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Also by David Barber:
  • "A Visionary Poet at Ninety," on Stanley Kunitz (June, 1996, Atlantic);
  • "The Lather," a poem (September, 1995, Atlantic).

  • Poland's Blithe Spirit

    On discovering Wislawa Szymborska -- and the "little insurrections of sense and sanity" at the heart of the Nobel laureate's poetry

    by David Barber

    szymbor picture May 22, 1997

    To the purist there is no such thing as poetry in translation: the poetic by definition is that which cannot survive the confounding of tongues. A truism, surely, and yet ordinary experience suggests that it's truer for some poets than for others. There are translations we labor over in the gloomy certainty that we are divining only the murkiest approximation of the sound and sense of the original (Dante immediately comes to mind), and there are poets whose tenor can alter so markedly from translator to translator (compare the various editions of Rilke, for example) that there is little question that we're having to make do with muffled echoes and diluted essences. But there are also certain poets who can speak to us across the linguistic divide with such unforced ease that they seem to be blithe spirits hovering over the rubble of Babel. Not surprisingly, they are generally those who have forsaken verbal dazzle and rhapsodic utterance in pursuit of a lighter and airier mode of expressive feeling, a translucent style, an art of apparent artlessness.

    The poetry of the current Nobel laureate, Wislawa Szymborska, answers to just that description, happily so for the great many of us who know her native Polish only as an alien tangle of chafing consonants and briery inflections. Szymborska, whose poem "A Word on Statistics" appears in the May, 1997, Atlantic, in a translation by Joanna Trzeciak, is nevertheless a writer to whom most American readers have yet to be properly introduced. As was the case with her émigré countryman Czeslaw Milosz before he received the Nobel in 1980, much of her work has not been readily available to the English-speaking reader, and what reputation she's had in our republic of letters seems to have been confined mostly to a circle of cogniscenti that keeps its radar tuned to the political and literary frequencies of Eastern Europe. That kind of noble obscurity is hardly uncommon for modern European poets who are, well, obscure -- and who make for heavy lifting even when Englished by the most capable hands. It would be a mistake, however, to think that Szymborska's relative neglect has anything to do with inscrutability. She is a supremely lucid and sublimely beguiling poet, as accessible as she is ineffable. With their brisk and bracing wit, vivacious intelligence, and buoyant sense of play, hers are poems of abundant charm -- so charming, in fact, that it can take a while to realize just how disquieting they are.

    That was my own experience, at any rate, when first happening upon V iew with a Grain of Sand (1995), a volume of Szymborska's selected poems translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Claire Cavanagh that appeared a year or so before the Swedish Academy catapulted Szymborska's name into the headlines. The book has no introduction and contains a sparse three lines of biographical lowdown, unusual restraint in our age of overkill but a fitting tribute to Szymborska's innate effervescence. Even the uninitiated American ear should have little trouble picking up the conviviality of her poetry right away -- its comic sparkle, its jaunty conversational tempo, its immunity from pretense, its exuberant range of subjects and sympathies -- and shouldn't have to strain hard to detect the resonant vibrations beneath those inviting surfaces.

    This is not to suggest that Szymborska sounds anything like a poet writing from out of our own vernacular. There is almost no autobiographical element in these poems, and very little that can be safely ascribed to personal or intimate entanglement. They have nothing to confess -- not with well-scrubbed sincerity, at least -- and what they have to declare is usually merrily skewed or consummately oblique. Most notably of all, perhaps, they are more vigorously intellectual than the staple lyric poetry that dominates the American scene, more at ease with metaphysical speculation than with the raw materials of emotion and experience. Yet far from being stumbling blocks, these qualities account for much that is attractive and arresting in her verse. Szymborska is an inspired ironist of the first order, a warm and wily creature of reason who cherishes the life of the mind much too ardently to let any excursion into ideas turn into a forced march.

    A Szymborska poem typically begins with a bemused observation or jesting proposition, often delivered in an overtly assumed voice or animated persona. She excels at the infectiously mischievious setup: a wink and a nudge, and she's off and running. Take the opening lines of "Advertisement":
    I am a tranquilizer.
    I'm effective at home.
    I work in the office.
    I can take exams
    or the witness stand.
    Or these, from "On the Banks of the Styx":
    Dear individual soul, this is the Styx.
    The Styx, that's right: Why are you so perplexed?
    As soon as Charon reads the prepared text
    over the speakers, let the nymphs affix
    your name badge and transport you to the banks.
    There is a lively element of absurdist theater in Szymborska's affection for these puckish gambits and devices -- an impresario's gusto in summoning the subversive muses of farce, burlesque, and masquerade -- but I have yet to read a poem of hers that amounts to a pretext for mere cleverness or cheek. No matter how cockeyed the premise, however teasing and needling the tone of light raillery, Szymborska's soliloquies always seem to be staging little insurrections of sense and sanity and acute moral reckoning. She may be putting on a one-woman show, with all her sly diversions and winsome impersonations, but it's an act that's been booked into Plato's cave.

