Nonrequired Reading

by Wislawa Szymborska
235 pages,
ISBN: 0151006601

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Cat Music
by Kenneth Sherman

For several decades now, Wislawa Szymborska has written a column on books called "Non-Required Reading" for the large Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza. One marvels at the freedom Szymborska's editors allowed the future Nobel Laureate in Literature, and at the luck of Polish readers who for years have been provided a steady diet of her prose. Rather than closely reviewing a book, Szymborska allows it to serve as a springboard for her own ruminations. The results are insightful, entertaining, and more often than not, poetic. In fact, some of these sketches are just that: poems in prose. Here is Szymborska discussing the book Birds of Poland:
Wislawa Szymborska
Wislawa Szymborska

I like birds for their flights and non-flights. For their diving into waters and clouds. For their bones filled with air. For the claws that disappeared on their wing tips, but were preserved on their feet, with the exception of paddle feet, which also deserve our best regards. I like birds for their stick legs or bowlegs coated with scales that may be purple, green, or cerulean blueą

Most of the sketches do not play such a high note. All, however, possess the brevity, concision, and concluding epiphany that we associate with a poem. One might complain that such an approach does not give the considered book its due. Just the opposite: Szymborska's enjoyment of certain books and her displeasure with others is readily apparent; as well, the reader encounters an original mind, a bonus she rarely experiences in traditional book reviews.
Szymborska's unorthodox methodłher intent from the beginning was to write about those books that sold well in bookstores but were rarely reviewedłguarantees a certain degree of success. I'm not convinced that all of the books considered were bestsellers but their eclectic range forms an interesting commentary on Homo Ludens. The titles make for a found poem: The Button in Literature, Steps and Missteps in the Evolution of Molluscs, The One Hundred Greatest Tyrants, Cleanliness and Dirt, Gladiators, A Little Book of Hugs. Szymborska's level-headedness and humour ensure a detached curiosity towards each subject. As it turns out, detachment is very important for her. Hence, her preference for Ella Fitzgerald ("she never worked the song into a lather") over Billie Holiday ("who poured her heart, soul, and various other organs into her songs").
That phrase, "various other organs", reveals one of Szymborska's salient characteristics: Slavic sarcasm. She throws such sharp little jabs throughout the book. Of the person who wrote the egregious A Little Book of Hugs, Szymborska states: "Kathleen Keating is an American, and enthusiasm comes to her more easily." Discussing Hatha Yoga for Everyone, she describes an intricate posture that turns the participant into "corporeal macramT." As for Yoga's intent to help us lose ourselves, Szymborska remarks: "there's always time for that after death."
Not all of Szymborska's subjects are bizarre or ephemeral. She writes about Montaigne's essays, Saint-Simon's memoirs, Gibbon's The Fall of the Roman Empire, Herbert Lottman's biography of Jules Verne. While her tone is at times whimsical her intent is serious. Jules Verne was repulsive: a ruthless egotist, an emotional cripple. Szymborska wonders "ąhow on earth this cold-hearted wretch managed to move and amuse his readersą how did it happen that this sinister parent became the most popular, best-loved author of children's books?" The sketch turns into a meditation on the contradictions between an author's life and his work. Her only comment on the actual biography is to state that any attempt to analyze or understand Verne is pointless. For Szymborska, it is imperative that mysteries abound.
What distinguishes Szymborska from the other formidable Polish poets (Milosz, Herbert, Rozewicz) who came to our attention in the latter half of the twentieth century is her lightness of touch (not to be confused with superficiality), her refreshing lack of defensiveness, and her sense of the absurd rooted in her experience as a female of the species. (See the extraordinary sketch, "Black Tears".) What she shares with her compatriots is a direct and uncluttered style and the moral intensity of one who is a citizen of an oppressed nation. The chief characteristic of her poetry and prose is her compassion for suffering humanity. In her piece on Carl Sifakis's The Encyclopaedia of Assasinations, she writes:

Thirty people perished in the street attack on Alfonso XIII. The king and the assassination went down in history, but the passersby killed by chance made a onetime appearance in the obituaries. The injured, whose numbers must have been far larger, had to struggle through their scarred and crippled lives in indifferent silenceą

Szymborska concludes the sketch with a call for an encyclopaedia devoted to all innocent victims of terror.
Since she has seldom written about poetry (even her Nobel Lecture skirts the topic), the sketch "Bringing Up The Rear" is invaluable. In it, she states that the poet "remains in his heart of hearts the spiritual heir of primitive humanity." His imagination is linked to the specific, the concrete. Szymborska compares him to the historian who employs abstract phrases like "the loss of domination," "the suppression of separatist tendencies." As Szymborska notes, "Blood doesn't drip from such words." When a poet, on the other hand, reads that one group's agricultural plans "'came into conflict with their neighbours' interests,' he immediately envisions chopped off heads tossed into wicker baskets." Furthermore, his poetic intuition tells him "that these baskets were woven by blind slaves who were captured and blinded by some earlier 'conflict.'"
As well as the many benefits I've already noted, one picks up interesting trivia through reading Szymborska's sketches. For example, Cromwell, stricken with malaria, refused to take cinchona bark, whose febrifugal properties were well known. The reason? The medication had reached England under the name of "the Jesuits' powder." And in seventeenth century mental institutions, there appeared cat pianos, for the amusement of both doctors and inmates. "Live cats took the place of stringsłat every touch of the keyboard the creatures meowed piteously."
Poor cats. Fortunate readers. ņ

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