A Poet in Troy – A Farewell to Wislawa Szymborska

Posted: February 2, 2012 in On Beauty, Poems
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For better or for worse, every time I get a writer’s block, someone I admire dies. Perhaps this is because I admire many people. Perhaps it’s because the few I most admire have such a profound influence on my psyche. Perhaps I’m just getting old enough that mortality is a frequent theme. Of those 3 options, the only one I know is wrong is the first; I unquestionable DON’T admire very many people. I like a lot of people. I love a lot of people. I put up with a lot of people. Perhaps too honestly I’ll admit that I’m even jealous of a lot of people. But, admiration is not something I distribute broadly. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I simply have high standards for admiration. The people I most admire are the ones I consider better than I, in one way or another. Because I consider myself a reasonably smart, thoughtful, creative, compassionate, and decent guy, that limits me 🙂

In any case, the newest loss in my small collection of most admired people is the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska. I’m not certain, but I believe I own all of her English translations including a few first editions and the uncorrected proof of “Poems New and Collected”. Sadly, from a collectors point of view, none are signed.

Szymborska was born in 1923 and lived through the Nazi occupation / destruction of Poland. While she’s not particularly known as a “Jewish Poet” she was Jewish and only managed to avoid deportation by the random chance that she was already working as a railroad employee and was somehow missed. On the topic of Nazi’s I will admit that I don’t like every one of her poems and that her poem “Hitler’s First Photograph” does piss me off. In that poem she describes the newborn Hitler as “this little fellow in his itty-bitty robe” and “Precious little angel, mommy’s sunshine”. But her point is nothing positive about Hitler. It is that even one of the most evil men to ever live started out “cute”. My own interpretation is that we all start out sweet and innocent but that both internal psychological profiles and external influences can turn us into monsters. So, what pisses me off is not her poem but my reaction.

I’ll also say that her early poems are on themes that I certainly dislike. Like many people of that time and place, Szymborska spent time as a member of the Polish United Worker’s Party and her early work reflects a socialist  philosophy. At the same time, even back then, her first book did not clear the censorship process because it “did not meet socialist requirements”. But, I still can’t universally like anyone who once went on record praising the likes of Lenin and Stalin and the greatness of socialism. So, needless to say, I don’t like all of her work.

The fact is, though, that when Szymborska came into maturity she shed that socialist bent and became a wonderful anti-socialist writer. She even went a bit too far, to my mind, in saying: “At the very beginning of my creative life I loved humanity. I wanted to do something good for mankind. Soon  I understood that it isn’t possible to save mankind”. I’m not convinced that she really meant that because I can’t imagine this many wonderful poems from someone who has given up on trying to save us from our idiocy. More telling, I think, is her statement: “When I was young I had a moment of believing in the Communist doctrine. I wanted to save the world through Communism. Quite soon I understood that it doesn’t work, but I never pretended that it didn’t happen to  me.” Ultimately she renounced Communism and all of her early poetry in praise of it. For that reason, I don’t hold her early socialist tendencies against her. She matured,  came to denounce what she knew was wrong, and had the guts to accept her past and not to deny or attempt to alter it.

I’m not sure why, but I remember the first of her poems that took my breath away. It was beautiful, funny, and insightful; all at once. It’s from her collection called “Salt” and is called “A Moment in Troy”:


Little girls—
skinny, resigned
to freckles that won’t go away,

not turning any heads
as they walk across the eyelids of the world,

looking just like Mom or Dad,
and sincerely horrified by it—

in the middle of dinner,
in the middle of a book,
while studying the mirror,
may suddenly be taken off to Troy.

In the grand boudoir of a wink
they all turn into beautiful Helens.

They ascend the royal staircase
in the rustling of silk and admiration.
They feel light. They all know
that beauty equals rest,
that lips mold the speech’s meaning,
and gestures sculpt themselves
in inspired nonchalance.

Their small faces
worth dismissing envoys for
extend proudly on necks
that merit countless sieges.

Those tall, dark movie stars,
their girlfriends’ older brothers,
the teacher from art class,
alas, they must all be slain.

Little girls
observe disaster
from a tower of smiles.

Little girls
wring their hands
in intoxicating mock despair.

Little girls
against a backdrop of destruction,
with flaming towns for tiaras,
in earrings of pandemic lamentation.

Pale and tearless.
Triumphant. Sated with the view.
Dreading only the inevitable
moment of return.

Little girls

Like I said, it’s a very touching poem, with some humor and enough grammatical quirks to keep you on your toes. My favorite line is: ” looking just like Mom or Dad, and sincerely horrified by it—”. I think it sums up so much of  adolescent angst. Yet, as I age and as I see more and more of my father in myself, I can even relate to it as a 51-year-old man. So, it may be a poem about freckle-faced little girls but, in some respects anyway, those girls are just an allegory for all of us and how we view ourselves in relationship to our parents and our environment; and, of course, what we strive to be.

In several ways, I’m proud of myself for noticing Szymborska before the Nobel committee recognized her. I love my little collection of her books. I find her transformation from ardent Socialist to one who acknowledges it’s impossibility inspiring. I love her humor and her insight. I’m saddened that I never met her. Still, I sadly must “check another one off” of my list of wonderful artists and I’m sad to see her go.

Rest in peace Wislawa. You will live on; one shelf down from Sylvia Plath and just to the right of Anne Sexton!

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