    One does not need to be deeply steeped in modern European mayhem to conceive how a writer born in Poland in 1923 might have arrived at an aesthetic of such self-effacing artifice. Suffice it to say that nothing could be further removed from (or more obstinantly resistant to) the dictates of Socialist Realism than one of Szymborska's droll riffs on hard times in the Neolithic ("Our Ancestors' Short Lives"), the wanton pleasures of the unconscious ("In Praise of Dreams"), the popularity of silent-film comedies among the angels ("Slapstick"), or the importance of good dentistry in diplomatic protocol ("Smiles"). Even at its most antic and impertinent, however, the telltale Szymborskian posture has much more Sphinx in it than jester: what saves these capering frolics from contrived frivolity is their unswerving sense of the exquisite precariousness of human principles and ideals, their mordant slant, as glimpsed in these closing couplets from "Birthday" on the intellect's ingrained predicaments:

    While trying to plumb what the void's inner sense is,
    I'm bound to pass by all these poppies and pansies.
    What a loss when you think how much effort was spent
    perfecting this petal, this pistil, this scent
    for the one-time appearance, which is all they're allowed,
    so aloofly precise and so fragilely proud.
    Confirmed tragicomedienne that she is, Szymborska everywhere reminds us that being serious need not mean being solemn. One of the constant marvels of her poetry is how it propagates its own fertile forms of "aloofly precise and fragilely proud" discourse, attaining a spacious amplitude of thought and feeling while appearing to indulge in flights of fancy. A neat trick, this ability to entertain profundity while defying gravity, and it's a testimony to this poet's unassuming aplomb that one never senses a moment's straining for calculated effects. Much of the brilliance of her verse lies in how it deflects the subtlety and shrewdness of its discernments, the way it coolly dissects modern anxiety under the guise of debonair banter. Although occasionally Szymborska will avail herself of pointed parody ("There's nothing more debauched than thinking," she writes tartly in "An Opinion on the Question of Pornography," ". . . frenzied, rakish chases after the bare facts, / the filthy fingering of touchy subjects"), her customary method is to let the freighted import of those touchy subjects insinuate itself through her expert shadings and siftings of subtext. In "Notes from a Nonexistent Himalayan Expedition," a heart-to-heart chat with the abominable snowman serves as a foil for evoking the specter of all-too-human monsters ("Yeti, crime is not all / we're up to down there. / Yeti, not every sentence there / means death"). In "Tarsier" a pipsqueak of a primate delivers a succinct oration on the blessings of "living on a human fingertip" with the prim dignity of a practiced courtier ("I am a tarsier -- the father and grandfather of tarsiers -- a tiny creature, nearly half of something, / yet nonetheless a whole no less than others"), a trenchant little disquisition on Social Darwinism carried off with a masterful poker face.

    What is all the more remarkable about Szymborska's habitual ironic distance is that it does not signal a retreat into stoic detachment. She is finally not so much a satirist or a skeptic as an uncommonly fine-tuned poet of the subjunctive mood: cross-examining the given by way of incongruous supposition and syllogism, fending off disillusionments great and small by practicing a kind of radical wishful thinking. I was also surprised to discover, amid all the brainy hilarity, how poignant a writer Szymborska often can be. If there is one poem of hers that promises to be an anthology piece for the ages, it would have to be "Cat in an Empty Apartment," in which a huffy feline's fit of pique ("Die -- you can't do that to a cat. / . . . Footsteps on the staircase, / but they're new ones. / The hand that puts fish on the saucer / has changed, too") emerges as an elegy more haunting and heart wrenching than one would have ever imagined.

    How much nuance and inference might we English-speaking readers be missing in poems this sidelong and covert? Can we be at all sure that we're catching the right drift when so much depends on undercurrents of intonation and leavenings of intimation? Impossible to tell, but one comes away with the inescapable impression that even in her own tongue Szymborska must be something of a will o' the wisp, infinitely adept at eluding the routine sentiment and overt statement, always managing to dance just beyond the reach of simple comprehension. One might further conjecture that her work loses less than most in the leap from one language to another because in a sense it has already been translated -- its emotional intensity transmuted into a lexicon of swift and supple fluency, its cerebral complication made to seem effortlessly offhand. Here is how Szymborska herself puts it, in the clinching lines of a characteristically sprightly poem, "Under One Small Star": "Don't bear me ill will, speech, that I borrow weighty words, / then labor heavily so that they may seem light."

    Speech, I'd wager, isn't about to hold a grudge.

    David Barber is The Atlantic Monthly's assistant poetry editor. His first book of poems, T he Spirit Level (1995), won the Terrence Des Pres prize for poetry.

    Also by David Barber: "A Visionary Poet at Ninety," on Stanley Kunitz (June, 1996, Atlantic); "The Lather," a poem (September, 1995, Atlantic).

    Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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