Wislawa Szymborska and the Grand Narrative
from The Kenyon Review, Winter 2013
One rainy fall evening in Kraków my neighbor Justyna, an elementary school teacher, came by our apartment. We walked into the kitchen where I made a pot of tea, and she told me about an upcoming trip. We were chatting about buses, the quickest way to the mountains, and Poland's "golden autumn," when she paused to say her grandfather will not sleep outside his home. When I asked why, she said that he is afraid of returning to strangers, that several months after the end of World War Two, a Soviet soldier stood in his doorway, informing him that he and his family were to be moved. Riding on a train east, Justyna's mother remembers peering through the car's wooden slats and watching trees rush by. Sometimes she saw trains running on the opposite track.
Sixty years after the end of the war, the past is present, not just in Kraków's miraculously undamaged Renaissance buildings, but also in coal-stained tenements like mine. Situated in a neighborhood that was once home to many secular Jews, the building had many of its original art nouveau fixtures: hanging lights, old doorbells, and dulled brass mail slots mounted in the heavy doors. Ours read "BRIEFE," or "letters," in German instead of "POCZTA" in Polish, startling me the first time I realized what it was I saw. I couldn't help feeling strange when I walked into the administration building at Jagiellonian University where I worked. In 1939, 183 faculty members entered its great hall for what they thought was a meeting. After they arrived, the Nazis locked the doors and condemned the professors to imprisonment at Sachsenhausen and Dachau. In Warsaw's meticulously rebuilt old town, decorative details that survived the German bombardment have been worked into buildings like pieces of a scattered puzzle. The Polish army's bomb squad arrives on construction sites a few times a year to remove Russian ordinance. The next spring they worked outside Justyna's school.
For almost two centuries, since Poland was first erased from the map in 1795, its land divided between Russia, Austria, and Prussia, until the fall of communism in 1989, poets kept Polish identity alive. The Romantic poets first took up the country's cause with their patriotic poems and plays and active participation in underground activities; they were followed by writers who became members of the Home Army, many of whom were killed during the disastrous 1944 Warsaw Uprising. While these writers were fighting and tending the wounded, others turned to communism in hope of transforming their war-torn country. Poets Anna Swir and Zbigniew Herbert belonged to the first group; Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska belonged to the second. When Szymborska realized she had been practicing what she elsewhere called "magical thinking" and was implicated in the deaths of her fellow Poles, she abandoned communism to question the ways stories are made. Szymborska's latest book in English, Here, which combines her Polish book Here (2009) with other poems, contains many revisions of earlier works. The volume can be read as a deepening investigation into the ways in which narrative shapes experience.
Born in 1923, Szymborska and her family moved to Kraków when she was eight years old. After the invasion and subsequent Nazi shutdown of schools, Szymborska attended a secret study group to obtain her high school diploma and took underground university classes. She became a member of a communist youth group and published her first poem in the communist newspaper, Polish Daily. Her first manuscript, Poems, which concentrated on the war's aftermath, was ready for publication in 1948; however, a campaign against Szymborska was mounted, an indication of the differences between communist groups as they fought for political power, and students were encouraged to send letters to a local paper shaming her for her bourgeois poems, resulting in the book's cancellation. Four years later, she joined the Polish Writers' Union and the Socialist Party, and her new manuscript of socialist-realist verse, That's Why We Live, appeared. It was followed by Questions I Put to Myself in 1954. During this time, Szymborska joined the staff of party magazine Literary Life where she served as poetry editor until 1966 when she resigned from both the socialist party and the writers' union to protest the maltreatment of philosopher Lezek Kolakowski during a nationwide wave of anti-Semitism. She continued at the magazine in other capacities until 1981 when she resigned in support of the Solidarity movement. During the period of martial law, or what in Poland is called "the war against the people," she published in Polish exile magazines and underground journals under the name Stanczykowna, a sixteenth-century court jester famous for his political bite.
