Wislawa Szymborska


“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.”

Here is the last published collection of poems from Polish writer and Nobel Prize winner Wislawa Szymborska (July 2, 1923 – February 1, 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.

She wants all my time and attention.
She’s got no problem when I sleep.
The day’s a different matter, which upsets her.

What we make of the things we see and notice is a constant theme; “My imagination sentenced me to this journey” reads one of the poems. 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.

Those passersby might be Archimedes in jeans.
Catherine the Great draped in resale.
some pharaoh with briefcase and glasses

From “Thoughts that Visit Me On Busy Streets”

Wislawa Szymborska - Here
Human reflections in the dome of the British Museum. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

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.

From “Vermeer”

The Milkmaid, Johannes Vermeer
“The Milkmaid,” Johannes Vermeer, painted in 1657. Vermeer’s skilled capture of light and movement makes this simple piece meaningful beyond its subject matter. Learn more.

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.

I can’t speak for elsewhere,
but here on Earth we’ve got a fair supply of everything.
Here we manufacture chairs and sorrows,
scissors, tenderness, transistors, violins,
teacups, dams, and quips.

There may be more of everything elsewhere,
but for reasons left unspecified they lack paintings,
picture tubes, pierogies, handkerchiefs for tears.

From “Here”

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. C.S. Lewis contemplated our location, for example. Few, precious few, step apart from their lives and look to that external, that infinite thing they might—will—soon join.1

Wislawa Szymborska, 1980.

It’s been and gone.
It’s been, so it’s gone.
In the same irreversible order,
for such is the rule of this foregone game.
A trite conclusion, not worth writing
if it weren’t an unquestionable fact,
a fact for ever and ever,
for the whole cosmos, as it is and will be,
that something really was
until it was gone,
even the fact
that today you had a side of fries.

From “Metaphysics”

You were here. You can no longer be here. But don’t worry, you will always have been here.2

There is much weight in this collection, the weighty comfort of the company of someone who contemplated the eternal.

Illustration of Wislawa Szymborska.