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Subversive Activities

View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems

by Wislawa Szymborska, translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh
Harcourt Brace, 214 pp., $20.00; $12.00 (paper)

Wislawa Szymborska, with Zbigniew Herbert and Tadeusz Rózewicz, is one of the major living Polish poets of the generation after Milosz. Of the four Szymborska is the least well-known in America, perhaps because she has remained in Poland, and because she shuns the public eye. Little is known about her private life; she has rarely been interviewed. Yet, as in the case of Elizabeth Bishop, her reticence is accompanied by considerable literary ambition. Like Herbert, she has mounted in her work a witty and tireless defense of individual subjectivity against collectivist thinking, and her poems, like his, are slyly subversive in a way that compels us to reconsider received opinion. In both, the rejection of dogma becomes the basis of a canny personal ethics.

Szymborska was born in 1923 in the small town of Bnin in the Poznan area of western Poland. She moved with her family to Cracow when she was eight years old and has lived there ever since. She attended school illegally during the German occupation, when the Nazis banned Polish secondary schools and universities, and after the war studied Polish literature and sociology at Jagiellonian University. From 1952 to 1981 she worked on the editorial staff of the cultural weekly Zycie Literackie (Literary Life). She has published nine collections of poems and several editions of her selected verse, as well as a volume of newspaper reviews and columns. She is also known to Polish readers as a distinguished translator of French poetry, mostly of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

View with a Grain of Sand, translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, brings together a hundred poems spanning nearly forty years of Szymborska’s work. It is by far the most extensive and readable edition of her poems yet to appear in English.1 The translators haven’t included anything from Szymborska’s early books, That’s What We Live For (1952) and Questions Put to Myself (1954), and only three poems from her transitional third collection, Calling Out to Yeti (1957). The later volumes, published after she managed to break free of political pressures to conform, are well-represented here: Salt (1962), No End of Fun (1967), Could Have (1972), A Large Number (1976), The People on the Bridge (1986), and The End and the Beginning (1993).

Szymborska comes through well in translation, but Baranczak and Cavanagh are the first to convey the full force of her fierce and unexpected wit. Their versions reproduce the rhythm and rhyme schemes of some of her early poems. They have come up with deft equivalents for her pervasive wordplay, and have recreated the jaunty, precise, deceptively casual free verse of her late work. My only complaint about this splendid book is that it comes without any supplementary information. It has no introduction, no commentary or notes, no afterword—the reader who wants help with Szymborska’s Polish references, or a sense of the biographical, linguistic, and political overtones of her work, has to look elsewhere.2

Szymborska came of age during World War II, and spent much of her life under Stalinism. Thus she saw her country twice destroyed. She made her literary debut in 1945 with a poem in a Cracow newspaper and in 1949 her first volume was scheduled for publication, but it never appeared. That year Socialist Realism was imposed on Polish artists and, as Czeslaw Milosz has written, “the world of Orwell ceased to be a literary fiction in Poland.”3 Szymborska’s manuscript was attacked for being morbidly obsessed with the war and inaccessible to the masses, and was therefore unpublishable.4

The poets of Szymborska’s generation responded to authoritarian pressures in different ways. Some, like Zbigniew Herbert and Miron Bialoszewski, chose internal exile, or “writing for the drawer”; others, like Rózewicz, who was already famous, and Szymborska, who was virtually unknown, tried to conform. The poems that subsequently went into That’s What We Live For and Questions Put to Myself range from dogmatic denunciations of the old order to strident condemnations of Western imperialism, and they take the Party line on any number of subjects—from the Allied release of German war criminals, to the Korean War, to the sufferings of working people under the capitalist system. Questions Put to Myself contains a few reflective lyrics, largely love poems, but most of the poems are on contemporary issues and make discouraging reading. One critic has described Szymborska’s style in these early books as “agitation-propaganda in a chamber-music manner.”5

But with her third collection, published after the “thaw” of 1956—the year that censorship famously loosened its grip on Poland—Szymborska began to sound her own note. The three poems that Baranczak and Cavanagh have included from Calling Out to Yeti reveal a disillusion with Stalinist politics, and are marked by mordant humor and a deep skepticism. The figure of Yeti, the Abominable Snowman, is the book’s central metaphor for Stalinism. Believing in communism is like believing in the Abominable Snowman: neither offers any human warmth or artistic comfort. “Notes from a Nonexistent Himalayan Expedition” ends:

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!

