Friday, February 3, 2012

Wistawa Szymborska (1923-2012)

"For others, Death was mad and monumental—
not for these citizens of the sepia past.
Their griefs turned into smiles, their days flew fast,
their vanishing was due to influenza." ["Family Album"]

Commemorating the death of a poet is a bit redundant. When most poets aren't commemorating in advance their own death, they're playing dead, or in extreme cases, practicing being dead. And then there's that whole "afterlife" phenomenon - as if it's not good enough to have glimpses into one's own immortality through the rarefied act of poetry-making, there's this business about being remembered by posterity for one's words. Silly, I know, but fortunately, the muse no likee vanity, and plays all sorts of tricks to keep poets on the up and up. And so when poets give up the proverbial Hamlet, one feels one can say what formerly one could not whisper (for fear of being the subject of a poem about being misunderstood). After all, there were all those words, more than we got out of even the best of our actual friends, and they were so intense, we really ought to believe we really knew them. Unfortunately, unless its some spectacular mythic accident that makes them pretty young corpses, it usually ends up most closely resembling those old Hollywood stars of the 20's and 30's, who expire in Old Stars Homes as distant memories to most people not as old as themselves. We feel we know them too, but after the glamour has left we realize they were only actors reading scripts, not the characters they presented as mirrors to ourselves. In death, the public becomes private, in other words, and in poets the private becomes sealed in what can only be called an articulate crypt.

This essay is supposed to be about Wistawa Szymborska, the great Polish poet who passed this week at 88, but somehow I just know that she would look askance at such memorials, for she's shrewdly memorialized herself on so many occasions that anything I or anyone else reports would be irrelevant. She's written about death as embarrassing ("Report from the Hospital"), lacking foresight ("Letters from the Dead"), falsely confused with birth ("Born"), a matter of decorum ("Beheading"), and reserved in its importance for humans instead of beetles, where it is "quarantined" ("Seen from Above"). She's speculated about suicide notes ("The Suicide's Room"), made a detailed examination of the condition of a life in the moments before death ("Alive"), interrogated people on the details of dead people dreams ("Plotting with the Dead"), and even seen the "joy of writing" as "the revenge of the mortal hand" ("The Joy of Writing"). It's almost like all of this is just so we can finally laugh at death now that she is actually dead.

But death per se is not her concern, so much as its wonderful ability to bring out the absurdity of people. She prizes this quality in all of her subjects, lovingly skewering us at our most vulnerable point, our sense of pathos. How sad that years of closeness makes lovers unrecognizable because undreamable ("I Am Too Close..."), and how sad new lovers can't be seen through the fantasy ("Over Wine"). How sad that Cassandra was actually wrong ("Soliloquoy for Cassandra") and Lot's wife was actually right ("Lot's Wife"). How sad that imaginary kingdoms have to be lost in the dustbin of history ("Voices"), and how sad "history rounds off skeletons to zero" ("Starvation Camp Near Jaslo"). How sad it is to read poetry to a room with only a handful of people ("Poetry Reading"), and how sad it is to be a world-famous Nobel Prize winning poet without the basic privacy that any writer needs ("Some People"). How sad indeed it all is, but I always laugh. How sad that she died, but still I laugh. She's like the Ellen De Generes of the poetry world, finding that thing we all know but never think rises to the level of communication, and unpeeling it with excruciating slowness and raven-like cleverness, showing in the process how even the most commonplace thing actually makes absolutely no sense.

Properly appreciating such a mind is an impossible -- albeit humorous -- task, because when the tiny thing becomes so enlarged that it is incomprehensible, the distance becomes too great. And that's the fun, laughing through the tears.

On that note I'll close with one of my favorite Szymborska poems, "Vocabulary":

"La Pologne? La Pologne? Isn't it terribly cold there?" she asked, and then sighed with relief. So many countries have been turning up lately that the safest thing to talk about is the climate.

"Madame," I want to reply, "my people's poets do all their writing in mittens. I don't mean to imply that they never remove them; they do, indeed, if the moon is warm enough. In stanzas composed of raucous whooping, for only such can drown the windstorms' constant roar, they glorify the simple lives of our walrus herders. Our Classicists engrave their odes with inky icicles on trampled snowdrifts. The rest, our Decadents, bewail their fate with snowflakes instead of tears. He who wishes to drown himself must have an axe at hand to cut the ice. Oh, madame, dearest madame."

That's what I mean to say. But I've forgotten the word for walrus in French. And I'm not sure of icicle or ax.

"La Pologne? La Pologne? Isn't it terribly cold there?"

"Pas du tout," I answer icily.

Note: all titles and quotes come from Poems New and Collected, translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh.

1 comment:

Hannah Stephenson said...

Ugh. I'm so sad about this....a loss.

It sometimes feels that there are more big deaths, but it's just that we have a greater awareness of them (as news).

An excellent post.