In his short story "On Exactitude in Science," Jorge Luis Borges imagines a guild of Renaissance cartographers so committed to precision that they created a 1:1 scale map where "the kingdom was the size of the kingdom." Later cartographers found such obsessiveness absurd and destroyed the map, but its fragments littered the realm, "providing shelter for beggars and animals." In the title poem of her collection Map: Collected and Last Poems, Wislawa Szymborska writes:
I like maps, because they lie.
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Because they give no access to the vicious truth.
Because great-heartedly, good-naturedly
they spread before me a world
not of this world.
I believe her, but only partly. In this remarkable, final collection, Szymborska (who died in 2012) proves herself as clear-headed as that later generation of cartographers, yet equally capable of creating lyric poems that seem worlds unto themselves, worlds that offer shelter to the most marginalized, weak, and mute members of society.
It came as something of a surprise in 1996 when Szymborska received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Though known in Polish literary circles and through her Samizdat contributions, she lacked the public profile of her countryman, the poet Czeslaw Milosz, who received the Nobel Prize in 1980, or of Zbigniew Herbert, who was viewed as the next Polish poet likely to receive the honor. Nevertheless, Szymborska earned the Nobel with a relatively modest body of poetry, one that is less baroque and immediately political than Milosz's and less classical and bitingly ironic than Herbert's, but which is by turns curious, empathetic, accessible, unflinching in the face of suffering, and astonished in the face of creation. In the years that followed, she has become one of the most popular poets in English, "My identifying features / [of] rapture and despair" ("Sky") translated in a syntactically clear and accessible style by the team of Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak (more on them later).
What, then, distinguishes Szymborska's poems, most of which are only a page or two in length? For one, they are deeply philosophical, speculating on universal matters in the simplest language. Reflecting on human existence in "Nothing Twice," Szymborska writes of how "the sorry fact is / that we arrive here improvised / and leave without the chance to practice." The philosophy never becomes leaden, though, thanks to Szymborska's self-deprecating attitude, which can be as cleansing as a glass of seltzer water or of sulfuric acid. In "Seen from Above," she addresses our belief that human lives matter more than nonhuman ones—"Important matters are reserved for us, / for our life and our death, a death / that always claims the right of way"—while in "In Praise of Feeling Bad about Yourself," she notes, "On this third planet of the sun / among the signs of bestiality / a clear conscience is number one." Yet Szymborska effervesces, too, her irony balanced with whimsy and surprise that nevertheless offer great insight; in "A Large Number," she writes of her own imagination, "It's bad with large numbers. / It's still taken by particularity," while in "Bodybuilders' Contest," she wryly observes of one participant, "Onstage, he grapples with a grizzly bear / the deadlier for not really being there."
Szymborska's poems share many qualities with good prose: a sense of story, multiple points of view, memorable images and phrases, and unexpected insights into the human condition. She writes poems that invite us to consider the world from the perspective of a cat whose owner has died, of a royal couple in a Byzantine mosaic, and of the infant Hitler. She rarely writes of herself—Szymborska's "I" is the universal "I," and one can easily identify oneself with the speaker of a poem—but instead directs her attention outward, into the historical and biological world we inhabit.
Her descriptions can range from the ornate—as in "Commemoration," when she describes a swallow as "calligraphy, / clockhand minus minutes, / early ornithogothic, / heaven's cross-eyed glance"—to the arrestingly simple, as in "Hitler's First Photograph," when she describes Hitler's hometown of Braunau as
a small but worthy town—
honest businesses, obliging neighbors,
smell of yeast dough, of gray soap.
No one hears howling dogs, or fate's footsteps.
In our era of "self-expression" and gratuitous avant-gardism, when much poetry vainly admires its own emotions and linguistic pyrotechnics, such outwardness and engagement with the world, which are hallmarks of epic and lyric poetry alike, seem miraculous, though perhaps they shouldn't. As Szymborska herself muses in "Miracle Fair": "The commonplace miracle: / that so many miracles take place."
