Map: Collected and Last Poems (2016)

By: Wisława Szymborska
Translated by: Clare Cavanagh, Stanisław Barańczak
Published by: ecco

At our December meeting we’ll discuss poems by the Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska (1923-2012), whose centenary falls this year.

As when we’ve read poetry previously, rather than choosing a particular book we’ll discuss half a dozen or so poems sourced from various quarters.

Map is highlighted above as offering a comprehensive selection of her work in English translation, and because the way this website is structured means each meeting is linked to a particular book.

Websites featuring Szymborska’s poems include

Poetry Foundation
The Nobel Prize
The Wisława Szymborska Foundation (Academy of American Poets) (Polish only)

A selection of Szymborska’s books can be found here.

Buy online:

Zielony Balonik book club notes:

Robotnik nasz mówi o imperialistach / Our Workers Speak to the Imperialists (Zenon)
An early poem – or song – not included in the English Collected Poems, though it is available in Polish editions. Written c.1950, during Poland’s Stalinist years, and Szmborska’s adherence to a Marxist credo and party membership. ‘Our arms’ in the last line refers only to limbs, and not to weapons. As in her later work, she uses simple language to express more complex ideas.

Nieobecność / Absence
Grażyna and her daughter made their own translation of this, and we compared it to that made by Clare Cavanagh in Map. Szymborska highlights the importance of chance, and works with the poignacy of old school photos, full of people we once rubbed shoulders with but may not have seen for years. The poem is filled with references to the real – her parents, place-names (Zduńska Wola is little known, Zakopane more familar), and the (real? made-up?) fore-names of her parents’ early loves. The poem shifts into fantasy with the two imagined daughters, but as the poem develops the scene becomes more real, more detailed, eventually moving into dialogue between the girls and the photographer,  emphasising, in such a scenario, the titular absence of the poet.
‘Nieobecność’ appeared in the collection Dwukropek (2005). A recording of Szmborska reading the Polish original can be heard here.

Terrorysta, on patrzy / The Terrorist, He Watches (Jenny)
Jenny said she thinks of this poem when she’s on the bus. Again, the element of chance as to who lives, and who dies. As the poet says of the terrorist’s perspective, “it’s like the pictures”, but the reader too is asked to view the scene from this point of view, as if complicit; we have knowledge not granted to those in the poem, who are in the end moved around by the poet, there being no suggestion this scenario is based on a real incident. Who is speaking in the final stanza? The narrator, presumably, not “the terrorist”, who earlier is referred to in the third person; when the narrator complains, “Time, how it drags”, they seem more concerned with the drama of the scene than any real-life consequences.

Zdarzyć się moglo / It could have happened… (Robert)
Again, chance. One survives in a certain time and place because the circumstances happened to be right, not because that time and place are, in themselves, conducive to survival. In Polish, one clutches at razors rather than at straws. As a poet she tries to understand herself by creating different personae through which to speak. The final image of the heart beating fast is ambivalent, both a sign of life or vitality, and a sign of fear or panic.

Nienawiść / Hatred (Krystyna)
On the other hand, this poem seems to deny the element of chance in our lives, emphasising the persitence and tenacity of malevolent tendencies in the world. We felt it had contemporary relevance re a loss of compassion for the other, whether in Israel / Palestine or in the Trumpian quarters of the USA. There is a fine contrast of hatred’s feral nature (‘Its face twisted in a grimace / of erotic ecstasy’) and its desire for self-control as it exercises subjugation (‘the impeccable executioner / towering over its soiled victim’). The poem ‘The End and the Beginning’ was mentioned, about a similar process, this time relating to forgetting. It too has an ambivalent ending, that of someone ‘stretched out / blade of grass in his mouth / gazing at the clouds’, an image of both ease and incuriosity, if not wilful ignorance.

Pod jedną gwiazdką / Under One Small Star (Tom)
A poem about being a different person from who others think you are. The last two lines offer a sort of credo: ‘Don’t bear me ill will, speech, that I borrow weighty words, / then labor heavily so that they may seem light.’ (The Polish speaks of ‘pathetic words’, in the original sense of the adjective, relating to pathos.) The tone of the poem is humorous but not ironic, and achieves an unusual sense of equilibrium.

Consolation (Ken)
Another later poem, from Dwukropek. A gentle putdown of ‘fiction / with its diminutions’, the bulk of the poem is a list of standard plot-devices from 19th century novels, though again the appaerent lightness of touch required a degree of serious labour, as this translator’s note makes clear, with regard to the choice of ‘Fido’ for the dog’s name. Perhaps the poem is a variation on Eliot’s ‘human kind / cannot bear very much reality’.


Post a comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *