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Poetry of second glances

Monologue of a Dog New Poems Wislawa Szymborska; translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak; foreword by Billy Collins Harcourt: 96 pp., $22

November 06, 2005|Peter Filkins | Peter Filkins is the translator of Ingeborg Bachmann's collected poems, "Darkness Spoken," due out in January. He teaches at Simon's Rock College of Bard, in Great Barrington, Mass.

THE awarding of the 1996 Nobel Prize to the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska marked a triumph of the often underrated powers of discernment and good humor. Even now, in our cynical times, her poems offer a restorative wit as playful as it is steely and as humble as it is wise. Most poets jostle for center stage, but Szymborska looks on from afar, her wry acceptance of life's folly remaining her strongest weapon against tyranny and bad taste.

Thankfully, fame has not changed her. In "Monologue of a Dog" (translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak, who present the original Polish on facing pages), Szymborska is in top form. One need only turn to "A Few Words on the Soul" to hear the same even-keeled tone that has dismantled platitudes for decades. "We have a soul at times. / No one's got it non-stop, / for keeps," she states blandly, but what at first seems merely humorous or humble turns weighty when we recall that the poet is 82. The fissure of that line-break between "non-stop" and "for keeps" poignantly underscores her tenuous hold in the face of time. Rather than bemoan or dwell on her own state, however, Szymborska points the camera toward others, observing that the soul

... rarely lends a hand

in uphill tasks,

like moving furniture,

or lifting luggage,

or going miles in shoes that pinch.

It usually steps out

whenever meat needs chopping

or forms have to be filled.

This list is not arbitrary. Buried in it are the displacement and suffering that characterized much of the last century. The "shoes that pinch" belong to the refugee as well as the tourist; the meat that "needs chopping," the forms that "have to be filled" recall not just the pleasant distraction of daily chores but also the witch's brew of butchery and tedium that is history's elixir of choice.

Szymborska's voice may be understated, but she is not a poet to be underestimated. Writing on "The Silence of Plants," she is puzzled at "how to answer unasked questions" presumably waiting to be posed by plants, even though she is "a nobody" to them. This seems an odd problem to write about, but the poet willfully involves us in the strangeness of her condition: There is no way of talking to plants, and yet we talk among "[u]ndergrowth, coppices, meadows, rushes" all the time. "Talking with you is essential and impossible," the poet declares, aware that such talking, fruitless as it may seem, is "[u]rgent in this hurried life / and postponed to never." The silence infusing this dark grace note is as eternal as those plants, and it is a credit to the supple translation that "never" is here imbued with the concreteness of a noun.

Billy Collins notes in his brief foreword that "Szymborska's poetry manages to be plain-spoken and mysterious at the same time." This is what makes it a poetry of second glances. In "Moment," Szymborska describes "[w]oods disguised as woods alive without end" where "birds in flight play birds in flight." She then demonstrates her uncanny ability to slow a moment down to a grain of time when she announces in the last stanza, "This moment reigns as far as the eye can reach. / One of those earthly moments / invited to linger." The poem turns on the fulcrum of that last line, for in the urge to invite those woods and birds "to linger," the poet suddenly finds herself wanting to keep hold of them and knows she cannot. The human spirit flourishes within such limits, however, and the persistence of that spirit is what Szymborska's poems evoke and sustain.

"I can't speak for others," the poet demurely avows, yet such modesty is what allows her to speak so directly to us. Writing on "The Ball" that is the Earth afloat in space, Szymborska reduces the immeasurable to the measurable by describing the planet as "this sleepy backwater / where even the stars have time to burn / while winking at us / unintentionally." The placement of this last chilly modifier saves the poem from the sentimental or maudlin -- and strengthens the poet's claim that "for me this is / misery and happiness enough." She will speak for us after all, but like those glittering stars, unintentionally. Rare is the poet who trusts her audience to look below the surface of such simplicity. Even more rare is the humane light that Wislawa Szymborska casts so adroitly and comically on the human condition in the 26 poems gathered here. *

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