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2.02.2012

Wislawa Szymborska Has Died


As a fiction writer, I have always been afraid of poetry. Poetry was and is murky territory of seemingly unfinished sentences, symbolic metaphor, concentrated emotion and thought: I didn't "get it."

One of the first poets to steal my heart was Wislawa Szymborska, who died Wednesday of lung cancer at the age of 88. I read it at work, and I thought my heart dropped in disbelief.

To confess: I found a book of hers by accident because the name was interesting. Wislawa Szymborska? Actually:  VEES-mah-vah shim-BOR-ska. I remember stumbling upon it, but not buying it, yet coming to it time and again at the bookstore (no one ever bought it like no one reads poetry), I read the poems, eventually reading the book and coming back to my favorite ones.

I couldn't understand why exactly I liked the poem. I have no idea what makes a poem "good."

But thing about Szymborska was that her language was simple, yet was not condescending--in fact far from it. Her works looked at existential questions with a firm grasp of humanism. Far from being melancholy or worse incomprehendable, it was accessible, playful, yet expanded the mind in its celebration of humanity.

Her poems were quirky and belied its own seriousness and her love of human nature, however complex that concept could be (and this she recognized).

In one poem, in which the narrator speaks to a secluded Yeti creature, she writes ("Notes from a Nonexistent Himalayan Expedition"):
Yeti, down there we've got Wednesday,
bread and alphabets.
Two times two is four.
Roses are red there,
and violets are blue.
It's nearly childish, simplistic, yet it was a celebration of the humaness, the world we created: though it can be bad at times, we are good people capable of forgiveness, hope, and art. As the poem continues:
Yeti, crime is not all
we're up to down there.
Yeti, not every sentence there
means death.
We've inherited hope —
the gift of forgetting.
You'll see how we give
birth among the ruins.
Yeti, we've got Shakespeare there.
Yeti, we play solitaire
and violin. At nightfall,
we turn lights on, Yeti.
The celebration of life was not always totally optimistic and cool. In "Consolation" she explored the importance of beauty (even imagined) in a world that is often cruel:
Scanning in his mind so many times and places,
he’d had enough of dying species,
the triumphs of the strong over the weak,
the endless struggles to survive,
all doomed sooner or later.
He’d earned the right to happy endings,
at least in fiction
with its diminutions.
Yet, in her work, however humanity behaves, whatever befalls us, it was clear that she was in love with and focused on "Here," where human nature is a thing of beauty:
I don’t know about other places,
but here on Earth there’s quite a lot of everything.
Here chairs are made and sadness,
scissors, violins, tenderness, transistors,
water dams, jokes, teacups.

Maybe somewhere else there is more of everything,
only for some reason there are no paintings there,
cathode-ray tubes, dumplings, tissues for tears.
There are plenty of places here with surroundings.
Some you can particularly get to like,
name them your own way
and protect them from evil.

Maybe somewhere else there are similar places,
But no one considers them beautiful.

Maybe like nowhere else, or in few other places,
here you have your own body trunk,
and with it the tools needed,
to add your children to those of others.
Besides that your hands, legs, and the amazed head.

Ignorance here is hard at work,
constantly measuring, comparing, counting,
drawing conclusions and finding square roots.

I know, I know what you’re thinking.
Nothing is permanent here,
for since ever forever in the power of the elements.
But notice—the elements get easily tired
and sometimes they have to take a long rest
before the next time.

And I know what else you’re thinking.
Wars, wars, wars.
But even between them there happen to be breaks.
Attention—people are evil.
At ease—people are good.
At attention we produce wastelands.
At ease by the sweat of our brows we build houses
and quickly live in them.

Life on earth turns out quite cheap.
For dreams for instance you don’t pay a penny.
For illusions—only when they’re lost.
For owning a body—only with the body.

And as if this was not enough,
you spin without a ticket in the carousel of the planets,
and along with it, dodging the fare, in the blizzard of galaxies,
through eras so astounding,
that nothing here on Earth can even twitch on time.

For take a good look:
the table stands where it stood,
on the table the paper, exactly as placed,
through the window ajar just a waft of the air,
and in the walls no terrifying cracks,
through which you could be blown out to nowhere.
This is why I love poetry.

PS I eventually did buy that book.

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