TWO POEMS BY WISLAWA SZYMBORSKA

I just found out via The New York Times today that Polish poet and 1996 Nobel prizewinner Wislawa Szymborska had passed away.

I had been lucky enough to buy a copy of her book, View With A Grain of Sand: Selected Poems, several years ago at a local bookstore.  Later, I found that my sister also owned a copy of her Poems: New and Collected, which contained basically the same poems as in my book, but including newer works.

A former member of the Polish Communist Party, Szymborska later turned away from her early “Stalinist” work.  She was also an essayist and translator.  Shortly after winning the Nobel Prize, she said in a New York Times interview that although “life crosses politics… my poems are strictly not political. They are more about people and life.”  Many of her poems that I have read deal with the aftermath of war, of people rising from its ashes.  Her words can be stark, but manage to convey hopefulness and sympathy.

I wanted to share here two of her poems, which I enjoyed reading:

CAT IN AN EMPTY APARTMENT

Die — you can’t do that to a cat.
Since what can a cat do
In an empty apartment?
Climb up the walls?
Rub up against the furniture?
Nothing seems different here,
but nothing is the same.
Nothing has been moved,
but there’s more space.
At at nighttime no lamps are lit.

Footsteps on the staircase,
but they’re new ones.
The hand that puts fish in the saucer
has changed, too.

Something doesn’t start
at its usual time.
Something doesn’t happen
as it should.
Someone was always, always here
Then suddenly disappeared,
And stubbornly stays disappeared.

Every closet has been examined.
Every shelf has been explored.
Excavations under the carpet turned up nothing.
A commandment was even broken,
papers scattered everywhere.
What remains to be done.
Just sleep and wait.

Just wait till he turns up,
Just let him show his face.
Will he ever get a lesson
on what not to do with a cat.
Sidle towards him
as if unwilling
and ever so slow
on visibly offended paws,
and no leaps or squeals at least to start.

NOTHING TWICE

Nothing can ever happen twice.
In consequence, the sorry fact is
That we arrive here improvised
And leave without the chance to practice.

Even if there is no one dumber,
if you’re the planet’s biggest dunce,
you can’t repeat the class in summer:
this course is offered only once.

No day copies yesterday,
no two nights will teach what bliss is
in precisely the same way,
with exactly the same kisses.

One day, perhaps, some idle tongue
mentions your name by accident:
I feel as if a rose were flung
into the room, all hue and scent.

The next day, though, you’re here with me
I can’t help looking at the clock:
A rose?  A rose? What could that be?
Is it a flower or a rock?

Why do we treat the fleeting day
with so much needless fear and sorrow?
It’s in its nature not to stay
Today is always gone tomorrow.

With smiles and kisses, we prefer
to seek accord beneath our star,
although we’re different (we concur)
just as two drops of water are.

(translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh,
from “View with a Grain of Sand”, Harcourt Brace & Co., 1995)

There are more translations of Szymborska’s poems online on the Polish-American Network, Poets.org, and the State University of New York (Buffalo).

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