The Genius of a Neighbor

Map: Collected and Last Poems

by Wisława Szymborska, translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Barańczak
Mariner, 447 pp., $16.95 (paper)
Wisława Szymborska, Kraków, 1984; photograph by Joanna Helander
Joanna Helander
Wisława Szymborska, Kraków, 1984; photograph by Joanna Helander

Wisława Szymborska (1923–2012) was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1996, but she came of age in the late 1930s, in Poland; and to judge by the evidence in Map: Collected and Last Poems, her wit and judgment were sharpened and her disposition of charity deepened by the war years. Yet Szymborska was always an artist in a broader sense than personal history or world history allows. She worked, early on, as an illustrator of children’s books, and this detail of her experience seems pertinent; it goes with her ability to seize an image for immediate use, a sixth sense for the moment when a pause is needed, or when the reader’s patience for indicative statement has run out. She was an artist of eye and ear (both considered as parts of the mind). And she was gifted with the responsive humor and tact that can make a person seem a peer, a familiar presence, far outside her native environment.

As we are made to feel throughout this generous volume, Szymborska addresses her readers with the candor of an unheralded neighbor—someone we never met but were always curious about when we saw her passing by. The impression of familiarity is ordinary and at the same time magical; and it has been strengthened by some of the most effective and colloquially vigorous translations of poetry in modern English. Perhaps that is all that ought to be said by a reviewer who does not read Polish. In these versions by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Barańczak, Szymborska’s poems seem the direct transcriptions of a person speaking her thoughts without any intervening medium.

Her poems loiter with intent and pick out occasions for wonder in the most taken-for-granted animals, minerals, or vegetables. What is there to say about an onion? It is white and fibrous and uniform, layer after layer the same from the outside in. The onion may appear to be a monotony void of tint or texture. Szymborska denies this and asks us to imagine, on the contrary, that it might be human innards that deserve reproach:

Our skin is just a cover-up
for the land where none dare go,
an internal inferno,
the anathema of anatomy.
In an onion there’s only onion
from its top to its toe,
onionymous monomania,
unanimous omninudity.

The redundancy of the acrid bulb and root was an unlooked-for elegance, after all.

An element of sheer play is prominent in Szymborska—she wants to surprise herself—though Diaghilev’s “Astonish me!” would strike her as a pretentious demand. Her wit is never merely verbal, and her perceptions seldom shape themselves into an aphorism or fling off the sparks of an epigram (nor does one want them to). A favorite subject is the chance encounter—“happenstance,”…

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