remain silent and survived doing menial jobs until 1956 when, as political life became relatively relaxed, they could again begin publishing their work. Some accepted the new requirements without objection and lent their talents, out of conviction or cynicism, to the regime. Others, like Szymborska herself, chose conformity with the formal and thematic demands of the new cultural policy while at the same time trying to maintain some degree of poetic authenticity and to preserve in their writing the traditional humanistic values that were endangered by the fear and desolation of the Stalinist years.

The limitations of poetic choice she encountered, and her painful attempts to avoid the ultimate lie, are reflected in her first two books of poetry: That’s What We Live For (1952) and Questions Put to Myself (1954). The first, later repudiated by the poet herself, contained the usual variations on officially inspired “political” themes; however, their gentler, more lyrical tone distinguished them from the standard work of that kind. The second book showed a retreat into more personal, traditionally “poetic” themes of love, death, and time—the only nonpolitical themes occasionally tolerated by the cultural policy of that period. Only after the political “thaw” in 1956, and with the publication of her third volume, Calling Out to Yeti (1957), was Szymborska to find her true poetic voice.

Poetry has remained her only occupation. She has published little prose except for the short, witty book reviews which appeared regularly in a Polish literary magazine—most of them on ostentatiously nonpoetic subjects: popular science, entertainment, dictionaries and encyclopedias. Only rarely is Szymborska’s voice heard on public issues. She signed a petition of Polish intellectuals protesting the ignominious amendment to the Polish constitution expressing “eternal friendship and cooperation with the Soviet Union,” and supported the “Flying University,” the semiclandestine network of intellectuals which was intended to prevent Polish culture from being destroyed by the tightening ideological control over historical studies and literature. Yet she remained one of the most apolitical of Polish writers during the intensely political 1960s and 1970s.

Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts contains poems from her five books written since 1957, comprising more or less half of what the poet herself considers her canon. Its publication is of interest not only because of Szymborska’s importance as a poet, but also because her work demonstrates that the diversity of poetic modes in Poland is much greater than is usually perceived.

She is often compared with her contemporaries, Zbigniew Herbert and Tadeusz Rozewicz, and indeed she shares with them the same avoidance of formalism, the same subdued, temperate tone in which highly purified poetic language is rendered almost as prose. She shares with them as well the classical preoccupation with balance and symmetry in a world of unsettled values. Yet here the similarities end. If the voices of Herbert and Rozewicz can be compared to solid, verbal masonry, hers is much more supple. Her voice can be highly succinct and precise and it can be conversational; she can be playfully commonplace, alternating dense and elaborately constructed phrases with long lists or incantations.

The difference of tone in Szymborska’s work gives it a different perspective and presents a different lyrical self, whose scrutiny of the world we are invited to participate in. In Herbert’s work we encounter the skeptical, yet affirmative “Mr. Cogito”; Rozewicz’s tone is that of a nihilistic, sardonic “survivor.” Both seem protected against the insanities of life and history: one by the heritage of culture he embodies, the other by the depth of his disillusionment. Szymborska presents us with a less defined, more protean persona who readily lends her voice to a woman, a child, even a small animal. The characters she evokes constantly refuse—often in spite of their superior knowledge or experience—to view the human drama “from above,” from the upper circle occupied by philosophers, aesthetes, and priests of history. They try to meet life on its own terms and open themselves up to its contingency, like the scoffing space travelers in “Warning,” who “feel best in the crevices dividing / practice and theory, / cause and effect….”

The language and the poetic perspective in Szymborska’s writing convey the sense of a deliberately chosen vulnerability, and a deliberate openness to the enchantment and pain of being exposed to the variety and mutability of life:

Why to excess then in one single person?
This one not that? And why am I here?
On a day that’s a Tuesday? In a house not a nest?
In skin not in scales? With a face not a leaf?
Why only once in my very own person?
Precisely on earth? Under this little star?
After so many eras of not being here?