I called this to the Yeti
inside four walls of avalanche,
stomping my feet for warmth
on the everlasting
snow.

The opening poem of Calling Out to Yeti, “Brueghel’s Two Monkeys,” takes off from the painting Two Monkeys in Chains, in which a pair of monkeys are chained by the waist in the embrasure of a fortress wall. One is turned toward the misty panorama of Antwerp in the background, the other away from it, emblems perhaps of the poet’s divided consciousness.

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.

Brueghel’s painting has been understood as a protest against the Spanish occupation of the Netherlands in the mid-sixteenth century; so, too, in 1957 Szymborska’s poem was widely interpreted as a protest against Stalinist repression.

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.

In the Sixties Szymborska truly hit her stride. From that time her voice has increasingly taken on the sharp sting of experience, while she has not so much developed as perfected her strategies. In many of her poems she first considers a subject, next embraces it, then she reverses herself, undercutting what went before with sharp, disillusioned comment. “See how efficient it still is,/how it keeps itself in shape—/our century’s hatred,” she writes, and “Our twentieth century was going to improve on the others”:

A couple of problems weren’t going
to come up anymore:
hunger, for example,
and war, and so forth.

There was going to be respect
for helpless people’s helplessness,
trust, that kind of stuff.

Anyone who planned to enjoy the world
is now faced
with a hopeless task.

Stupidity isn’t funny.
Wisdom isn’t gay.
Hope
isn’t that young girl anymore,
et cetera, alas.

God was finally going to believe
in a man both good and strong,
but good and strong
are still two different men.
(“The Century’s Decline”)

Szymborska is a highly conceptual poet, and an idiosyncratic one. Reading the great twentieth-century poets—Eliot, for example, or Vallejo—one feels the language moving mysteriously ahead of the thought, the combination of words unlocking perceptions deeper than the conscious mind; hence the high premium these poets place on the irrational and the unconscious in the creative process. In Szymborska’s case the governing rationale of a poem comes first and then develops in unexpected directions, while the poem quietly shifts to close range. “Could Have”6 appears to be set in wartime Poland during the German occupation:

It could have happened.
It had to happen.
It happened earlier. Later.
Nearer. Farther off.
It happened, but not to you.

You were saved because you were the first.
You were saved because you were the last.
Alone. With others.
On the right. The left.
Because it was raining. Because of the shade.
Because the day was sunny.

You were in luck—there was a forest.
You were in luck—there were no trees.
You were in luck—a rake, a hook, a beam, a brake,
a jamb, a turn, a quarter inch, an instant….

So you’re here? Still dizzy from another dodge, close shave, reprieve?
One hole in the net and you slipped through?
I couldn’t be more shocked or speechless.
Listen,
how your heart pounds inside me.

While the poem recalls the brutal uncertainty of the Nazi period, it also addresses the radical contingency of experience itself—the “sheer dumb luck”—that leads to one’s survival. So, too, there is a sense of the vast distance between simple things (“a rake, a hook, a beam, a brake…”) and how much life depends on them. Even the most innocuous objects can become sinister or hazardous, while ridiculous coincidences can account for one’s survival. It’s as if we’re all actors in an unrehearsed slapstick comedy. But the poem ends in bitter irony, for the speaker has had her share of unwitting reprieves, and ruefully pays for them with an incurably guilty conscience.