Szymborska's communist past is difficult for some Poles to accept. In her excellent book, Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russia, Poland, and the West, Clare Cavanagh, who cotranslates Szymborska's work with Polish poet Stanislaw Baranczak, relates the story of a man calling the 1996 Nobel laureate an opportunist, joining the party to advance her career and leaving it when the tides of power began to change. Bloggers post poems from Szymborska's first two books praising Stalin. Others write about her support of death sentences for people charged as American spies during communist times and despair over her being awarded the Order of the White Eagle, Poland's highest cultural honor. Some of her countrymen believe that the Nobel should have been awarded to Herbert, who never joined the party and stopped publishing in 1949 with the imposition of socialist realism. He wrote, as the saying goes, only "for the drawer" until 1955 when his poems appeared in the pages of Literary Life, Szymborska publishing his work alongside commentary from established poets and critics. This concentration on Szymborska's past and the arguments made to disown her are similar to the post-communist lustration trials of politicians, who, if found guilty of collaborating with the Soviets, are barred from further participation in government. She participated, the thinking goes, so she should no longer be celebrated.
Although Szymborska remained a member of the party until 1966, her break with communism began sometime before the publication of her third book, Calling Out to Yeti (1957), during the height of the Polish thaw. Deeply disappointed with the government, although keeping party privileges, she and many other poets attempted to make amends for their past beliefs. Milosz, who had worked in the Polish diplomatic service, explains his membership this way: "My experiences during [the Nazi occupation] led me to the conclusion that after the defeat of Hitler, only men true to a socialist program would be capable of abolishing the injustices of the past and rebuilding the economy of Central and Eastern Europe."(1) To get a sense of the devastation to which Milosz refers, imagine the capital city of Warsaw, three times the size of Washington, D.C. Now imagine Warsaw after the uprising, 80 percent of the city destroyed, its one million inhabitants dead, deported, or otherwise gone. Szymborska joined the party for reasons similar to Milosz's. She says, ''At first I admired the communist system and wrote socialist-realist poems. I honestly thought communism was a way to liberate everyone who had lived under the Nazi occupation."(2) In "Rehabilitation" (Calling Out to Yeti), a poem which has not been included in Szymborska's English-language collections, the speaker asks the same questions as Hamlet in the graveyard scene. Addressing the skull of Yorik, the speaker admits she believed that those the party condemned were traitors. She says: "I cannot wake them for even half a breath, / I, Sisyphus assigned to the hell of poetry:' Like the mythological king rolling his stone as punishment for his deceit, the speaker must write poem after poem. With no way to bring back the wrongly accused, poetry is now her sole purpose of being.
The overarching theme of Szymborska's poetry is her rejection of what Jean-Francois Lyotard called the grand narrative. For Szymborska, the grand narrative is any kind of pattern used to describe a past or present moment to arrive at a predetermined end. Use of the grand narrative keeps one from understanding and appreciating the world in all its complexity, since it requires the simplification and removal of individual detail. Szymborska's rejection is rooted in her renunciation of communism and socialist-realism. Szymborska does not limit the grand narrative to socialism; she relates it to any kind of ideological thinking. "Zero -isms!" she says.(3) To illustrate her point she once used a Charlie Chaplin film in a talk, a film that was incidentally also a favorite of Bertolt Brecht's. Unable to shut an overstuffed suitcase, Chaplin takes a pair of scissors and cuts the arms and legs off the clothes that block its edge. "That's how reality fares when we try to squeeze it into the suitcase of ideology."(4) In her selected book reviews, Nonrequired Reading (2002), her dismissal of the grand narrative comes out in her eclectic feuilletons on fairy-tale collections, natural histories, biographies, self-help, and yoga books. Writing about a recently released account of the ancient queen Hathepsut, Szymborska says: "Trimming history to fit present needs is an iron rule of all satraps."(5) She equates the grand narrative with despots and lackeys.
The first examples of Szymborska's turn away from communism can be found in Calling Out to Yeti and Salt (1962). Szymborska now presents Calling Out to Yeti as her first book, suggesting she sees the end of her belief as her beginning. Interestingly, there are a number of similarities between Szymborska's poetry of this period and Shakespeare's work, as with "Rehabilitation." Owing to the Romantics, who saw him as a political writer mocking institutionalized power, Shakespeare is something of an honorary Pole, his plays having been widely produced since the nineteenth century. When Szymborska was working on Calling Out to Yeti, a Polish Shakespeare boom was taking place, thanks in part to the government. For writers who did not want to be, in Stalin's phrase, "engineers of human souls," translation served as a creative outlet. For directors who wanted to avoid socialist-realist plays, non-Polish classics were less likely to be censored. Shakespeare's four-hundredth birthday was coming up, so demand for new translations was high. Marta Gibinska has written about Szymborska in her book Polish Poets Read Shakespeare. Among other things, she looks at the connection between Jaques' "All the world's a stage" speech in As You Like It and Szymborska's poems about performance. One of Szymborska's subjects at this time was considering what was taking place offstage and for works of art, what was left outside the frame.