It shouldn't surprise us that Szymborska has become so popular in the United States. We have poets like Mary Oliver who offer hymns of praise to the beauty of the natural world, and we have poets like Carolyn Forché who address the realities of political oppression and create poems that bear witness to suffering. But we have no poet who addresses the burdens of history the way Szymborska does: not self-centered, stoic but empathetic, with an unflinching consideration of the impact of war on the human body and on the everyday lives of those who endure it. In "Reality Demands," she observes that "Perhaps all fields are battlefields, / those we remember / and those that are forgotten," while in "Hatred," she writes,
Let's face it:
[hatred] knows how to make beauty.
The splendid fire-glow in midnight skies.
Magnificent bursting bombs in rosy dawns.
Nor do we have a poet who looks so clearly at the natural world, from the microscopic to the cosmos itself, whose reflections on the physical law of entropy become meditations on Death, and whose musings on the lives of stars and paramecia alike reveal to her the wholeness of existence. "A drop of water fell on my hand, / drawn from the Ganges and the Nile," she writes in "Water," finding in that common, life-giving element a principle that links existence together: "Someone was drowning, someone dying was / calling out for you. Long ago, yesterday." Szymborska speaks for those without voices, for insects and for plants, finding kinship with them but also honoring their alienness; in "The Silence of Plants," she writes:
The same star keeps us in its reach.
We cast shadows based on the same laws.
We try to understand things, each in our own way,
And what we don't know brings us closer too.
It is, finally, our shared mortality that brings us closer; our loneliness as individuals makes us a community: "When the night is clear, I watch the sky," says "The Old Professor," "I can't get enough of it, / so many points of view."
Lest my appreciation of Szymborska's poetry seem too partial, let me note that reading her collected poems (which includes all of her work save three early volumes in a Social Realist vein and those very few poems Szymborska herself deemed untranslatable), I found some weaknesses I hadn't noticed when reading her individual volumes. In her earlier works, Szymborska's treatment of romantic relationships occasionally verges on sentimentality, as in "Flagrance," when she says of a moth fluttering over her and her lover, "I didn't see, you didn't guess, / our hearts were glowing in the night." Yet such lapses are rare. More disappointing is the surprising flatness of language in her last two books, where the diction proves less precise and the phrasings less memorable than one might expect from Szymborska. One learns from the "Translator's Afterword," that Stanislaw Baranczak had become too ill to work on these translations, and that Clare Cavanagh completed most of them on her own. It appears that it is the tension born of collaboration, and not the skill of one translator, that has made Szymborska so interesting and accessible for English readers.
Perhaps we ought not hold Cavanagh wholly accountable for the flatness of these later poems, since they themselves sometimes betray a flatness of subject matter. In her later work, Szymborska wrote a number of poems about the experience of writing poems, a recursive move that was once exciting but is now deplorably de rigeur, perhaps accounting for the struggles of contemporary poetry to remain relevant to non-poets. Does one really want to read the imagined dialogue between the author and her unwritten poem in "An Idea," where the poet asks, "Tell me a little more about yourself," and the poem "whispered a few words in my ear"? Which words, one asks? None other than these words, it appears. Perhaps those who appreciate koans may enjoy this sound of one hand clapping.
And yet, there are moments when Szymborska's reflections on poetry and on culture in general shake the reader to the core. In "Photograph from September 11," Szymborska looks at an image of people falling from the burning World Trade Center towers, observing that "The photograph halted them in life, / and now keeps them / above the earth toward the earth." In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, some public intellectuals questioned the capacity of art to address such violence. Szymborska, it seems, has no patience with such navel-gazing. She reaches out to the victims-"Each is still complete, / with a particular face / and blood well hidden"—using the photograph to come as close as possible to the experience, to enter into their being, and then allowing poetry to save them and, in so doing, save us all: "I can do only two things for them— / describe this flight / and not add a last line."
I urge you to read and reread Wislawa Szymborska's Map: Collected and Last Poems. Do not let death add a last line.