Diversity and mutability seem to be the underlying themes of Szymborska’s writing, recurring in numerous variations, in almost every poem in the collection. Most frequently a perceptive mind is confronted with an unexpected variety of impressions that unsettle previous knowledge and question the validity of perception itself. When this happens, the feeling is one of amazement and uneasiness. When on the hill of Troy seven cities are discovered, “The hexameters are bursting asunder, / unnarrated brick protrudes from the cracks”; our vision becomes crowded:

twin brothers of Hector the eagle,
   fully his equal in valor,
thousands and thousands of indi- vidual faces,
each the first and the last in time,
and each with a pair of unique eyes.

Similarly, the multitude of barbarian tribes, real and legendary, disturb the symmetry of Roman culture in “Voices”; the dead artifacts collected “for want of eternity” recall the human world of sensuality and emotion that used to surround them. Besides history there is also nature, the Great Chain of Being, multiplying the possible forms of existence ad infinitum. The poet’s mind appears as aleph, the magical point at which time and space meet—time and space in a sense larger than the physical one—and includes mermaids, fauns, and angels (in the poem “Thomas Mann”), and imaginary Atlantis. The cosmos breaks up into myriads of separate entities, each endowed with its own unique center and radiant with purposefulness: “Innumerable, infinite, / yet individual to the very filament, / the grain of sand, the drop of water /—landscapes” (“Travel Elegy”). Yet in human perception the multitude of things in the world depends on the individual perceiving “I” and acquires only the degree of existence and duration that the perceiving “I” decides to invest it with. This does not seem right to the poet. It is a kind of violation of the world committed continuously and involuntarily by our consciousness: “What’s important is valid supposedly for us. / For just our life, for just our death, / a death that enjoys an extorted primacy” (“Seen from Above”).

The variety that Szymborska’s poems celebrate also fades before our eyes—like the forgotten places in “Travel Elegy” or the mysterious undefined presence in “Still Alive.” The prevailing nostalgic tone comes from the poet’s sense of failure in dealing with the “infinite” and the “innumerable,” from the sad recognition of the necessity of using abstraction and “great numbers” instead of attending to the specific. Our imagination is both helpless and erratic: “Flitting through darkness like a flashlight beam, / it picks out only the faces that are nearest, / meanwhile the rest are lost to blind oversight, / nonthought and non-regret” (“A Great Number”). What our memory or perception rejects, what we overlook or ignore is condemned to nonexistence or is banished to the dim realm of the merely probable and potential. Szymborska is anxious not to neglect anything that is or may be “Hypothetical. Dubious. / Unimmortalized. / Unextracted from air, / from fire, from water, from earth” (“Atlantis”) and therefore she is intensely aware of what is forgotten, left outside the frame of a painting, unrecorded, rejected by a scientific paradigm. Ambiguous existences beyond our knowledge and certainty disturb—evoking a sense of guilt. This helps to account for the apologetic note in many of her poems:

I apologize to time for the muchness of the world over- looked per second….
I apologize to everything that I cannot be everywhere.
I apologize to everyone that I cannot be every man and woman.
I know that as long as I live nothing can justify me,
because I myself am an obstacle to myself.
(“Under a Certain Little Star”)

In these poems the nostalgia also comes from the awareness that what is really important to us—the momentary and elusive, the real texture of life—is constantly receding from our view. What seems to be growth is in fact steady loss. In “The Museum,” life is presented as a “race with [a] dress” that strives to outlive its owner. The final victory belongs always to a dead object and an empty stage: a museum piece, a family album, letters of the dead, a suicide’s room.

