Staring Through the Stitches

Poems New and Collected, 1957-1997

by Wislawa Szymborska, translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh
Harcourt Brace, 273 pp., $27.00

New Collected Poems

by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robin Fulton
Bloodaxe Books Ltd./Dufour Editions, 219 pp., $21.95 (paper)

Two admirable postwar poets, Wislawa Szymborska (born in 1923 in Poland) and Tomas Tranströmer (born in 1931 in Sweden), troubled by what they saw as the moral insufficiencies of both formal religion and Marxist optimism, have sought spiritual understanding outside organized institutions. Of course, few reflective persons who lived through the same period were exempt from such thoughts. But lyric poets, who may be as aware as any novelist of what is happening in society, must condense social questions into personal ones and must transform written language by giving it rhythmic breath and musical cadence. Both Szymborska and Tranströmer are poets of striking brevity: Szymborska questions the conventional movements of thought in our mental and social life, while Tranströmer meditates on the powerful unseen, unconscious forces that underlie our moments of waking awareness. Szymborska was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1996; Tranströmer is frequently, and justly, mentioned as a poet deserving the same prize.

I have written on these poets before, always aware how much better a Polish or Swedish critic could describe their originality. Relying on translation, one has to trust the translator. Stanislaw Baranczak (whose translations of Shakespeare now appear on the Polish stage) and his American collaborator Clare Cavanagh have been translating Szymborska for some years, and Czeslaw Milosz has testified to Stanislaw Baranczak’s amazing versatility in finding English equivalents for Polish verse and Polish equivalents for English verse. The British poet Robin Fulton has for several years been composing and revising, with Tranströmer’s help and advice, the translations printed in this newest collection. I am grateful to Baranczak, Cavanagh, and Fulton (as well as other translators) for bringing me the work of these poets.

When I first read Szymborska, I was taken with her offbeat angle of vision; she treats bleak reality whimsically, mordantly. I thought sometimes of Emily Dickinson: just as Dickinson began with valentines and poems that were “appealing” in the manner allowed to nineteenth-century women, so Szymborska (in the earlier poems she has allowed to be translated, which come from her third volume and subsequent ones) sometimes begins in the fanciful tones of a reflective girl. In a poem called “Still Life with a Balloon,” for instance, Szymborska decides that at the moment of death, instead of seeing returning memories, she would prefer to re-encounter—so as to reject—“lost objects”:

Avalanches of gloves,
coats, suitcases, umbrellas—
come, and I’ll say at last:
What good’s all this?

Safety pins, two odd combs,
a paper rose, a knife,
some string—come, and I’ll say
at last: I haven’t missed you.

The list goes on to include a lost key, affidavits, permits, questionnaires, and a watch, and finally arrives at the poet’s first loss—a toy balloon “once kidnapped by the wind.” We could interpret this lightness with respect to a serious subject as in part a reaction by the poet to what has been described as the “heavy” socialist realism of her first two, untranslated, books.

It became…

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