A little over a year ago, I was asked to write something about Wislawa Szymborska for the Polish journal Zeszyty literackie. She’d just died, and it turned out I couldn’t do it. I could talk about her at great length, to some people at any rate, to our beloved editor, Drenka Willen, or the wonderful Mary Schmich of the Tribune, both of whom love her work and use it the way I do, on a daily basis. But I couldn’t write, or couldn’t write much, since writing involved using the past tense in black and white, which meant, in turn, admitting that I was ending this time with a period and not a colon.
if in black on white,at least in thought,or some serious or silly reason,question marks are placed,and if in response,a colon:
That’s how she concludes the last poem of her volume Colon (2005), which my friend Stanislaw Baranczak and I incorporated into Here (2010). (Her books were so short, and so long in coming, that we had to combine them to satisfy American publishers, who generally prefer page counts over thirty.)
I wish I could follow her lead. I’d like to keep pretending that a piece of punctuation, a grammatical trick or two, means that she’s still off writing in her little place in Krakow, or maybe up in the mountains with her friends. And the only reason I haven’t seen her recently is geography, Chicago being as it is kawałek drogi, a fair stretch of road, from Krakow.
“The conditional is his personal best,” Szymborska writes in “No End of Fun.” This is how I began my piece for Zeszyty literackie last year:
“His” means human speech of course, and the observation comes from an unidentified space alien. I’ve always thought the alien was right. But I’m grateful for something else these days: the present tense. We can use it in spite of a world that persists in putting things and people we love in the past.
I went on to quote from the innumerable American blogs mourning Wislawa’s death that I found online. It was easier to let other people do the grieving for me. I also wanted people in Poland to understand how much she meant to American readers writing on sites ranging from the Chicago Tribune or the New Yorker to “Between Parents,” “Billy and Dad’s Music Emporium,” “Yoga Studio News,” “Science Updates,” and “South Dakota Politics.”
This time, though, I’ll try to be as brave as she was — her poems always tackle things that I can’t handle alone — and venture at last into the past tense. She was the kindest, funniest, most unassuming person I ever met. She may also have been the smartest, although saying that to her face would have killed the conversation instantly. I met her for the first time in Stockholm in 1996. Stanislaw and I had been translating her poems for years, and they were old friends, but she and I had only exchanged the occasional postcard. My knees were shaking: one mistake in Polish and my favorite poet would find out that I was a fake. Or so I thought. I went up to the Nobel Suite at the Grand Hotel to meet her, and the first thing she said to me and her friends was “So what should I steal?” Meaning towels, soap, coat hangers, shoehorns, whatever. We all picked something and made a pile for her. I forget what she finally took.
The ceremonies were still a couple of days away. Stanislaw and I had gotten an advance copy of the Nobel lecture: we’d been asked to do the official English translation. Her friends were curious, though; they didn’t know the speech yet, but they knew what she’d said about it. She called it the “mowa do dupy,” the speech for shit. She’d had to kill a poem and a couple of prose sketches to come up with it, she said, since she couldn’t write speeches. I’m guessing the poem was about Ecclesiastes; I’m sorry I’ll never read it.
Wislawa hated small talk as much as she hated speeches. But she loved to talk, as long as it wasn’t too small, or too serious. Adam Zagajewski thinks she thought up questions in advance whenever she invited friends over in case the conversation stalled. In hindsight, I realize he was right. “What’s your idea of hell?”: this to a dinner party of translators. I think I said “grading student papers.” I should have said “moving with books.” “Whose monument should be in every city in the world?” That question had a right answer: Louis Pasteur, since how many of the people in each of those cities wouldn’t be alive without his discoveries? “Have you ever had a prophetic dream?” she once asked. I had: I’d foretold the death of my best friend’s cat. I nailed that one.
She also held her famous after-dinner lotteries, where everybody won a little prize. At the translators’ dinner I won some Italian candy in an Indian Airlines air sickness bag (she’d been collecting international air sickness bags for the occasion). We all competed to find her the best (i.e., most perfectly ridiculous) presents. I remember how disappointed I was at first to see my gifts — a plastic Oscar from a California drug store, an Audubon Society stuffed bird that made authentic loon cries when you squeezed it — turn up later on the shelves at other peoples’ houses. Then I understood. Wislawa regifted; only the best presents didn’t end up as lottery fodder. The last time I saw her, just about two years ago, I gave her a box of Band-Aids shaped like bacon strips, and she asked if she could open it right away. She put one on her wrist, and then couldn’t stop admiring it. I kept thinking she was checking her watch, but no, she was checking her bacon strip. I nailed that one, too. She didn’t write letters, but she sent friends funny postcards that she made herself, collages, a bit like Terry Gilliam meets Joseph Cornell in Polish. Sometimes she wrote a few words on the back. My forty, or sixty, or maybe eighty words from Wislawa are among my greatest treasures.
In high school, I got dragged to see the play “The Belle of Amherst,” with Julie Harris as Emily Dickinson. I still remember Dickinson/Harris stuffing cryptic notes among the muffins she took to neighbors: “That’ll keep them guessing,” she said. The danger of writing about Wislawa is that she turns, willy-nilly, into The Belle of Krakow, the wacky, lovable poetess who happened to write some of the greatest poems of her century. There’s too much of that going around in Poland these days and I don’t want add to it here. “Don’t bear me ill will, speech, that I borrow weighty words, / then labor heavily so that they may seem light,” she writes in “Under One Small Star.” She managed to put weight and lightness together in a few lines of verse and do justice to both. How do you do the same thing for her? I don’t know.
Scholar and translator Clare Cavanagh is the author of Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russia, Poland, and the West (2010), winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism. Other works of scholarship include Osip Mandelstam and the Modernist Creation of Tradition (1995), which received the AATSEEL Prize for Outstanding...