UNDER ONE SMALL STAR
When I showed up to open the bookstore this morning, my boss told me that Wislawa Szymborska died yesterday and I promptly burst into tears.
There’s no contemporary poet whose poems have meant more to me than Szymborksa’s. I spent years trying to track her down after reading her poem, “Lot’s Wife,” in high school. I remembered the poem, but not her name. In college I found her again and I’ve been in love ever since. Her book, Here, was my first staff recommendation. She’s probably the poet I’ve posted most on this blog. I’m really sad she won’t write any more poems, but dying at home and in your sleep at 88 seems a pretty good way to go.
The Poetry Foundation’s blog, Harriet, posted an obituary for Szymborska. I love her Nobel Lecture from 1996. NPR referred to her as a “heavy smoker.” I think she’s in no small part responsible for my desire to go spend months in eastern Europe.
No single poem of Szymborska’s does justice to her career as a poet, but I’ve been planning to post this one, “Some People Like Poetry,” for a few weeks now. It seems particularly fitting, because I’ve had multiple people tell me that I won them over to poetry when I had them read Szymborska. If you haven’t been won over yet, there’s still time. Start with this:
Some People Like Poetry
that is not everybody
Not even the majority but the minority.
Not counting the schools where one must,
and the poets themselves,
there will be perhaps two in a thousand.
but we also like chicken noodle soup,
we like compliments and the color blue,
we like our old scarves,
we like to have our own way,
we like to pet dogs.
but what is poetry.
More than one flimsy answer
has been given to that question.
And I don’t know, and don’t know, and I
cling to it as to a life line.
Before a Journey
They call it: space.
It’s easy to define with that one word,
much harder with many.
Empty and full of everything at once?
Shut tight in spite of being open,
can escape from it?
Inflated beyond all limits?
And if it has a limit,
what the devil does it border on?
Well, all fine and good. But go to sleep now.
It’s night, tomorrow you’ve got more pressing matters
made to measure for you:
touching objects close at hand,
casting glances at the intended distance.
Listening to voices within earshot.
Then that journey from point A to point B.
Departure at 12:40 local time,
and flight above the puffs of local clouds
through whichever infinitely
fleeting strip of sky.
~ Wisława Szymborska
translated from the Polish
by Claire Cavanagh & Stanislaw Barańczak
ON DEATH, WITHOUT EXAGGERATION
It can’t take a joke,
find a star, make a bridge.
It knows nothing about weaving, mining, farming,
building ships, or baking cakes.
In our planning for tomorrow,
it has the final word,
which is always beside the point.
It can’t even get the things done
that are part of its trade:
dig a grave,
make a coffin,
clean up after itself.
Preoccupied with killing,
it does the job awkwardly,
without system or skill.
As though each of us were its first kill.
Oh, it has its triumphs,
but look at its countless defeats,
and repeat attempts!
Sometimes it isn’t strong enough
to swat a fly from the air.
Many are the caterpillars
that have outcrawled it.
All those bulbs, pods,
tentacles, fins, tracheae,
nuptial plumage, and winter fur
show that it has fallen behind
with its halfhearted work.
Ill will won’t help
and even our lending a hand with wars and coups d’etat
is so far not enough.
Hearts beat inside eggs.
Babies’ skeletons grow.
Seeds, hard at work, sprout their first tiny pair of leaves
and sometimes even tall trees fall away.
Whoever claims that it’s omnipotent
is himself living proof
that it’s not.
There’s no life
that couldn’t be immortal
if only for a moment.
always arrives by that very moment too late.
In vain it tugs at the knob
of the invisible door.
As far as you’ve come
can’t be undone.
~ Wisława Szymborska