June 22, 2016KR OnlineReview

“We call the protest against this the soul”: Wisława Szymborska’s Map

Translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Barańczak. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015. 447 pages. $32.00.
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In his introduction to Edward Snow’s 2009 translation of Rilke, Adam Zagajewski writes, of that poet whom Marina Tsvetaeva called lyric poetry itself, that “Rilke’s dialogue with gods and angels, his meditation on night and death . . . left out a whole territory of down-to-earth suffering.” He goes on to argue that:

There are two contradictory betrayals lying in wait for every poet—one that consists in forgetting the pain of modern history for the sake of the spiritual life, untouched by the news, and another that has to do with paying close attention to the pain of modern history but forsaking the delicate, nameless substance of our interiority.

Given the difficulty of these “contradictory betrayals,” Zagajewski suggests that we can “exonerate Rilke” from the criticism of what his poetry leaves out. And yet—“We’ve learned that to understand the nature of modern evil is an utterly difficult thing,” Zagajewski writes. “Having Rilke among the researchers working in this particular artistic laboratory would have been of inestimable value.”[1]

How would Szymborska feel about a passage on Rilke prefacing a consideration of her poems? This is a person who, as her translator Clare Cavanagh notes, “thought up questions in advance whenever she invited friends over in case conversation stalled,” to keep the talk from becoming “too small, or too serious”; examples include, “What’s your idea of hell?” and “Have you ever had a prophetic dream?”[2] She enjoyed weird gifts, Cavanagh recalls, like a box of Band-Aids shaped like pieces of bacon (“I kept thinking she was checking her watch, but no, she was checking her bacon strip”). And when she was briefly in her own tower—in Stockholm, at the Grand Hotel, and in the Nobel Suite because she was winning the Nobel Prize—“The first thing she said to . . . her friends was ‘So what should I steal?’ Meaning towels, soap, coat hangers, shoehorns, whatever.”

Still, consider the poem “Greek Statue,” which can’t help but call to mind Rilke’s famous archaic torso. It begins:

With the help of people and the other elements
time hasn’t done a bad job on it.
It first removed the nose, then the genitalia,
next, one by one, the toes and fingers,
over the years the arms, one after the other,
the left thigh, the right,
the shoulders, hips, head, and buttocks,
and whatever dropped off has since fallen to pieces,
to rubble, to gravel, to sand.

Where in Rilke’s poem the statue “still burns like a streetlamp dimmed,”[3] Szymborska’s poem opens with a list of what has been lost, recounted in a seemingly casual tone. Neither the statue nor its ruins are romanticized here, and it’s not until the syntactical rhythms of the stanza’s last lines, that sequence of amphibrachs falling to the single beat of “sand,” that the suggestion of a lyric voice begins to enter. Later in Szymborska’s poem we are reminded what actual death is like: “When someone living dies that way / blood flows at every blow,” she writes. “But marble statues die white and not always completely.”

Like Rilke’s radiant Apollo, Szymborska’s statue “dazzles and endures.” Yet it does so provisionally, conditionally; it is subject to history. “Time [ . . . ] merits some applause here,” her poem ends, “since it stopped work early, / and left some for later.” These differences matter because Szymborska was a poet who stayed in that “particular artistic laboratory” Zagajewski describes. She might have considered it grandiose to say that her poetry examines the “nature of modern evil”; but it does, and especially that most banal and damaging permutation of evil, the daily kinds of forgetfulness and erasure in which all of us, in one way or another, take part. If her poems explore the ways in which this evil is not something set apart from our lives, they also explore how necessary are the ordinary particulars of those lives; they show the crime of forgetting by showing what is lost when we forget. Readers of English can now witness more fully how Szymborska’s poems make room for the “contradictory betrayals” Zagajewski cited: paying “close attention to the pain of modern history” on the one hand, and to the “delicate, nameless substance of our interiority” on the other. Map: Collected and Last Poems, translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Barańczak,[4] offers Szymborska’s work in its near entirety, including work from throughout Szymborska’s career, as well as her final collection, Enough, previously unpublished in English.