One of the most important events concerning Shakespeare occurred in the fall of 1956 when a revolutionary production of Hamlet was staged at Kraków's Old Theatre, which stands a few blocks from where Szymborska then lived. A tumultuous year, 1956 was, in addition to the year of Kruschev's speech, the year of the Poznan June, when one hundred thousand Poles took to the streets to be met by ten thousand soldiers and four hundred tanks. That was also the year of the Hungarian Revolution. By having the actors wear period costumes while keeping their hair and makeup in contemporary styles, the Kraków Hamlet emphasized the parallels between life at Elsinore and the fear permeating Poland. After the twenty-year-old prince, who was clearly a disenchanted communist, declared, "Denmark's a prison," the audience is said to have burst into applause, echoing the applause from a 1797 Lwow performance of Hamlet that presented Claudius as Frederic, Maria-Teresa, and Catherine the Great rolled into one. In his review, critic Jan Kott said this Hamlet "is beyond doubt closest to our experience."(6) Later publishing Shakespeare Our Contemporary, which can also be read as a coded commentary on socialism, Kott wrote about the influence of the "Grand Mechanism," which he defined as the political machine that shapes each individual's life. Szymborska's exploration of the grand narrative, with its attendant questions about the individual and the forces of history, is part of the larger discussion about totalitarianism that was then taking place.
The title poem of Here recalls one of Szymborska's most famous poems, the fifty-year-old "Notes from a Nonexistent Himalayan Expedition" in Calling Out to Yeti. In the latter, the speaker is a visitor to an unfamiliar and hostile landscape. Trying to convince the silent and uninterested snowman to leave his frozen world to join humankind, she says:
Yeti, down there we've got Wednesday,
bread and alphabets.
Two times two is four.
Rose are there,
and violets are blue. (18)
What she's naively offering in this sing-song list are things she thinks he lacks: the predictable movement of time, nourishment, and written language. Undermining her assertions with an ironic childlike rhythm, she tells him meaning is stable and things are what they appear. In "Here" the relationship with the addressee is reversed. The speaker attempts to convince an unnamed, interplanetary visitor to stay on Earth. Unlike the speaker and addressee in "Notes," the speaker in "Here" is not at risk and the addressee, having already made the trip, has at least some interest in humanity. Speaking of "here" instead of "there" and again using her favorite literary device, the list, since with the list she can create multiple sonic effects, opens with an assortment of commonplace items:
I can't speak for elsewhere,
but here on earth we've got a fair supply of everything.
Here we manufacture chairs and sorrows,
scissors, tenderness, transistors, violins,
teacups, dams, and quips. (3)
Alternating between the concrete and the abstract, the speaker points out mundane items like a tour guide walking backward; but in this list, meaning is nowhere to be found. What stands out is "dams." Suggesting man's hubris, dams make the natural world change its course, or to put it metaphorically, they change a story to suit its own needs. It is not unlike the Soviets' mass resettlement of people within the Eastern Bloc. Szymborska follows "dams" with something as small and potentially powerful as her own penchant for "quips."
The speakers in both poems try to convince their addressees that despite appearances to the contrary, people are not always bad and evil is not always present. In "Notes," the speaker tells Yeti that people continue to believe in the future.
We've inherited hope—
The gift of forgetting.
You'll see how we give
birth among the ruins. (18)
The "ruins" are quite literally the ruin of Poland and Europe after the war, cartloads of bricks wheeled through the streets for buildings that will take years to repair. In "Here" the speaker acknowledges humanity's ignorance and the world's impermanence, expanding on the images of destruction that are offered in the earlier poem.
And I know what you're thinking next.
Wars, wars, wars.
But there are pauses between them, too.
Attention! —people are evil.
At ease—people are good.
At attention wastelands are created.
At ease houses are constructed in the sweat of brows
and quickly inhabited. (5)
The first two lines of this passage suggest part of "Our Ancestors' Short Lives" (The People on the Bridge, 1986): "When evil triumphs, good goes into hiding; when good is manifest, then evil lies low." As in "Notes," in "Here," after war, houses are built and families move in. However, the two poems diverge at the end. At the end of "Notes," Yeti turns his back on the speaker and disappears into the frozen landscape; the speaker is immediately trapped under an avalanche of snow. Trying to impose a narrative of her own, the speaker is on a fool's errand. In contrast Szymborska leaves the ending of "Here" open. She does not say whether or not the visitor stays. She closes at the moment of decision. The speaker in "Here" accepts, even celebrates, the world's chaos.
