Poem: On Death, Without Exaggeration

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,
missed blows,
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.

Death
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

From “The People on the Bridge”, 1986
Translated by S. Baranczak & C. Cavanagh

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6 thoughts on “Poem: On Death, Without Exaggeration

  1. “There’s no life
    that couldn’t be immortal
    if only for a moment.”

    I like that … not quite sure I’ve untwisted the double negative to the full extent, but my brain is in physics mode currently, gearing up for Linear Algebra. However, that is a tattoo idea…hope that doesn’t bother you, if it does let me know.

    • It doesn’t. I could get some Szymborska tattooed on myself (in fact, I’m now thinking about this…). I also love her poem “Travel Elegy” from the same collection:

      TRAVEL ELEGY

      Everything’s mine though just on loan,
      nothing for the memory to hold,
      though mine as long as I look.

      Memories come to mind like excavated statues
      that have misplaced their heads.

      From the town of Samokov, only rain
      and more rain.

      Paris from Louvre to fingernail
      grows web-eyed by the moment.

      Boulevard Saint-Martin: some stairs
      leading into a fadeout.

      Only a bridge and a half
      from Leningrad of the bridges.

      Poor Uppsala, reduced to a splinter
      of its mighty cathedral.

      Sofia’s hapless dancer,
      a form without a face.

      Then separately, his face without eyes;
      separately again, his eyes with no pupils,
      and, finally, the pupils of a cat.

      A Caucasian eagle soars
      over the reproduction of a canyon,
      the fool’s gold of the sun,
      the phony stones.

      Everything’s mine but just on loan,
      nothing for the memory to hold,
      though mine as long as I look.

      Inexhaustible, unembracable,
      but particular to the smallest fiber,
      grain of sand, drop of water—
      landscapes.

      I won’t retain one blade of grass
      as it’s truly seen.

      Salutation and farewell
      in a single glance.

      For surplus and absence alike,
      a single motion of the neck.

      ~ Wisława Szymborska

      My favorite lines in this one are “I won’t retain one blade of grass/ As it’s truly seen.” This woman’s poetry undoes me.

  2. Pingback: Best of 2011 | The Art of Reading

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