Sadly and coincidentally, the very next day, Wislawa passed away in her sleep at the age of 88.
Poetry idiot or not, I was fascinated with the woman. She is a bit of a rock star in Poland. My (non-reading) husband had even heard of her. She was only 16 when WWII broke out, and at that time she went underground to continue her education. In 1943, she began to work for the railroads and avoided being deported by the Germans. After the war, she attended a university in Krakow, but never finished due to financial constraints. Her first poem was published in 1945, and her first book in 1949, although it was censored because it didn't meet socialistic requirements. She was a fighter though, and throughout her life was an activist for the freedom of speech.
So what of her poetry? This collection consists of 100 poems written between 1957 and 1993. Some of them went right over my head, and that is probably my fault. I read print before volleyball games, in the car waiting to pick up children, and while cooking dinner. Probably not the best environment to appreciate inferences and symbolism and deeper thinking.
But other poems I loved. I found that her personality shone through the words. The prose seemed noticeably lighter towards the beginning of her career, like when she poked fun at an ill-attended poetry reading:
To be a boxer, or not to be there
at all. O Muse, where are our teeming crowds?
Twelve people in the room, eight seats to spare -
it's time to start this cultural affair.
Half came inside because it started raining,
the rest are relatives. O Muse.
Later she turns contemplative and a little snarky in "True Love", when she asks if it is practical, and why are some allowed to experience it and not others? She wishes the happy couple would try to at least hide it, and fake a little depression for their friend's sake. She ends the poem with this statement:
Let the people who never find true love
keep saying that there's no such thing.
Their faith will make it easier for them to live and die.
Later in the book, things take a definite turn to the darker side of humanity. In "The Terrorist, He's Watching" she counts down the seconds to a bomb detonation, describing the folks who narrowly escape it. Or not.
Or "Hitler's First Photograph", calling the future homicidal maniac a "precious little angel, mommy's sunshine, honey bun." The last paragraph (stanza?) turned my blood to ice with this:
The Klinger Atelier, Grabenstrasse, Braunen.
And Braunen is a small but worthy town -
honest businesses, obliging neighbors,
smell of yeast dough, of gray soup.
No one hears howling dogs, or fate's footsteps.
A history teacher loosens his collar
and yawns over homework.
At this point I'm drawn in completely. Why is it that every book for me comes down to WWII? Funny how it always finds me. Her work just got more and more compelling. She describes death as "Preoccupied with killing, it does the job awkwardly, without system or skill. As though each of were its first kill." She laments how a resume will always fail to capture a life, a spirit. She describes various inane conversations at a funeral. Or how life moves on, no matter the tragedy that occurs in a city or location.
Her descriptions are rich and complex, and it is obvious to me, despite my lack of experience, that she is incredibly talented.
I found myself wondering how on earth an author can write a poem (especially the ones that rhyme) in their native tongue - in this case Polish - and still work when it is translated. I don't get it, but it feels like something close to magic to me.
Am I a convert? Eh, probably not. But this experience was actually quite pleasant, and I'd be willing to pick up another book of poetry again someday. I have no basis of comparison, but Ms. Szymborska's work seems like it might be as good as it gets.
4.5 out of 5 stars