Szymborska is impatient with interpretations of "Notes" that say Yeti is Stalin. "The yeti is the yeti," she says in a 2007 interview. Invoking brothers Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczyrlski, who were then Poland's president and prime minister, she goes on: "There is an excessive habit of reading between the lines, looking for secret messages. My poetry does not hide anything. The day I want to criticize the Kaczynski twins, I will call them by name, not compare them with Romulus and Remus."(7) She feels hemmed in by the Polish practice of reading as if almost everything represented something else. Polish readers are accustomed to irony. Since the partition, the occupying forces relied on censorship to maintain power and suppressed the independent press. For writers of all kinds, working with the censors during the Soviet era was often a game of cat and mouse and winks and nods, since everything printed in over nineteen copies, including wedding invitations and death announcements, crossed their desks. Irony, as well as a reliance on historical narratives, was a way for writers to get past the censors and address current issues that concerned their fellow Poles. When Herbert said in a Parisian exile journal, "I have never written in such a way to deceive the censor," Polish readers would have almost certainly believed he meant the opposite.(8) In 1957 Szymborska simply could not have called Stalin by name; one couldn't even refer to liver-sausage, as in her translator Baranczak's case, without the censors' approval. Mentioning the Kaczynski twins only serves to confuse the matter. Because they came to office in 2005 and 2006, Szymborska had no reason to fear any repercussions if she were to use their names. Clearly the press did not when it referred to the brothers as "Tweedle-dum" and "Tweedle-dee." Given that Calling Out to Yeti was published during the thaw, it was natural for readers to make a connection between the snowman and a remote and fearsome figure. Considering recent events, why not Stalin?
Szymborska's generation has been haunted by Polish Romanticism, which has strong ties to French Romanticism, particularly its nationalist tones. The "three bards," Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Slowacki, and Zygmunt Krasmski, kept Polish identity alive after the country disappeared, and their spirit continued in the works of second-generation Romantics like Cyprian Norwid and writers who were members of the Home Army. Actively involved in revolutionary movements, the Polish Romantics led military operations against their occupiers, evaded deportation, and lived in exile. Their presence is particularly felt in Kraków where three continuous sections of the ring road are named for the trio. In addition, Mickiewicz, Slowacki, and Norwid are buried in Wawel Castle's royal tombs with Polish kings and military leaders, and a monument to Mickiewicz stands in the middle of the town square. The original, a symbol of dissidence destroyed by the Nazis, was remade after the war. It is a popular meeting place and favorite climber of children, who love to scale its base and sit at the poet's feet with the muses.
By emphasizing a form of messianic nationalism, these poets created a set of expectations within Polish culture that for later poets could be a burden. Milosz says that in Poland "a poet does not merely arrange words in [a] beautiful order. Tradition demands that he be a 'bard,' that his songs linger on many lips, that he speaks in his poems of subjects of interest to all citizens."(9) Similar to Szymborska's complaints about the ironic readings of her work, her contemporary, poet Jan Lechon, famously wondered when he could write about spring and the poem would simply be about spring and not Poland. After the brutally suppressed November 1831 uprising, which lasted nearly a year, many of these poets moved to Paris, which was the center of the Polish émigré community. Numbering over ten thousand, they played a pivotal role in the failed fourteen-month 1861 uprising, at the end of which seventy thousand Poles were deported to remote labor camps, and Russian was made Poland's official language, even in schools. The Romantic poets placed poetry on a public and inherently political stage that opened new subject matter while, as Szymborska has noted, shut others out. What resulted was something of a cross between Shelley's Defense of Poetry and Saint Benedict's Holy Rule. Owing to their history, Polish poets "are the unacknowledged legislators of the world," who, whether they want to or not, by the very fact of writing have "undertaken the government of souls, of which [they] must give an account." Because of the Romantics' lasting impact, Polish poets are, as Szymborska says in "Poetry Reading" (Salt, 1962), "sentenced to hard shelleying for life" (51). Milosz went so far as to banish their ghosts, albeit in big, Romantic strokes at the end of his poem "Dedication." After asking "What is poetry that does not save nations or people," he takes in wreckage of Warsaw after the uprising and invokes the tradition of putting seeds on graves to feed the dead disguised as birds: "I put this book here for you, who once lived / So that you should visit us no more" (Milosz, Collected Poems 1931-1987,79).
