Saturday, July 25, 2015

What We're Reading: A New "Collected Poems"

Map: Collected and Last Poems,
by Wislawa Szymborska
Ttranslated by Clare Cavanagh
and Stanislaw Baranczak

The Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska died in 2012, and this collection represents her life’s work in poetry. She was always a popular poet in her native Poland, but she became better known to English-speaking audiences after being awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1996. Around that time, several collections of her work appeared in English.

The literary fate of poets has always seemed rather poignant. So often their entire life’s work actually fits into a single volume. Consider this in comparison to the multi-volume oeuvre of so many novelists, such as Stephen King or Joyce Carol Oates, whose novels fill multiple shelves. The poet W. S. Merwin said that he always had trouble with his work being "collected" in this way, even though it seems that the collections allow a poet to reach a larger audience. Poetry is usually published in small individual volumes, 20 or 30 poems at a time.  Often an individual volume is something more organic than just a collection of the poet's most recent work: It may represent discrete themes or stylistic experiments the poet was working on at a particular time in life. The poems written for it may even have been written with a chosen scheme or cycle in mind, and certainly their final arrangement in the volume is a considered rather than an arbitrary one.

Recently, collected works (as is the case with this one) seem to be published with their poems in the chronological order of their composition (as far as that can be determined) and with divisions that indicate the original individual volumes in which they appeared. However, simply their collection into a single larger volume tends to diminish the attention we pay to them individually or as a discrete collection. Because we are presented with so many, we make harsher judgments about which ones we find good in comparison to those that we like better. We inevitably make comparisons that work to the poet’s disadvantage. Poems that we might have ranked higher from within a smaller pool drift to the bottom in a bigger one. And chronology is not without its own problems. In a collected volume of poems I always tend to start reading from the last poem in the volume back to the front of the book. I’m not sure why. I suppose I want to see the art of the poet displayed in its most current or last embodiment. But also if a poet has matured and become better or has become known for some particular style or subject or character, it seems that will be most represented in their middle to late work.

Such has proven to be the case with this collection of poems. The early poems seem more opaque, and a reader might get lost. Every line and thought is dressed metaphorically, as if that is the requirement of poetry--that nothing can be said plainly or directly. I like the middle and later work of Szymborska better, where a single metaphorical conceit informs and structures the poem as a whole. And I think the later work contains more of what is unique and accomplished about her as a poet---the strange twists in perspective and the witty conceits that land us in a place of surprise and astonishment at the quotidian. Her translator, Stansilaw Baranczak writes,
The typical lyrical situation on which a Szymborska poem is founded is the confrontation between the directly stated or implied opinion on an issue and the question that raises doubt about its validity. The opinion not only reflects some widely shared belief or is representative of some widespread mind-set, but also, as a rule, has a certain doctrinaire ring to it: the philosophy behind it is usually speculative, anti-empirical, prone to hasty generalizations, collectivist, dogmatic and intolerant.
Yes, a sometimes sly---and always witty---empirical dissection is a Szymborska trademark. At times the result is coldly satisfying.  Sometimes it is quite moving. Here are three of my favorites. Perhaps they will encourage you to pick up Map: Collected and Last Poems by Wislawa Szymborska.

Frozen Motion

This isn’t Miss Duncan, the noted danseuse?
Not the drifting cloud, the wafting zephyr, the bacchante,
moonlit waters, wave swaying, breezes sighing?

Standing this way, in the photographer’s atelier,
heftily, fleshily wrested from music and motion,
she’s cast to the mercies of a pose,
forced to bear false witness.

Thick arms raised above her head,
a knotted knee protrudes from her short tunic,
left leg forward, naked foot and toes,
with 5 (count them) toenails.

One short step from eternal art into artificial eternity—
I reluctantly admit that it’s better than nothing
and more fitting than otherwise.

Behind the screen, a pink corset, a handbag,
in it a ticket for a steamship
leaving tomorrow, that is, sixty years ago;
never again, but still at nine A.M. sharp.

Portrait of a Woman

She must be a variety.
Change so that nothing will change.
It’s easy, impossible, tough going, worth a shot.
Her eyes are, as required, deep blue, gray,
dark, merry, full of pointless tears.
She sleeps with him as if she’s first in line or the only one
      on earth.
She’ll bear him four children, no children, one.
Naïve, but gives the best advice.
Weak, but takes on anything.
A screw loose and tough as nails.
Curls up with Jaspers or Ladies’ Home Journal.
Can’t figure out this bolt and builds a bridge.
Young, young as ever, still looking young.
Holds in her hands a baby sparrow with a broken wing,
her own money for some trip far away,
a meat cleaver, a compress, a glass of vodka.
Where’s she running, isn’t she exhausted.
Not a bit, a little, to death, it doesn’t matter.
She must love him, or she’s just plain stubborn.
For better, for worse, for heaven’s sake.  


In danger, the holothurian cuts itself in two.
It abandons one self to a hungry world
and with the other self it flees.

It violently divides into doom and salvation,
retribution and reward, what has been and what will be.

An abyss appears in the middle of its body
between what instantly become two foreign shores.

Life on one shore, death on the other.
Here hope and there despair.

If there are scales, the pans don’t move.
If there is justice, this is it.

To die just as required, without excess.
To grow back just what’s needed from what’s left

We, too, can divide ourselves, it’s true.
But only into flesh and a broken whisper.
Into flesh and poetry.

The throat on one side, laughter on the other,
quiet, quickly dying out.

Here the heavy heart, there non omnis moriar---
just three little words, like a flight’s three feathers.

The abyss doesn’t divide us.
The abyss surrounds us.

                                                ---In memorian Halina Poswiatowska

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