Szymborska’s mastery of the conditional lends her poetry its wit and its experimental feeling. She will run through all the ramifications of an idea to see what it will yield; indeed, she pursues large, unanswerable questions nonchalantly, with an offhand charm. She typically begins a poem with a simple paradoxical assertion—“The Great Mother has no face” (“A Palaeolithic Fertility Fetish”) or “Four billion people on this earth, /but my imagination is still the same” (“A Large Number”)—which the poem breezily sets out to explore. Just as often a philosophical question is raised: Can time be stopped by a work of art? (“The People on the Bridge”); Is there an afterlife? (“Elegiac Calculation”). Because of her method there’s not much descriptive writing in her work (“Save me, sacred folly of description!” she cries in “Clochard”), though she is capable of quick, precise brushstrokes.

Often she meditates on huge general subjects such as “Hatred” and “True Love” and ranges from the mathematical concept of “Pi” to the socialist ideal of Utopia to the joys of composing poetry. Characteristically a poem is made up of questions (“Plotting with the Dead”). Or of apologies, as in “Under One Small Star”:

My apologies to chance for calling it necessity.
My apologies to necessity if I’m mistaken, after all.
Please, don’t be angry, happiness, that I take you as my due.
May my dead be patient with the way my memories fade.
My apologies to time for all the world I overlook each second.
My apologies to past loves for thinking that the latest is the first.
Forgive me, distant wars, for bringing flowers home.
Forgive me, open wounds, for pricking my finger.
I apologize for my record of minuets to those who cry from the depths.

As this poem progresses the speaker keeps shifting from one category to another. She begs forgiveness from inanimate objects, and even concepts, then from places and from groups of people—everything is anthropomorphized. She herself feels unequal to the world’s sufferings, and fears that by narrowing her focus on the world to make it manageable, she has trivialized it. But all viewpoints are incomplete, all efforts inadequate: “My apologies to everything that I can’t be everywhere at once./My apologies to everyone that I can’t be each woman and each man.” The poem’s conclusion amounts to a small ars poetica:

Don’t bear me ill will, speech, that I borrow weighty words,
then labor heavily so that they may seem light.

Szymborska plays with scale and changes in voice throughout her work. She will take a nonhuman perspective in order to expose what people are really like, speaking through some small animal like a tarsier, or from the point of view of a god observing human beings from a vast height and in a bemused outrage, as in “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!

The miniaturization of human beings gives a Swiftian quality to Szymborska’s work, as she shifts the scale to examine humanity under a magnifying glass. And she is an especially keen ironist of sentimentality and political cant.

And who’s this little fellow in his itty-bitty robe?
That’s tiny baby Adolf, the Hitlers’ little boy!
(“Hitler’s First Photograph”)

The key to Szymborska’s style may well be her subversive variations on familiar rhetoric, as she enters a debate already in progress or responds to a well-known story with a surprising perspective. In “An Opinion on the Question of Pornography” she turns the argument for legalizing pornography on its head to include the scandalous pleasures of thought itself: “There’s nothing more debauched than thinking,” the speaker declares; “This sort of wantonness runs wild like a wind-borne-weed/on a plot laid out for daisies.” The context is the growing underground intellectual dissent of the late Seventies, and the period of martial law in the early Eighties when people gathered in private apartments to talk about forbidden books. Sometimes the secret police parked outside to intimidate participants in this orgy of thinking. The poem is filled with double entendres (“It’s shocking, the positions,/the unchecked simplicity with which/one mind contrives to fertilize another!”), but there is a sinister undertow:

Only now and then does somebody get up,
go to the window,
and through a crack in the curtains
take a peep out at the street.

One of Szymborska’s most daring poems,”Lot’s Wife,” retells the biblical story from the vantage point of the main character.

They say I looked back out of curiosity,
but I could have had other reasons.
I looked back mourning my silver bowl.
Carelessly, while tying my sandal strap,
So I wouldn’t have to keep staring at the righteous nape
of my husband Lot’s neck.
From the sudden conviction that if I dropped dead
he wouldn’t so much as hesitate.
From the disobedience of the meek.
Checking for pursuers.
Struck by the silence, hoping God had changed his mind.