Despite various poets' reservations, the Romantics' presence continued in popular culture. After a 1955 Warsaw performance of Mickiewicz's play, Forefather's Eve, one of the great works of Polish Romanticism, Kott reported that the audience, from the orchestra to the balconies, was in tears: "Government ministers were crying, the hands of the technical crew were shaking, the cloakroom attendants were wiping their eyes."(10) A 1968 Warsaw production of the play was shut down after the Soviet ambassador complained about the production's anti-Russian bent, which had elicited audience cheers. University students and intellectuals took to the streets, and their protest led to mass arrests. During the tumultuous days of Solidarity, poet Ryszard Krynicki questioned Mickiewicz's legacy by expanding on Milosz's question with those of his own:
What is poetry that saves
neither nations nor people,
nor nations from people,
nor people from nations,
nor nations and people from themselves? (11)
In "In a Mail Coach" (Here), Szymborska seems to have made her peace at least with Slowacki. Imagining herself sent back in time, she wants to console the lonely exile across the aisle:
Excuse me, sir, but it's urgent and important.
I've come from the Future and I know how it turns out.
Your poems are loved and admired
and you lie with kings in Wawel Castle. (49)
Unfortunately, her imagination can't make him materialize, and she watches the poet get off the crowded train. The story, history, no matter how painful nor how difficult, cannot be changed.
One of the ways Szymborska frees herself from the traditional responsibility of speaking for and to the nation is by having her speaker address a particular audience. It can be someone as specific as Yeti—in Here it is Memory, Atropos, and an idea—or simply well educated Poles. Szymborska's speaker does not know her addressees well but shares with them common interests and concerns. Owing to the nature of their relationship, her speaker is under no obligation to bare her soul—it would go against the social contract—but she is free to explore her topics' philosophical complexity with as much rigor and play as she likes. Unlike her literary ancestors, she does not rely on pathos or biblical symbolism to reach her reader, having seen where they can lead, but on logos and humor. In "View with a Grain of Sand" (The People on the Bridge), she argues with Blake's "Auguries of Innocence" and Mickiewicz's "Romanticism:' which opens with a quote from Hamlet and riffs on Blake's opening—"To see a world in a grain of sand, / And a heaven in a wildflower, / Hold infinity in your hand, / and eternity in an hour"—with a young woman, who represents a Romantic sensibility, chastising an old man for seeing only what he literally sees. To these literary ancestors, Szymborska says that a grain of sand bears no relation to human innocence, it has no ability to feel, and meaning should not be imposed on it. Even its name is our invention, as are our names for everything else:
We call it a grain of sand,
but it calls itself neither grain nor sand.
It does just fine without a name,
whether general, particular,
incorrect or apt. (185)
Unlike the Romantics, Szymborska does not see the poet's role as glorifying perception but, in the words of Baranczak, as being a "spoilsport." He explains, "The poet should be someone who calls any bluff and lays bare any dirty trick in the game played by the earthly and unearthly powers, where the chief gambling strategy is dogmatic generalization and the stakes are the souls of each and every one of us." (12) Szymborska is then not a poet without Romantic ambition, since in Baranczak's eyes, she hopes to have an effect on her readers; however, her ambition is not to take on the Romantic role of prophet or sage but to question every narrative she delivers and every narrative she receives. Any story that claims to make meaning is open for examination, even if that story is her own.
Szymborska revisits her youth in Here, sizing up her younger self in "Teenager" with restrained tenderness and distant eyes. The poem calls to mind "Laughter" from No End of Fun. Both poems treat her earlier self as another person and start by addressing an acquaintance. The former opens with "Me—a teenager?" and the latter begins, "The little girl I was—I know her, of course." In "Laughter," the girl is only a "funny little thing," who fell in love with a university student. The speaker says that if she saw her today, she would give her money for a cookie and a show before abruptly telling the addressee to go:
I don't owe you anything,
I'm just an ordinary woman
who only knows
when to betray
another's secret. (74)
Deliberately vague, the speaker does not reveal the girl's secret, why she must protect it, nor under what circumstances she would disclose it. All we know is that there were "a few events" and that the addressee reminds her of the dead. Forty years later Szymborska is much more direct about her youthful commitment to communism:
She knows next to nothing—
but with a doggedness deserving better causes.