Yet for Szymborska the fascination with memory and imagination has moral significance. She seems to suggest that the same arbitrary perception that blinds us to the variety of existence and makes us forget what we have seen can be responsible for real crimes, can condemn the real world to death, as in the poems “Written in a Hotel,” “Vietnam,” and “Still”—all on the subject of genocide. Kyoto was saved because of its remarkable and memorable beauty. Yet less beautiful Hiroshima was sentenced to death, as any other city may be where “…a wall is a plain old brick wall, / a tower is old, well, just old” because what is ordinary is less real, belongs to a “great number” and becomes more vulnerable to the human folly of destruction. When in “Seen from Above” a bug dies “as if nothing important has befallen him,” the poem suggests the callousness that men have often used against other men.

For Szymborska, then, the poet’s task is to be a custodian of different views, to translate “great numbers” into “individual faces” and “unique eyes” to bring back to life the names of murdered Jews, even to try to enter the closed interior of a stone. The joy of writing is “The power of preserving. / The revenge of the mortal hand.” This is doubtless the task of all poetry, for which the sense of loss, the Heraclitean flight of the universe seems to be the most ancient impulse. But it is also true that this impulse becomes dominant in places where the sense of loss and disinheritance from the familiar world is the most momentous and decisive element in human experience and where it assumes historical proportions. Poland is such a place and the preoccupation with memory and the significance of a particular moment reflecting—in a miraculous way—a large part of life has become a distinctive motif of contemporary Polish poetry. When the visible world undergoes constant and dramatic changes and the “reality” appears as a falsehood or a nightmare, the true reality finds shelter in poetic imagination capable of extracting a moment from the stream of time. It is this paradox, which is at the heart of all poetry and of Polish poetry in particular, that Czeslaw Milosz speaks about when he writes:

Take a moment, just one, and When its fine shell,
Two joined palms, slowly opens
What do you see?
A pearl, a second.
Inside a second, a pearl, in that star saved from time,
What do you see when the wind of mutability ceases?

The earth, the sky and the sea,
   richly cargoed ships,
Spring morning full of dew and faraway princedoms.
(“A Frivolous Conversation”)

Yet in Szymborska’s poetry we encounter a deeper kind of sadness—not only the sadness of buried peoples and cities, the destructive work of history, but also the sadness that comes when what the poet herself had chosen to save fades and becomes forgotten. For Szymborska knows that the task she has assigned herself is impossible and that the victories of a mortal hand are only an illusion.

I won’t retain one blade of grass
in sharp contour.

Greeting and farewell
in a single glance.

For excess and for lack
a single movement of the neck.
(“Travel Elegy”)

Every translation of a poem is an inevitable compromise between its different levels of meaning—from the visual form and the pattern of sounds to the precise meaning of its words—only a few of which can be rendered simultaneously into another language. The most sensible approach of a translator is to concentrate on the level that carries the largest weight of meaning. Accordingly, the other values of the text are honored only so far as they do not interfere with the main one. Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire (the translators of The Survivor, a collection of poems by Tadeusz Rozewicz* ) concentrate on verbal precision, the subtleties of meaning, and the characteristic irony of the text. This quest for the accurate word and respect for meaning result in a certain lengthening of line, frequent departures from the rhythmic pattern of the poems, and the exclusion of Szymborska’s rhymed verse from the collection.

Yet the choice seems to be the right one. Szymborska is a poet whose values are clarity and sense, and any effort to reproduce the more formal qualities of her work at the expense of the precision of its meaning would put us at a distance from the original rather than bring us closer to it.

Szymborska’s quiet “apolitical” voice is a distinct force in today’s Poland. Its influence is visible in a number of poets of the younger generation, of whom Eva Lipska, born in 1945, is perhaps the most prominent example. Yet until recently Szymborska was little known in the West. The interest in Polish writing tends to follow the erratic rhythm of historical disasters and focuses on phenomena that bear more or less directly on political events. Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts, the only presentation of this major poet’s work in English, in a translation both elegant and reticent, should be welcomed as a token of deeper and more systematic understanding of what is best in Eastern European writing today.


More Szymborska December 2, 1982

  1. *

    Princeton University Press, 1976.

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