Near entirety, because while this is a collected volume, it leaves some poems out. There are several reasons for the exclusions: “A very few” poems, Cavanagh writes in her afterword to the book, are those that “Szymborska herself conceded were untranslatable.” Others are poems Szymborska had chosen to exclude from selected collections that appeared in Poland over time. And then there is the case of Szymborska’s first three books—an unpublished collection, and, as Cavanagh writes, “two Socialist Realist volumes from the early fifties,” which Szymborska wrote when she was a member of the Communist Party and later repudiated. Of this time, Szymborska said:

If it weren’t for the sadness, the sense of guilt, I might not even regret the experience of those years. Without it, I wouldn’t know what belief in the one true cause really is. And how easy it is not to know what you don’t want to know. And what mental gymnastics you’re capable of when you’re confronted with other worldviews.[5]

Map does include some individual poems from these early books, and it’s fitting that the collection does not elide this part of Szymborska’s history, since her poems insist on acknowledging culpability; this acknowledgment is a form of paying attention, forgetting’s opposite. In “In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself,” the speaker humorously condones guilt as evidence that we’re still human: “On this third planet of the sun / among the signs of bestiality / a clear conscience is number one,” Szymborska writes. And, in “Under One Small Star,” from Could Have (1972), the speaker offers a list of apologies—to everything, for everything, all the ways we let the world down, all the ways we evade suffering while others don’t:

My apologies to time for all the world I overlook each second.
My apologies to past loves for thinking that the latest is the first.
Forgive me, distant wars, for bringing flowers home.
Forgive me, open wounds, for pricking my finger.
I apologize for my record of minuets to those who cry from the depths.
I apologize to those who wait in railway stations for being asleep today at five AM.
Pardon me, hounded hope, for laughing from time to time.

Tone here is crucial; the speaker is not self-indulgent in her guilt or grief. Instead, the lightness of the tone works to let something else through, a kind of weight, as we begin to realize the limitations of the speaker’s empathy, and, by association, the limitations of our own. Don’t we also bring flowers home? Don’t we look for pleasure, and at the same time overlook what’s right in front of us?

The poem’s last lines articulate this relationship between lightness and weight—lightness not as the opposite of weight, exactly, but as a way to convey it—that is crucial to Szymborska’s aesthetic. “Don’t bear me ill will speech, that I borrow weighty words,” the speaker says, “then labor heavily so that they may seem light.” This contradictory betrayal, then, is no longer contradictory, but necessary, which might be understood as an analog for her poetry’s relationship to contradiction on the whole. How, after all, can we fully understand “the pain of modern history” if we don’t know the “delicate, nameless substance of our interiority” that is subject to that pain? And what is that interiority, without the history within which it is altered and named?

“Whatever inspiration is,” Szymborska remarked in her 1996 Nobel Lecture, “it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know.’” She went on to explain:

. . . any knowledge that doesn’t lead to new questions quickly dies out: it fails to maintain the temperature required for sustaining life. In the most extreme cases, cases well known from ancient and modern history, it even poses a lethal threat to society.

This is why I value that little phrase “I don’t know” so highly. It’s small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended.[6]

Jennifer Grotz has argued that Szymborska “found a way to turn uncertainty into a kind of engine or authority to produce poetry.”[7] This curiosity is ethically grounded, a way to try, again and again, to make room for more of the world and those “outer expanses” beyond the self.

At the same time, Szymborska’s questioning very often serves to call attention to an individual life, privileging what is particular. In the early poem “Night,” for example, the first poem in Calling Out to Yeti (1957), her first book after the Socialist Realist collections, the speaker’s questions work to connect an archetypal story to the everyday, throwing both into new relief. “So what did Isaac do?” the poem begins:

Break the neighbor’s window with his ball?
Tear his new pants
on the fence post?
Did he steal pencils?
Scare the chickens?
Cheat on tests?

A god that requires this kind of sacrifice, the poem suggests, is not a god this speaker can accept, whether the god in question is a Biblical one or a social order.

While individual poems in Szymborska’s oeuvre—“Still,” “Starvation Camp Near Jaslo,” from her earlier books, “Vietnam” and “Photograph from September 11,” from middle and later collections, to give a few examples—address specific historical atrocities directly, many of her poems, like “Night,” address them indirectly. She shows us, instead, the aftermath, the detritus, what has to be “tid[ied] up” after “every war,” as she writes in “The End and the Beginning,” from the 1993 book of the same name.