I know so much more—
but not for sure. (15)
While sympathetic to her previous desire to believe, the speaker finds her teenage self lacking empathy. In both poems she reviews her earlier writing, taking a harder look at her poetry in "Teenager" than she does in "Laughter." She moves from feeling "good-natured pity / for a couple of little poems" to something closer to aversion in the later work. After her younger self hands her her poems, she says:
Well, maybe that one
if it were shorter
and touched up in a couple of places.
The rest do not bode well. (17)
At first it seems Szymborska is commenting on the innocuous, comic pieces she wrote as a child, her father giving her a few grozy for each poem she wrote, but by the stanza's last line, she is clearly commenting on her socialist-realist verse. A literal translation of this line is slightly different from Cavanagh and Baranczak's—"The rest does not bode anything good" (Cavanagh and Baranczak cut out "niczego"). Taking greater responsibility for her beliefs and their consequences, her poems do not bode well for her future work or for the future of anything else.
Szymborska moves away from the Romantic tradition by making herself look at her subjects from as many angles as possible. It allows her to upend accepted narratives and avoid the sentimentality that can sometimes color memory. "Thoughts that Visit Me on Busy Streets" reworks much of the same material in "Census," also from No End of Fun. In "Census" the speaker broadcasts the latest news from an archaeological site in Troy. She tells us work there now reveals that there is not one city on the ancient site but seven, news that immediately complicates our understanding about Western civilization's foundation. "Six too many / for a single epic," Szymborska half-jokes. The speaker and audience can either use this new information or ignore it. Directly addressing her readers, she says:
We three billion judges
have problems of our own,
our own inarticulate rabble,
railroad stations, bleachers, protests and processions,
vast numbers of remote streets, floors, and walls. (81)
Linked in one way or another to events that took place during the Nazi occupation and under the communist regime, they "pass each other once for all time," repeating past mistakes as they shop for something as ordinary as a pitcher. By putting the three billion "we" in "department stores," which in Poland primarily served party members who made their purchases with government coupons, and not at the market stalls open to the general public, Szymborska implicates everyone, whatever their beliefs, in the making of meaning, no matter how far removed past or current events may seem. Meanwhile, Homer, who is a government census worker, maintains a double life: "No one knows what he does in his spare time." Because of government intrusion into the arts, it is unclear whether or not he is writing today's Odyssey and if he is, he is writing for the drawer or in some veiled form for the censors.
"Thoughts that Visit Me on Busy Streets" picks up many of the threads from "Census." Calling to mind the "three billion" we, the new poem opens with "billions of faces," some of whom may be "Archimedes in jeans, / Catherine the Great draped in resale, / some pharaoh with briefcase and glasses." Szymborska, like Homer, catalogues the people around her and begins seeing faces from two hundred years ago, then fifty years ago—one coming by "golden carriage," another by "extermination transport"—the passage of time calling to mind the partition and the Second World War. Why are people from the past appearing? Because Nature may simply be tired, she jests.
Billions of faces on earth's surface.
My face, yours, whose—
you'll never know.
Maybe Nature has to shortchange us,
and to keep up, meet demand,
she fishes up what's been sunk
in the mirror of oblivion. (9)
Szymborska's "Nature" is human nature, not the grain of sand that so captivates her. She questions ideas about historical progress and couches her query in possibility, inserting "maybe" and the modal "has to." Perhaps we aren't always moving forward, correcting past mistakes. Having no time to reflect, we make the same errors again and again.
