An anthology by a Polish writer. In Bodybuilders' Contest, she writes: "He grunts while showing his poses and paces. / His back alone has twenty different faces. / The mammoth fist he raises as he wins / is tribute to the force of vitamins." By the author of Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts.
Here's the ending of one I liked a lot, titled "Landscape":
I don't know the games of the heart.
I've never seen my children's father.
I don't see the crabbed and blotted draft
that hides behind the Song of Songs.
What I want to say comes in ready-made phrases.
I never use despair, since it really isn't mine,
only given to me for safekeeping.
Even if you bar my way,
even if you stare me in the face,
I'll pass you by on the chasm's edge, finer than a hair.
On the right is my house. I know it from all sides,
along with its steps and its entryway,
behind which life goes unpainted.
The cat hops on the bench,
the sun gleams on a pewter jug,
a bony man sits at the table
fixing a clock.
She sarcastically attacks "True Love" as an affront to our humanity (an excerpt):
True love. Is it normal,
is it serious, is it practical?
What does the world get from two people
who exist in a world of their own?
* * *
Look at the happy couple.
Couldn't they at least try to hide it,
fake a little depression for their friends' sake!
Listen to them laughing - it's an insult.
* * *
It's hard even to guess how far things might go
if people started to follow their example.
* * *
Perfectly good children are born without its help.
It couldn't populate the planet in a million years,
it comes along so rarely.
Let the people who never find true love
keep saying there's no such thing.
Their faith will make it easier for them to live and die.
Conversely, she writes a humorous "Thank-you note" to those she doesn't love: "I owe so much/ to those I don't love." They're so much easier to live with.
The title poem, "View with a Grain of Sand", is about how meaningless we are to the non-human world around us, despite our belief in our importance, and how our naming means nothing to the named.
We call it a grain of sand,
but it calls itself neither grain nor sand.
It does just fine without a name,
whether general, particular,
incorrect, or apt.
That's a refreshing observation in a book filled with naming, all of it apt. The poem ends:
Time has passed like a courier with urgent news.
But that's just our simile.
The character is invented, his haste is make-believe,
his news inhuman.
She is often very funny and self-deprecating, like when she compares a small turnout at one of her readings ("Half come inside because it started to rain./The rest are relatives. O Muse.") to the packed attendance at a boxing match.
The translators deserve a big tip of the hat. There is a lot of wordplay and many complex concepts, and the translators, Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, make it seem as if we are reading this in its original language. Many thanks to Paul Cranswick for suggesting I read her poetry. Her often-surprising topics (e.g. Hitler when he was still an innocent child), and novel perspectives, combined with her strong voice and fluid eloquence, make this one a standout.
A Moment in Troy
An Unexpected Meeting
The Letters of the Dead
On Death, Without Exaggeration
The End and the Beginning
Cat in an Empty Apartment
Parting with a View
The power of these poems is not so much the novelty of the ideas she expresses, but her ability to make us see and appreciate the wonderful ironies of common experience anew. Perhaps that’s the definition of the poet’s calling.
That these poems are translated from the Polish seems incredible to me. I have no way to judge the faithfulness of the translation to the original Polish, but these poems are absolutely brilliant in English.
that there'd been nothing between them.
But what's the word from the streets, staircases, hallways--
perhaps they've passed by each other a million times?
My recent bouts with verse have been belabored, not in terms of complexity or allusion but because, so often, the stanzas were heavy. The weight of history and personal affectation gave each phrase a heft. Imagine how disoriented I was when encountering Szymborska. This collection nearly bursts with a wild-eyed wonder. There is a freshness to almost every observation. There is a youthful lightness which appears to almost float from one stanza to the next.
It shouldn't be assumed then that this collection is childish, not without first accepting a subtle weary edge. My favorite line is "My faith is strong, blind and without foundation." That disconnect creates an opening, a fissure of sighs where wonder goes to molt.