In the way that you can be surprised when someone dies, no matter how rationally foreseeable the death is, I was startled to open my New York Times on February 2 and find an obituary for Wislawa Szymborska, the great Polish poet who won the Nobel Prize in 1996. Only 88, I wanted to say. Much too young.
Szymborska’s poems are mostly short, and her output was not voluminous—only around 400 published poems. And yet, she is one of the few contemporary poets you can call beloved and not have it be a condescension or an insult. In The New York Review of Books Charles Simic called her poems “poetry’s equivalent of expository writing,” which captures their accessibility, their logical clarity and their interest in facts (especially odd ones), stories, things and people, but doesn’t convey their charm or vitality. Expository writing is, after all, a required class for college freshmen—the opposite of fun, dazzle, originality, pathos. For me, Szymborska’s signature quality is the way she puts tragedy and comedy, the unique and the banal, the big and the little, the remembering and the forgetting, right next to each other and shows us that this is what life is:
After every war
someone has to tidy up.
Things won’t pick
themselves up, after all.
Someone has to shove
the rubble to the roadsides
so the carts loaded with corpses
can get by.
—from “The End and the Beginning”
She takes the most serious themes—war, history and its many horrors, the passage of time, death, love and the loss of love—expresses them through vivid, concrete situations and gives them a wry comic twist. “Museum” shows us mortality by imagining the gleeful triumph of our “ten thousand aging things”: “The hand has lost out to the glove./The right shoe has defeated the foot.” “Hitler’s First Photograph” mocks the present for its ignorance of the future: “And who’s this little fellow in his itty-bitty robe?/That’s tiny baby Adolf, the Hitlers’ little boy!” The heartbreaking “Cat in an Empty Apartment,” one of her best-known poems, presents a sudden death (of a friend? suicide?) from his cat’s limited, perplexed and also increasingly irritated point of view:
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.
The cat doesn’t comprehend death—“just wait till he turns up”!—but really, who does?
Szymborska lived through appalling times: World War II and the brutal Nazi occupation of Poland, followed by four decades of Stalinist communism—what Elizabeth Bishop, another poet of particularity, called “our worst century so far.” After a brief “socialist realist” phase in her youth, she disclaimed grand political schemes and mass utopianism in favor of irony, wit, skepticism and the individual: “Four billion people on this earth,” she wrote in “A Large Number,” “But my imagination is still the same.” In the great poem “Starvation Camp Near Jaslo,” she writes: “History rounds off skeletons to zero./A thousand and one is still only a thousand.” For Szymborska, it is always that one who matters—transient, blind, foolish, the plaything of chance that it miscalls destiny, but also urgent, insistent, full of its own meaning, alive:
It could have happened.
It had to happen.
It happened earlier. Later.
Nearer. Farther off.
It happened, but not to you.
You were saved because you were the first.
You were saved because you were the last.
Alone. With others.
On the right. The left.
Because it was raining. Because of the shade.
Because the day was sunny.
You were in luck—there was a forest.
You were in luck—there were no trees.
You were in luck—a rake, a hook, a beam, a brake,
a jamb, a turn, a quarter inch, an instant.
You were in luck—just then a straw went floating by.
As a result, because, although, despite.
What would have happened if a hand, a foot,
within an inch, a hairsbreadth from
an unfortunate coincidence.
So you’re here? Still dizzy from another dodge, close shave, reprieve?
One hole in the net and you slipped through?
I couldn’t be more shocked or speechless.
how your heart pounds inside me.