The last poem in Here is "In Fact Every Poem," an ars poetica. Arguing that the poet's greatest responsibility is to capture a single moment of time, no matter how seemingly trivial, Szymborska relies again on the modal "might": "In fact every poem / might be called 'Moment.'" Considering Polish history and Szymborska's own experience, the preservation of memory in all its shifting complexity is a form of survival. The poem has similarities to a number of earlier poems, including "The Acrobat" and "The Joy of Writing" from No End of Fun and "Moment" and "Photograph of September 11" from Monologue of a Dog, published in Poland in 2002. The titular acrobat is a stand-in for the poet and his motion is the making of a poem. He swings "From trapeze to / to trapeze [ ... ] through / through the startled air." In "In Fact" a poem is "anything / borne on words / [that] begins to rustle, sparkle, / flutter, float." The acrobat-poet
works to seize this swaying world
by stretching out the arms he has conceived—
beautiful beyond belief at this passing
at this very moment's that's just passed. (101)
He must imagine and create his own hands to come to some sort of understanding of the always changing world. The hands seizing the bar call to mind the "mortal hand" in "The Joy of Writing," the hand that puts deer in the forest and takes revenge against any narrative that would erase particulars. These hands become the "writing hand" in "In Fact" beneath which appears "at least one thing / that is called someone's." The moment has not passed as with "The Acrobat." The hand is not taking revenge against anyone who would misrepresent history to suit his own needs. The moment, no matter how insignificant, is the poem.
The difference between the poems lies in how they end. "In Fact" is much more open than the others. In the last lines the hand places question marks in the poem, "and as if in response, / a colon:" The colon ends the poem that ends the book, calling to mind the earlier poem "Moment," which ends with the fragment "one of those moments / invited to linger" and the end of her World Trade Center poem, "Photograph from September 11," which uses an image of people jumping from the smoking towers. "I can do only two things for them— / describe this flight / and not add a last line." By ending "In Fact" with a colon, leaving out the last line and a final piece of punctuation, Szymborska has enacted the ideas about the grand narrative she set out in her earlier poems. She paradoxically embraces silence as a way to get away, at least for the moment, from the potential tyranny of narrative.
In her Nobel acceptance speech, Szymborska says she believes the poet's job is to be in a state of continuous astonishment, questioning what she knows, what she doesn't know, and what she doesn't know about what she knows. For Szymborska, not to know is to be conscious of being and becoming. To know is to either abuse narrative with "torturers, dictators, fanatics, and demagogues struggling for power" or to be duped like the speaker in "Discovery" (Could Have, 1972) who concludes: "My faith is strong, blind, and without foundation."(13) Szymborska's poetry is the effort to capture what one can of the swaying world. In "An Occurence" (Here) the speaker watches a lioness chase and kill an antelope. She says, "On the question of guilt, / nothing, only silence." The sky is innocent, the lioness is innocent, and the antelope is innocent. "The observer who watches through binoculars / is, in such instances, homo sapiens innocens." The observer, through the act of looking, of processing and questioning what she sees, perceives her own perception. In that moment, she is both wise and innocent. In the space in which she moves from here to there, she is free.
* * *
1 Czeslaw Milosz, The Captive Mind (New York: Vintage International, 1990) xiii.
2 Dean Murphy, "Creating Poetry Amid Political Chaos," Los Angeles Times, October 13, 1996; "Rebeldia del Nobel: Wislawa Szymborska," Magazine (Barcelona), March 13, 2007, www.magazinedigital.com/cultura
/los_premios_nobel.This and all other translations not cited are mine.
3 Xavi Ayen and Kim Manresa, "Rebeldia del Nobel." Barcelona: 2009.
4 Clare Cavanagh, Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russia, Poland, and the West (New Haven: Yale UP, 2009) 179.
5 Wislawa Szymborska, Nonrequired Reading, tr. Clare Cavanagh (New York: Harcourt, 2002) 180.
6 Marta Wiszniowska, "Hamlet in Poland - Poland in Hamlet," International Shakespeare, the Tragedies (Bologna: CLEUB, 1996) 114-15.
7 Ayen and Manresa.
8 Adam Czerniawski, "Polish Poetry and the Polish Predicament." Bete Noir Spring 1988: 73.
9 Milosz, 175.
10 Jan Kott, Theatre Notebook 1947-1967, tr. Boleslaw Taborski (New York: Doubleday, 1968) 51.
11 Ryszard Krynicki, Niewiele wiecej: Wiersze z notatnika 78/79 (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Kos, 1981) 33.
12 Stanislaw Baranczak, "The Szymborska Phenomenon," Salmagundi, Summer 1994: 265.
13 Szymborska, "The Poet and the World," tr. Cavanagh and Baranczak, Polish Writers on Writing, ed. Adam Zagajewski (San Antonio: Trinity UP, 2007) 191.
About the Author
Joelle Biele is the author of White Summer (Southern Illinois University Press, 2002) and the editor of Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011). She was the 2008-09 Fulbright Professor in American Literature at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland.
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