Into the Ark

Into the Ark

An endless rain is just beginning.
Into the ark, for where else can you go,
you poems for a single voice,
private exultations,
unnecessary talents,
surplus curiosity,
short-range sorrows and fears,
eagerness to see things from all six sides.

Rivers are swelling and bursting their banks.
Into the ark, all you chiaroscuros and half-tones,
you details, ornaments, and whims,
silly exceptions,
forgotten signs,
countless shades of the color gray,
play for play’s sake,
and tears of mirth.

As far as the eye can see, there’s water and hazy horizon.
Into the ark, plans for the distant future,
joy in difference,
admiration for the better man,
choice not narrowed down to one of two,
outworn scruples,
time to think it over,
and the belief that all this
will still come in handy someday.

For the sake of the children
that we still are,
fairy tales have happy endings.
That’s the only finale that will do here, too.
The rain will stop,
the waves will subside,
the clouds will part
in the cleared-up sky,
and they’ll be once more what clouds overhead ought to be:
lofty and rather lighthearted
in their likeness to things
drying in the sun—
isles of bliss,

– Wislawa Szymborksa

U is for “Under One Small Star”


My apologies to chance for calling it necessity. 
My apologies to necessity if I’m mistaken, after all. 
Please, don’t be angry, happiness, that I take you as my due.
May my dead be patient with the way my memories fade. 
My apologies to time for all the world I overlook each second. 
My apologies to past loves for thinking that the latest is the first. 
Forgive me, distant wars, for bringing flowers home. 
Forgive me, open wounds, for pricking my finger. 
I apologize for my record of minuets to those who cry from the depths. 
I apologize to those who wait in railway stations for being asleep today at five a.m. 
Pardon me, hounded hope, for laughing from time to time. 
Pardon me, deserts, that I don’t rush to you bearing a spoonful of water. 
And you, falcon, unchanging year after year, always in the same cage, 
your gaze always fixed on the same point in space,
forgive me, even if it turns out you were stuffed. 
My apologies to the felled tree for the table’s four legs.
My apologies to great questions for small answers. 
Truth, please don’t pay me much attention. 
Dignity, please be magnanimous. 
Bear with me, O mystery of existence, as I pluck the occasional thread from your train. 
Soul, don’t take offense that I’ve only got you now and then. 
My apologies to everything that I can’t be everywhere at once. 
My apologies to everyone that I can’t be each woman and each man. 
I know I won’t be justified as long as I live, 
since I myself stand in my own way. 
Don’t bear me ill will, speech, that I borrow weighty words,
then labor heavily so that they may seem light. 
~ Wisława Szymborska

“Famous smoker and erstwhile poet…”


Wislawa Szymborska 1923-2012

 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.

God, she's cool.

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

Some people—
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.

Wislawa Szymborska


Before a Journey


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,

since nothing

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