Before finding herself in the international spotlight upon winning the 1996 Nobel Prize for literature, Wislawa Szymborska was less known to Canadian audiences than the two other Polish candidates, Zbigniew Herbert and Tadeusz Rozewicz. Her position on the margins may be due to the quantity of her output: fifty years' worth fits between the covers of sixteen slim volumes of poetry (five of them selected poems), one book of reviews, and some fine translations of early French poetry. In English, scattered poems have appeared in various anthologies, and have been bound in three collections, most recently in View with a Grain of Sand.
Though she has not often stretched her poetic wings, she has attained heights rarely matched by her contemporaries, and given expression, with a perspicacious irony tempered by compassion and a sense of the tragic, to dimensions of human existence barely attended to, from within unexpected points of view-backstage after the curtain has fallen, a museum display case, water, a terrorist waiting for a bomb to explode, a stone, a post-Holocaust archaeology, an onion, an evolving species, a tranquillizer.
The main difficulty in enframing Szymborska's work-though this is also a testament to her intellectual acuity and artistic flexibility-stems from her astonishing stylistic and thematic range, which is an achievement of her express desire:
"I want each of my poems to be different. If I were to hope for anything, it would be to succeed in taking the diversity in each individual poem to a complete uniqueness of style and material, so that this, and not some kind of emotional thread or another, would bind my entire oeuvre."
This avowal illuminates a curious aspect of Szymborska's poetry-namely, that her poems aspire to a universality through the documentation of a series of particulars, or of permutations on a theme. "Clothes", for example, sounds like a wry grammar and vocabulary lesson in its listing of various combinations of syntactical units to cover the range of possible visits to a doctor's office; this universality is captured grammatically by the use of pronominal shifters ("you" and "we"), so-called "empty signifiers" that change reference according to the context in which they are deployed and thus remain "empty" until we fill them with ourselves and others. And "In Case", through the use of the conditional, at one point condensed down to a series of conjunctions ("As a result, because, although, despite"), powerfully evokes the experience of living in an occupied country, when one's survival was determined purely by the infinity of irreproducible chance circumstances. In all cases, the situational is but a mustard seed of the world.
To speak of any Polish poet without referring to her or his historic-political context is usually an iffy proposition. Poland's two centuries as an occupied nation (except for brief independence between the wars) transformed the profession of poet into a "calling"-either to action or conscience-and the "poet" into, at the least, a representative for the majority or, elatedly, a prophet. In the immediate postwar period, the implementation of Socialist Realism, to which many fine writers bent their pens, impeded the writer's task of truth-telling (and, thus, of standing guard over society's interests)-and then served as a catalyst to carrying it out with renewed vigour.
Szymborska's work is not poetry with a political agenda, or a poetry of provocation in the strict political sense. Nor does she aspire to being the voice of her nation. Her debut volumes, That's Why We Live (1952) and Questioning Oneself (1954), published just before the collapse of Stalinism, do carry the taint of Socialist Realism, a reproach that has resurfaced recently; she has, however, disassociated herself from these fledgeling forays into conformity. Her subsequent work, particularly People on a Bridge, sometimes addresses the broader political dimension of human life, but in a way that is not nationally specific. The voice she assumes is, as her fellow Nobel prize-winner Czeslaw Milosz has said, is a bold venture, the voice "of everyone living on this planet at the same time, bound with the same consciousness, which is a consciousness after: after Copernicus, after Newton, after Darwin, after two world wars, after the inventions and crimes of the twentieth century.""An Opinion on the Issue of Pornography" (1986), a steamy and salacious piece referring to debates on the legalization of pornography, presents, in self-implicatory fashion, the position of a bureaucrat for whom free thought is more scandalous than pornography. Her purpose was to convey the reality of a totalitarian regime under which the act of thinking carries with it the probability of political persecution. "Tortures" (1986) reflects upon the immutability of forms of torture-across the changing epochs, peoples, social and cultural rituals, conceptions of the soul-which are constricted only by the perennially finite repertoire of the body, conceived as a fragile reservoir of pain. And, in the darkly ironic "Children of Our Age" (again, 1986), Szymborska undercuts the pervasive intellectual tendency to politicize every aspect of twentieth-century life-from the biological through the social to the geological-with the withering blow that people and animals still die, homes still burn, and fields still grow wild "as in epochs immemorial/ and less political."
