Hunger of Memory
Wislawa Szymborska, who received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1996, must be one of the most reticent or most self-discerning poets of today. Of the literary career spanning more than half a century, she is willing to acknowledge only some 200 of her poems collected in eight slender volumes. This sparse body of work, however, displays unusual diversity and polychromy. Szymborska can be simultaneously highly sophisticated, pursuing involved philosophical questions in what she herself calls “essay poems,” yet also be accessible to the extent that some of her poems have been used as lyrics of popular songs. She struggles for the utmost precision of expression, yet engages in complicated linguistic games employing rich polyphonies of her native tongue, unexpected rhymes, puns, mixtures of “high” and “low” poetic styles. Most important, she is a poet of modern experience, who often hides behind a mask of an “innocent” still capable of asking “naive” questions about the origins and nature of evil. One should be grateful to Szymborska’s long-standing translators, Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, for giving us most of her compact, intriguing verse in a superb English translation.
Born in 1923, Szymborska belongs to the generation of Polish writers who, in young adulthood, witnessed some of the worst atrocities of the century, which left a lasting impression on their terse, restrained language and their dark, disenchanted world view. It is not surprising, therefore, that a subtle, intelligent, often ironic meditation on mortality seems to be the main unifying theme of her poetry. Her most recent poems include a number of moving valedictions addressed to deceased friends. Yet the theme of perpetual, universal fading and departing--not only of people, nations, living organisms but also memories, images, shadows and reflections--was present in her poetry from the very beginning. The very first poem in this volume, “I’m Working on the World,” written when the poet was in her 30s, contains a moving invocation to an ideal death:
When it comes you’ll be dreaming
that you don’t need to breathe;
that breathless silence is
the music of the dark
and it’s part of the rhythm
to vanish like a spark.
One of the recurrent motifs in Szymborska’s poetry is a kind of existential contest between living, that is mortal, beings and inanimate matter, which often serves as a reminder of life’s impermanence and imperfection. In “Museum,” life is presented as a race--decided, as we are made to believe, long before it had started--between the human body and objects, in which “The crown has outlasted the head. / The hand has lost out to the glove. / The right shoe has defeated the foot.” Free of the inner division into mind and matter, almost impervious to time and unable to experience pain, objects evoke the admiration and envy of perplexed human beings. In “Conversation With a Stone,” the poet knocks “at the stone’s front door” demanding to be allowed to partake, at least for a moment, in its tranquil, if inhuman, reality. “You shall not enter. . . . You lack the sense of taking part,” answers the stone contemptuously. “I don’t have a door.”
If inanimate objects represent the ultimate economy of existence, living organisms epitomize its magnificent but also extravagant and wasteful generosity. In “Returning Birds,” birds have returned too early from their winter migration (“Rejoice, O reason: instinct can err, too”) and now are dying of cold:
. . . a death
that doesn’t suit their well-wrought throats and splendid claws,
their honest cartilage and conscientious webbing,
the heart’s sensible sluice, the entrails’ maze,
the nave of ribs, the vertebrae in stunning enfilades,
feathers deserving their own wing in any crafts museum,
the Benedictine patience of the beak.
The last word in the poem belongs, again, to a stone that comments “in its own archaic, simpleminded way” on life as “a chain of failed attempts.”
It is possible to read such a passage as a general meditation on life’s frailty that seems to mock and contradict its amazing complexity and beauty. Those familiar with the poet’s native realm, however, will guess that it is the memory of war and the Holocaust that engenders her imagery and gives it an unmistakably moral resonance. There are moments when, despite the author’s taciturn style, the experience of her wartime generation speaks through her poems directly and with shattering force. “Write it down. Write it. With ordinary ink / on ordinary paper: they weren’t given food, / they all died of hunger.” Thus begins a poem, “Starvation Camp Near Jaslo.” The Nazi death camp in Jaslo, in southern Poland, was one of those places where inmates were crowded in an empty, fenced space and left to die a slow death without food and water. This is not an easy subject for a poem, but Szymborska handles it masterfully by reversing the pastoral image of nurturing nature:
Sunny. Green. A forest close at hand,
with wood to chew on, drops beneath the bark to drink--
a view served round the clock,
until you go blind. Above, a bird
whose shadow flicked its nourishing wings
across their lips. Jaws dropped,
This is less a “moral indictment” than an expression of existential horror that an event like this could somehow become a part of the human universe. The horror is deepened by the anonymity of death--the erasure of memory that inevitably follows an act of genocide. In the same poem, Szymborska writes:
History rounds off skeletons to zero.
