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

My Favorite Books of 2010

I won’t speak for the best books of 2010 (if you’d like to read some people who do, read lists here, here, or here), but I can speak for my favorites, and here they are:

Two Serious Ladies – Jane Bowles

This novel is now one of my favorite books. I wrote extensively about how much I loved it right after I finished it this spring.

Here – Wislawa Szymborksa

I love this collection of poetry. I’ve been reading and rereading it for weeks now, and I’m thoroughly looking forward to having it with me for years to come.

Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It – Maile Meloy

This is a terrific collection of short stories. Achingly intense situations, spare writing that spares no one (least of all the reader), this is one of the books I recommended most to people this year. I hope some of them read it and that at least a few loved it as much as I did.

King Lear – Shakespeare.

I don’t know why I’ve read King Lear so many times in 2010 (by so many, I mean I’ve read through it completely twice and returned to parts of it far more often) but somehow this play has been integral to the fabric of my thoughts this year. So many of its themes (self-knowledge, loyalty, friendship, madness, fools and foolishness, aging, loss) have played important roles in my thoughts and writing over the past twelve months.

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Oh So Honorable Mentions: The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner; Sirens of Titan, Kurt Vonnegut; The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolano; The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoevsky; Just Kids, Patti Smith; The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis; Sakura Park, Rachel Wetzsteon; The Open Road, Pico Iyer; The Complete Julian of Norwich; 9 Stories and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, by J.D. Salinger; Sonnets from the Portuguese, Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

I also really loved 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, The Anthologist, the writings of Marcus Aurelius, Don Paterson’s Rain, A House and Its Head, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, and rereading Milton’s Paradise Lost. I could go on, but I won’t.

I haven’t kept up with this blog very well over the past few months. Most of the major blog-related projects I attempted were abandoned rather speedily. But I actually think that’s for the best. I guess we’ll find out in 2011. Happy New Year!

My first staff recommendation.

I’ve always thought I’d really enjoy writing staff recommendations if I ever got a job at a bookstore. Well, as you may or may not know, I did get a job at a bookstore (which is in large part why I’ve been such a negligent writer recently…though to be honest there are more complicated factors in play when it comes to the near-complete absence of writing from my recent life) and the whole staff rec thing actually was a bit of a challenge for me…

But I did finally write one, spurred on by the fact that a book came out by a poet who I really love and who I want to recommend to everyone. I figured since this recommendation counts as writing about reading, it’s only fair I share it here as well.

So, here’s my recommendation for Here, a newly released collection of poems by Wislawa Szymborksa.

Polish Nobel Laureate Wisława Szymborksa is one of my favorite poets, perhaps my favorite living poet. She’s certainly the one I’d most like to have tea with, if cover photos are anything to go by.

If you’ve never read Szymborksa before, the 27 poems in this short volume are a wonderful introduction to her work, and if you’ve been following her poetry for years, Here is like a long awaited conversation with an old friend who’s been living far, far away.

This collection showcases the roaming curiosity of Szymborksa’s poetic eye (she writes about everything from metaphysics and memory to assassins, accidents, and the art of poetry itself), her ability to create language which is simultaneously intricate and direct, and the modesty, wisdom and humor which made me love her poetry in the first place. These are poems which open outward even as they zero in, poems of such simplicity and depth that they’ll move you on the first reading and stay with you for years to come.

~ Margaret