When this slim volume arrived in the noon mail, I put down what I was doing and read it right away. That's how much I enjoy Szymborska's exceptional, soaring yet concrete poetry. It didn't hurt that the translators are Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak: I have admired their work before. These poems seem so colloquial in tone and subject! Is that because of Szymborska, who writes in Polish, a language I don't know, or the translators? I suspect both: Szymbroska writes of a heightened everyday experience (this, plus the beauty and aptness of her choice of images) is what makes her poems immediately accessible. And to be a good translator of poetry is to be a poet in one's own right.
These are short poems --the longest runs two and a half pages, most under two pages and a number of them are half a page to a page long. The original, in Polish, is presented on the left hand side, the English translation on the right.
Here is a series of poems about all sorts of things --on divorce, on memory, on looking back at oneself as a teenager. There are (short) paeans to Ella Fitzgerald and to Vermeer's astounding painting, Milkmaid. The longest poem is a mock interview with Mme. Atropos, the goddess who cuts the strings of our lifelines and introduces us to Death.
The lead poem, 'Here,' catalogs the mundane objects and extraordinary feelings we experience in this material world: "... chairs and sorrows,/scissors, tenderness, transistors, violins,/teacups, dams, and quips...' 'Ignorance works overtime here,' she writes, 'something is always being counted, compared, measured,/from which roots and conclusions are then drawn.' She ends the poem:
Life on Earth is quite a bargain.
Dreams, for one, don't charge admission.
Illusions are costly only when lost.
The body has its own installment plan.
And as an extra, added feature,
you spin on the planets' carousel for free,
and with it you hitch a ride on the intergalactic blizzard,
with times so dizzying
that nothing here on Earth can even tremble.
Just take a closer look:
the table stands exactly where it stood,
the piece of paper still lies where it was spread,
through the open window comes a breath of air,
the walls reveal no terrifying cracks
through which nowhere might extinguish you.
Not all of the poems in this collection work. I could have done without "Ella in Heaven" and "Vermeer" --not that they're bad but they feel shallow, as though pretending to more meaning than they actually show. But immediately after these two short poems, there is another, equally short one, entitled "Metaphysics," and she has won me over again.
It's been and gone.
It's been, so it's gone.
In the same irreversible order,
for such is the rule of this foregone game.
A trite conclusion, not worth writing
if it weren't for an unmentionable fact,
a fact for ever and ever,
for the whole cosmos, as it was was and will be,
that something really was
until it was gone,
even the fact
that today you had a side of fries.
I do not think this is a wholly successful poem. Robert Creeley, for one, has long done this kind of thing better. But I admire Szymborska for trying it, and I love the way she plays with simple, not complicated, words to express both simple and complex thoughts and moods. Long may her flag wave high!