My Mortality Should Touch You
photo: EAST NEWS/Wojtek Laski

My Mortality Should Touch You

BY Adam Wiedemann

There’s no ‘using’ Szymborska. Every one of her best poems is a self-contained monad governed by its own set of secret laws, which usually end up as crude imitations when attempted by anyone else

2 minutes reading left

When I was a teenager I made my own samizdat-style collection of Szymborska poems. I took a stack of 4×6 inch tracing paper and laboriously typed up all the poems from Any Case, A Large Number, and the yellow-covered selection published by PIW Publishing House (the only three of her books available at the local library), decorating my favourite poems with illustrations I made by blowing onto a drop of ink. It was an expression of my greatest love for her (I made another book like that for Stanisław Grochowiak), and I kept all the loose leaf pages in a special box, where they served me well for quite a few years before I found the original editions at a used book store and gave my work of “liberary” art to Katarzyna Maria Makocka, my best friend at the time (I wonder if she still has it?).

But before that, my father gave me a record, probably found in some school closet, with poems read by Szymborska herself, most likely in the late 60s, because there were poems from the book No End of Fun on the album. The record was chipped and only the first three poems could actually be played back: Tarsius, To My Heart, on Sunday and The Birds Return. And that last one was cut off, too: if you set the needle down just right, the poem began with “arch-claws”, and it’s precisely that word that comes to mind whenever I try to replay her voice from the “tape player of my mind”. I said the pages “served” me well, but to what purpose? Nothing more than pleasure, I suppose. There’s no “using” Szymborska. Every one of her best poems (which I consider to be most of those published between the death of Stalin in 1953 and her winning the Nobel Prize in 1996) is a self-contained monad governed by its own set of secret laws, which usually end up as crude imitations when attempted by anyone else. Usually, but not always: Maciej Woźniak’s first book is very “Szymborskian”, and yet it holds its own, especially when read today, without the prejudices often held against influences of that sort in the 90s.

Many have attempted to succinctly capture the essence of Szymborska’s poems: they have been described as everything from “the perception of the non-obvious in the obvious” (Jerzy Kwiatkowski) to “the juggling of paradoxes and triteness” (Piotr Sommer). There’s a bit of truth in either claim, depending on how you happen to set your “poetic equaliser”: there are those who prefer high-end frequencies, while others favour a thicker low end; some enjoy a pure sound, while others like a dirty, lo-fi tone.

With regards to the former, Szymborska consistently occupied the middle ground: she cut pathos with sarcasm and despair with humour, not unlike Robert Walser, who wrote that “there’s nothing to worry about, because the characters are all cats.” (This doomed her to a certain degree of ostracism in the 90s, when poets were required to choose between the “sacred language” and “street talk”. The attitude persists to this day in intellectual circles; my boyfriend recently reported that no one at his seminar on Celan — a class taught by some sharp minds — had ever heard of Szymborska’s once-famous poem Lot’s Wife.)

With regards to the latter, Szymborska stood steadfastly on the side of of quality and completeness. Poetry fragments, notes, and formal experiments had no place in her work. She translated 18th century poetry for an anthology edited by Jerzy Lisowski, and made an Enlightenment-era masterpiece out of Baudelaire’s The Albatross, testifying to her great taste. She was an elite poet who only appeared accessible — an appearance that changed dramatically after she won the Nobel Prize, which led to an unexpected increase in literary output (three books in ten years!) and a tilting of the scale towards accessibility, which took the form of the “musings of an elderly woman” (musings that weren’t always so thoroughly thought out).

I became terribly upset three years ago when I read Ella in Heaven (one of only a few religion-themed poems in Szymborska’s oeuvre), in which the famous jazz singer prays for God to “make her a happy white girl” and to “subtract at least half” of her weight. This superficially charming poem becomes more of a terrifying joke once you recall that Fitzgerald, who had suffered from diabetes in her later years, did in fact lost a significant number of pounds at the cost of tremendous suffering when she had both her legs amputated. Or are we supposed to treat Fitzgerald like a modern-day Job, who (in the poem Synopsis) “does not want to ruin a masterpiece” and is satisfied with the phrase “my black comfort, my well-sung stump”, uttered by a cynical God?

I must admit that I do not like Szymborska’s later poems, but I have always liked Szymborska herself immensely, even though we never met personally. The first time I saw her, she was reading a poem in a knitted hat, because it was so cold in the chapel at the Dominicans in Kraków (where illegal meetings of NaGłos quarterly took place). The second time (still in my university years), I was at some literary event in Łódź with Skolas and Matulska, and we spied her sitting alone at a table with a shot of vodka. We decided to take our beers and join her, but were unfortunately preempted by Urszula Kozioł (poet — ed.), whom I still found intimidating at the time. And that is how we never ended up meeting. I kept hoping for another opportunity, although it was never a goal I consciously pursued. Szymborska seemed immortal: even though smoking is considered one of the most lethal habits, it never did seem to hurt her. She was a bit like an ever-living cigarette ad, and so her death left me feeling somewhat cheated, disappointed, and touched by her mortality, unlike the stone that once said to her, “I don’t have the muscles to laugh.”

2 February 2012, 5:41

translated by Arthur Barys