A thousand and one is still only a thousand.
That one seems never to have existed:
a fictitious fetus, an empty cradle,
a primer opened for no one,
air that laughs, cries, and grows,
stairs for a void bounding out to the garden,
no one’s spot in the ranks.
One of Szymborska’s poems, as well as a book published in 1976, is entitled “A Large Number,” and the notion of statistical abstraction often figures in her poems as a kind of death’s double, a shadow that enters the stage after the massacre to wipe out the stains and to prepare the ground for new atrocities. It is, therefore, a moral duty to remember everything that is singular--to save and preserve the concrete, particular facts, moments, sensations. And yet, this labor of memory is also increasingly difficult and frustrating. The past and the present have become too crowded and chaotic. When, in the poem “Census,” no less than seven cities are uncovered at the site of mythical Troy, “Hexameters burst” while multitudes unrecorded in verse clamor in vain for our attention:
We three billion judges
have problems of our own,
our own inarticulate rabble,
railroad stations, bleachers, protests and processions,
vast numbers of remote streets, floors, and walls.
We pass each other once for all time in department stores
shopping for a new pitcher.
Homer is working in the census bureau.
No one knows what he does in his spare time.
Cities without their own epic, the author suggests, can easily share the fate of Atlantis: “Hypothetical. Dubious. / Uncommemorated. / Never extracted from air, / fire, water, or earth.” (“Atlantis”), or even that of Hiroshima from the poem “Written in a Hotel,” which, unlike the celebrated Kyoto, was considered undistinguished, one of countless “inferior cities” of the world.
Many of Szymborska’s poems are laments on the insufficiency of human perception that leaves so much of the world unnoticed, undescribed, “beyond the reach / of our presence.” In “A Large Number,” she speaks of this anguish directly:
My choices are rejections, since there is no other way,
but what I reject is more numerous,
denser, more demanding than before.
A little poem, a sigh, at the cost of indescribable losses.
The thought that the human mind may be the only mirror in which the universe can see its own reflection, perhaps its only recourse to nonbeing, is in Szymborska’s poetry a source of constant guilt, which sometimes reaches semi-religious intensity:
My apologies to everything that I can’t be everywhere at once.
My apologies to everyone that I can’t be each woman and each man.
I know I won’t be justified as long as I live,
since I myself stand in my own way.
-- “UNDER ONE SMALL STAR”
The darkness of Szymborska’s vision is undeniable. In her universe, man is alone, unaided by any transcendental guidance, his perceptive faculties and moral instincts evidently not up to the task with which they have been burdened. Unable to hold in his mind the plurality and diversity of things, he seems doomed to reduce them first to abstractions and then to ashes. Still, it would be hard to classify this vision as entirely pessimistic. The poet’s reluctance to become yet another prophet of doom is dramatized in “Soliloquy for Cassandra,” in which the eponymous doomsayer ponders the futility of her prophetic powers. She loved the people of Troy, but loved them “From heights beyond life. / From the future. Where it’s always empty / and nothing is easier than seeing death.” Those who did not want to hear the prophecy are dead,
But in them they bore a moist hope,
a flame fuelled by its own flickering.
They really knew what a moment means,
oh any moment, any one at all
It turns out I was right.
Though some critics see it as her weakness, Szymborska seems to be determined not to discount the “moist hope” completely. In “Reality Demands,” she takes us on a tour of the famous slaughter grounds of history--from Actium and Chaeronea, through Kosovo Polje and Borodino, to Verdun and Hiroshima--to show that they in fact became places like any other--with gas stations, ice cream parlors, holiday resorts and useful factories. “So much is always going on, / that it must be going on all over,” she says. “Perhaps all fields are battlefields, / those we remember / and those that are forgotten.” Should we be horrified or relieved by that realization? “What moral flows from this?” asks the poet. “Probably none. / Only the blood flows, drying quickly, / and, as always, a few rivers, a few clouds.” Thus life remains a contradiction and a puzzle. The universe does not want to yield a direct answer about its “moral,” or purpose, but it does not preclude a search for one, either:
I prefer keeping in mind even the possibility
that existence has its own reason for being.
This may not be much of a consolation--says the Polish poet’s quiet, intelligent voice--but it is the only one we can expect and perhaps the only one we need.