Each new reason displaces the ones before, and we can’t reliably tell whether Lot’s wife turned back from torpor or desolation, from shame or loss. It may be too complicated even for her to comprehend (“I looked back for all the reasons given above”); or it may have been inadvertent (“I looked back involuntarily”). The intimacy with which Szymborska treats the legend here transforms it, and for all its playfulness it echoes with the tragedy of a woman’s bitter fate:

No, no. I ran on,
I crept, I flew upward
until darkness fell from the heavens
and with it scorching gravel and dead birds.
I couldn’t breathe and spun around and around.
Anyone who saw me must have thought I was dancing.
It’s not inconceivable that my eyes were open.
It’s possible I fell facing the city.

Szymborska’s poetry takes place much of the time, as here, on the edge of an abyss. It is the poetry of the close shave. And it’s not only accidents we contend with, but history itself, with its hatreds and more deaths than we can count (“the impeccable executioner/towering over its soiled victim”), catastrophes that defy the imagination. Yet the world keeps mysteriously renewing itself. This is the theme of “Reality Demands”:

Reality demands
that we also mention this:
Life goes on.
It continues at Cannae and Borodino,
at Kosovo Polje and Guernica.

There’s a gas station
on a little square in Jericho,
and wet paint
on park benches in Bila Hora.
Letters fly back and forth
between Pearl Harbor and Hastings,
a moving van passes
beneath the eye of the lion at Cheronea,
and the blooming orchards near Verdun
cannot escape
the approaching atmospheric front.

There is so much Everything
that Nothing is hidden quite nicely.

Eventually even the worst of destructions can recede: “On tragic mountain passes/the wind rips hats from unwitting heads/and we can’t help/laughing at that.”

Yet for all Szymborska’s bitter awareness of human fallibility, time and again commonplace miracles happen: fluttering white doves, a small cloud upstaging the moon, mild winds turning gusty in a hard storm. Szymborska slyly entitles a poem about evolution “Thomas Mann.” “Dear mermaids, it was bound to happen./ Beloved fauns and honorable angels,/evolution has emphatically cast you out.” But Nature never anticipated such a creature as the German novelist: “She somehow missed the moment when a mammal turned up/with its hand miraculously feathered by a fountain pen.” So, too, coming upon Szymborska’s work, with its strange mixture of world-weariness and exhilaration, can seem something of a miracle.

  1. 1

    There have been three previous English-language translations: Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts, an excellent enface edition of seventy poems translated and introduced by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire (Princeton University Press, 1981); a Selected Poems that consists of forty lyrics translated by Grazyna Drebik, Austin Flint, and Sharon Olds (Quarterly Review of Literature, 1982); and People on a Bridge, a useful translation by Adam Czerniawski (Forrest Books, 1990).

  2. 2

    In this regard Krynski and Maguire’s scholarly edition is the most helpful book in English. I also recommend Madeline Levine’s chapter on Szymborska in her study, Contemporary Polish Poetry: 1925–1975 (Twayne, 1981), and Baranczak’s piece in Breathing Under Water and Other East European Essays (Harvard University Press, 1990). Baranczak and Cavanagh also provide a backdrop for reading Szymborska’s later work in their anthology of Polish poetry of the last two decades of Communist rule, Spoiling Cannibals’ Fun (Northwestern University Press, 1991).

  3. 3

    The History of Polish Literature (University of California Press, 1969), p. 45.

  4. 4

    For an account of this work, most of which has never been published in book from, and the circumstances of its reception, see Adam Wlodek, “Debiut z przygodami,” Miesecznik Literacki (October 1968), pp. 44–50.

  5. 5

    As cited in Krynski and Maguire, Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts, p.4.

  6. 6

    Krynski and Maguire translate the poem’s title as “There But for the Grace.”

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