Here is the last published collection of poems from Polish writer and Nobel Prize winner Wislawa Szymborska (1923 – 2012), although others were gathered and published posthumously. The poems included are a joyful, whimsical, and clear contemplation of life, beauty, truth, and human existence.
Like “Hard Life with Memory,” which places memory in space:
I’m a poor audience for my memory.
She wants me to attend her voice nonstop,
but I fidget, fuss,
listen and don’t,
step out, come back, then leave again.
Sight, seeing, noticing, and observing are constant themes. As Szymborska maneuvers around her universe, she brings things into focus. From the teenager we used to be and cannot understand to the impossibly small microcosmos that hold tremendous power and “don’t even have innards […] still they decide our life and death.”
Szymborska includes a wonderful contemplation of nature’s brevity, or rather a habit of recycling beings due to laziness: What if Alexander the Great exists today as a tax accountant? Not in soul but in image?
Billions of faces on the earth’s surface.
Each different, so we’re told,
from those that have been and will be.
But Nature—since who really understands her?—
may grow tired of her ceaseless labors
and so repeats earlier ideas
by supplying us
with preworn faces.
That these poems were written when Szymborska was in her eighties means something. There is always something moving, at rest, unreachable, opaque. The dark blackness that bookends our life, novelist Vladimir Nabokov called it. Uncertainty about death and meaning. And yet…
So long as that woman from the Rijksmuseum
in painted quiet and concentration
keeps pouring milk day after day
from the pitcher to the bowl
The world hasn’t earned
the world’s end.
We create beauty, and that makes existence worth something. Like Marilynne Robinson’s marveling at the impossible beauty of language or Maira Kalman’s loving view of strangers in the street—if that appreciation of beauty abides, so do we. Even if we don’t. Even if we are recycled as a tax accountant. We’re still in a wonderful continuity, “born for cooperation,” wrote Marcus Aurelius.
So many humans in their purple hour select a rear-view, step back to pull forward what once was in hopes of living a bit longer.
It’s a tricky subject, always put off for later and perhaps worthy of a better poet, even more stunned by the world than I. But time is short. I write.
Few, precious few, step apart from their lives and look to that external, that infinite thing they might—will—soon join. There is much weight in this collection, the weighty comfort of the company of someone who contemplated the eternal.