Again and again, her subjects are not the overtly historical, but the overlooked and the small: an onion; a family in which “no one . . . has ever died of love”; a “tree / beside a river / on a sunny morning,” as she writes in “No Title Required,” “an insignificant event” that “won’t go down in history.” These people, moments, and objects that “won’t go down in history” take on another dimension, a weight, as they force us to ask how we decide—and who are we to decide?—what or who matters. What these poems make clear, with that seemingly light touch, is that nothing, and no one, is expendable.

It is worth noting, then, another thread in these poems, which bears resemblance to that Greek statue and the way, if conditionally, it “dazzles and endures.” As apology recurs in her work, and questioning, and observations of all that continues despite our private grief, so too does an appreciation that borders on amazement. “Nothing’s a gift, it’s all on loan [ . . . ] I’ll have to pay for myself / with my self, / give up my life for my life,” she writes, and goes on: “We call the protest against this / the soul.”

The protest against this, against having to pay back the loan of being alive, might also be understood as a protest against having to choose between an acknowledgment of horror and an equally careful attention to what is both quotidian and necessary, between the very large and the very small. And are the large and small, finally, distinguishable? In “Foraminifera,” a poem from her 2009 book Here, Szymborska describes the “small limestone shell[s]” that, in accumulation, make the cliffs of Dover, those “dazzling white cliffs, / cliffs that are here because they are.”

Szymborska’s final collection, Enough, continues that fidelity to apparent smallness; the collection consists of just thirteen poems, a slender seventeen pages in the book. These last poems return to the subjects and tones that make her work what it is, though, as in all of her later poems, they are here even more elegantly and fully embodied. “Mirror” describes a mirror left on a wall “in our demolished town,” suggesting the way the world goes on without us after destruction and loss: “And like any well-made object, / it functioned flawlessly,” she writes, “with an expert lack of astonishment.” “To My Own Poem,” like other poems that speak, self-deprecatingly, of the difficulty of writing poems that matter, addresses the poem as another being that might be “discussed, remembered,” and might just as easily “slip away unwritten, / happily humming something to yourself.” And in “Map,” the last poem in the collection, the speaker describes a map that, like any work of art, is not what it presumes to represent, and necessarily leaves things out: “Everything here is small, near, accessible,” Szymborska writes. “Mass graves and sudden ruins / are out of the picture.” Still, “I like maps,” the speaker says:

              because they lie.
Because they give no access to the vicious truth.
Because great-heartedly, good naturedly
they spread before me a world
not of this world.

In the context of these poems, and their evocation of forgetfulness and its consequences, it is hard not to think of the 2006 National Geographic poll, conducted three years after the invasion of Iraq, in which only 37 percent of US citizens between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four could find the country their nation was occupying on a map.[8] But maybe it’s harder, less comfortable, to consider more subtle and pervasive kinds of forgetfulness—the way those of us who pride ourselves on geopolitical literacy might still prefer not to acknowledge certain truths, vicious or otherwise; the way, in looking only at our own selective maps, we lose the world. Here is another reason to be grateful for this translation: we need this understanding of our own forgetfulness, even as we need these poems’ correctives to it.



[1] The Poetry of Rilke, translated by Edward Snow, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.

[2]Wisława Szymborska: The Puzzles of Translating Grief,” Poetry Foundation website, July 2013. Cavanagh credits Zagajewski for figuring out that Szymborska was “[thinking] up questions in advance”; “[i]n hindsight,” she remarks, “I realize he was right.”

[3] Trans. Edward Snow.

[4] In her afterword, Cavanagh writes that though she “began this project many years ago with [her] beloved friend, teacher, and mentor . . . Stanisław Barańczak,” she has had to “finish it without him” as “in recent years his health has not permitted him to continue the collaboration that has been one of the great joys of my life.” Cavanagh does not specify which translations in the collection she finished on her own.

[5] Wisława Szymborska, 1991 interview, quoted in Cavanagh’s Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russia, Poland, and the West, Yale University Press, 2009.

[6] Wisława Szymborska, “Nobel Lecture: The Poet and the World,” Nobel Foundation website, December 7, 1996.

[7] “Wisława Szymborska,” class given by Jennifer Grotz at the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, January 2011.

[8] National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs 2006 Geographic Literacy Study, National Geographic Education Foundation, May 2006.

Margaree Little
Margaree Little’s first book, Rest, is forthcoming from Four Way Books. Her poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, New England Review, Missouri Review, and Southern Review. She is a 2016-2018 Kenyon Review Fellow.