Szymborska attends to the individual, the concrete, the mundane, with a finely chiselled simplicity and transparency of execution that veil, with a sometimes intentionally naive cast, a highly sophisticated exploration of the metaphysical, the evolutionary, and the historical, of existential problems deeply and humanly experienced; the same qualities also veil the tragic, bitter dimension of her poetry. In a self-reflexive turn, she writes, "Don't bear me ill will, speech, that I borrow weighty words,/ then labour heavily so that they may appear light." Or conversely, she will suddenly home the metaphysical in on a pedestrian instant, and so set our everyday experience in a broader context. Embedded in her verse are a host of crystalline reflections, revaluations of the accepted, capitulations before the ungraspable, the insurmountable, chilling pronouncements, stands before heartbreak. When culled, these take on an almost aphoristic edge: "the most pressing questions/ are naive ones" ("The Century's Decline"); "I prefer to consider even the possibility/ that existence has its own reason for being" ("Possibilities"); "I survived you by enough/ and only by enough/ to contemplate from afar" ("Farewell to a View"); "At such a view I begin to doubt/ that that which is important/ is more important than the unimportant" ("No Title Required"). Even when she wryly examines a grain of sand or converses with a stone, begging to be let inside its vast hollow, she is exploring the mechanism of desire and rejection, mutual estrangement, the notion of the world as a human construct versus the world as an in-itself. Or when she transmutes into poetry the oh-so-mundane and ultimately pointless task of writing a résumé destined only for the paper-shredder, she ironizes bitterly on the formulaic reduction of a life in its colours and richness of experience into quantifiable data and bare facts. Or when she addresses unnegotiable biological mortality in terms of a strictly observed ledger of accounts payable and receivable-
I will be forced
to pay for myself with my self
to give back my life for life.
My debts will be torn from me
together with my skin. ("Nothing for Free")
-she sets, outside and against the restitutional, the soul. From her poetry issues forth a quiet scream.
The tenor of Szymborska's oeuvre is encapsulated in the quietly defiant flourish to "The Joy of Writing": "The joy of writing./ The power to preserve./ The revenge of the mortal hand." Endowed with the verbal wizardry of a Boleslaw Lesmian or a Bruno Schulz, her pen repeatedly but with startling diversity foregrounds poetry's animation of worlds through a pronounced dialectic of presence and absence, of lost and found. She explores the "abyss [that] surrounds us" ("Autotomy"), the "elsewhere" of filled and filled negative space ("The Railway Station"), the dark void of the cave and "the emptiness of our heads" ("Caves"), the wide open of the sky ("Sky"), the forgetfulness essential to historical continuity ("The End and the Beginning"), the nothing that remains of the genocidal fires ("Archaeology"), the "white page" ("The Joy of Writing"). These images of empty space stand as undefined yet potent horizons out of which specific events (the meeting or non-meeting of two lovers in a railway station), biological entities (the holothurian), past, possible, and future worlds, or poems, are reconstructed, recreated, or actualized for the first time, if only "in temporary form." Szymborska's feat has been to reinvest the beleaguered postwar poetic word with "the privilege of presence" ("Farewell to a View").
Szymborska entitled her exquisite last collection The End & the Beginning. Her audiences faithful and new must hope that this bursting onto the world stage with a prize crowning a life's work will be but "the premiere" ("Life on the Spot"). l
A Speech in the Office of the Lost-and-Found
I lost a few goddesses on the road from south to
and many gods on the road from east to west.
A couple of stars were extinguished for me once and
forever-open up, oh sky.
One, then another, island slipped into the sea.
I don't even know where I left my claws exactly,
what wears my fur, who inhabits my shell.
My siblings died out when I crawled onto land,
and only one small bone in me upholds my
I was bursting through my skin, squandering
vertebrae and legs,
I lost my senses so many times.
I shut my third eye to this all long ago,
I waved it off with my fin, I shrugged my limbs.
It went astray, it's gone, scattered to the four winds.
I myself am amazed at myself at how little of me
a single person in temporarily human form,
who yesterday lost only her umbrella on the tram.
(Translated by Diana Kuprel-as are all the quotations from Szymborska in this article.)
Diana Kuprel is a Ph.D. candidate at the Centre for Comparative Literature in the University of Toronto.