hard life with memory :: wislawa szymborska

translated from the Polish by clare cavanagh and stanisław barańczak

I’m a poor audience for my memory.
She wants me to attend her voice nonstop,
but I fidget, fuss,
listen and don’t,
step out, come back, then leave again.

She wants all my time and attention.
She’s got no problem when I sleep.
The day’s a different matter, which upsets her.

She thrusts old letters, snapshots at me eagerly,
stirs up events both important and un-,
turns my eyes to overlooked views,
peoples them with my dead.

In her stories I’m always younger.
Which is nice, but why always the same story.
Every mirror holds different news for me.

She gets angry when I shrug my shoulders.
And takes revenge by hauling out old errors,
weighty, but easily forgotten.
Looks into my eyes, checks my reaction.
Then comforts me, it could be worse.

She wants me to live only for her and with her.
Ideally in a dark, locked room,
but my plans still feature today’s sun,
clouds in progress, ongoing roads.

At times I get fed up with her.
I suggest a separation. From now to eternity.
Then she smiles at me with pity,
since she knows it would be the end of me too.

greek statue :: wislawa szymborska

translated from the polish by clare cavanagh and stanisław barańczak

With the help of people and the other elements,
time hasn’t done a bad job on it.
It first removed the nose, then the genitalia,
next, one by one, the toes and fingers,
over the years the arms, one after the other,
the left thigh, the right,
the shoulders, hips, head, and buttocks,
and whatever dropped off has since fallen to pieces,
to rubble, to gravel, to sand.

When someone living dies that way
blood flows at every blow.

But marble statues die white
and not always completely.

From the one under discussion only the torso lingers
and it’s like a breath held with great effort,
since now it must
draw
to itself
all the grace and gravity
of what was lost.

And it does,
for now it does,
it does and it dazzles,
it dazzles and endures—

Time likewise merits some applause here,
since it stopped work early,
and left some for later.

metaphysics :: wislawa szymborska

translated from the polish by clare cavanagh and stanisław barańczak

It’s been and gone.
It’s been, so it’s gone.
In the same irreversible order,
for such is the rule of this foregone game.
A trite conclusion, not worth writing
if it weren’t an unquestionable fact,
the fact for ever and ever,
for the whole cosmos, as it is and will be,
that something really was
until it was gone,
even the fact
that today you had a side of fries.

here :: wislawa szymborska

I don’t know about other places,
but here on Earth there’s quite a lot of everything.
Here chairs are made and sadness,
scissors, violins, tenderness, transistors,
water dams, jokes, teacups.

Maybe somewhere else there is more of everything,
only for some reason there are no paintings there,
cathode-ray tubes, dumplings, tissues for tears.
There are plenty of places here with surroundings.
Some you can particularly get to like,
name them your own way
and protect them from evil.

Maybe somewhere else there are similar places,
But no one considers them beautiful.

Maybe like nowhere else, or in few other places,
here you have your own body trunk,
and with it the tools needed,
to add your children to those of others.
Besides that your hands, legs, and the amazed head.

Ignorance here is hard at work,
constantly measuring, comparing, counting,
drawing conclusions and finding square roots.

I know, I know what you’re thinking.
Nothing is permanent here,
for since ever forever in the power of the elements.
But notice—the elements get easily tired
and sometimes they have to take a long rest
before the next time.

And I know what else you’re thinking.
Wars, wars, wars.
But even between them there happen to be breaks.
Attention—people are evil.
At ease—people are good.
At attention we produce wastelands.
At ease by the sweat of our brows we build houses
and quickly live in them.

Life on earth turns out quite cheap.
For dreams for instance you don’t pay a penny.
For illusions—only when they’re lost.
For owning a body—only with the body.

And as if this was not enough,
you spin without a ticket in the carousel of the planets,
and along with it, dodging the fare, in the blizzard of galaxies,
through eras so astounding,
that nothing here on Earth can even twitch on time.

For take a good look:
the table stands where it stood,
on the table the paper, exactly as placed,
through the window ajar just a waft of the air,
and in the walls no terrifying cracks,
through which you could be blown out to nowhere.

love at first sight :: wislawa szymborska

They’re both convinced
that a sudden passion joined them.
Such certainty is beautiful,
but uncertainty is more beautiful still.

Since they’d never met before, they’re sure
that there’d been nothing between them.
But what’s the word from the streets, staircases, hallways—
perhaps they’ve passed by each other a million times?

I want to ask them
if they don’t remember—
a moment face to face
in some revolving door?
perhaps a “sorry” muttered in a crowd?
a curt “wrong number” caught in the receiver?—
but I know the answer.
No, they don’t remember.

They’d be amazed to hear
that Chance has been toying with them
now for years.

Not quite ready yet
to become their Destiny,
it pushed them close, drove them apart,
it barred their path,
stifling a laugh,
and then leaped aside.

There were signs and signals,
even if they couldn’t read them yet.
Perhaps three years ago
or just last Tuesday
a certain leaf fluttered
from one shoulder to another?
Something was dropped and then picked up.
Who knows, maybe the ball that vanished
into childhood’s thicket?

There were doorknobs and doorbells
where one touch had covered another
beforehand.
Suitcases checked and standing side by side.
One night, perhaps, the same dream,
grown hazy by morning.

Every beginning
is only a sequel, after all,
and the book of events
is always open halfway through.

moment :: wislawa szymborska

translated from Polish by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh

I walk on the slope of a hill gone green.
Grass, little flowers in the grass,
as in a children’s illustration.
The misty sky’s already turning blue.
A view of other hills unfolds in silence.

As if there’d never been any Cambrians, Silurians,
rocks snarling at crags,
upturned abysses,
no nights in flames
and days in clouds of darkness.

As if plains hadn’t pushed their way here
in malignant fevers,
icy shivers.

As if seas had seethed only elsewhere,
shredding the shores of the horizons.

It’s nine-thirty local time.
Everything’s in its place and in polite agreement.
In the valley a little brook cast as a little brook.
A path in the role of a path from always to ever.
Woods disguised as woods alive without end,
and above them birds in flight play birds in flight.

This moment reigns as far as the eye can reach.
One of those earthly moments
invited to linger.

microcosmos :: wislawa szymborska

translated from Polish by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh

When we first started looking through microscopes
a cold fear blew and it’s still blowing.
Life hitherto had been frantic enough
in all its shapes and dimensions.
Which is why it created small-scale creatures,
assorted tiny worms and flies,
but at least the naked human eye
could see them.

But then suddenly beneath the glass,
foreign to a fault
and so petite,
that what they occupy in space
can only charitably be called a spot.

The glass doesn’t even touch them,
they double and triple unobstructed,
with room to spare, willy-nilly.

To say they’re many isn’t saying much.
The stronger the microscope
the more exactly, avidly they’re multiplied.

They don’t even have decent innards.
They don’t know gender, childhood, age.
They may not even know they are—or aren’t.
Still they decide our life and death.

Some freeze in momentary stasis,
although we don’t know what their moment is.
Since they’re so minuscule themselves,
their duration may be
pulverized accordingly.

A windborne speck of dust is a meteor
from deepest space,
a fingerprint is a farflung labyrinth
where they may gather
for their mute parades,
their blind iliads and upanishads.

I’ve wanted to write about them for a long while,
but it’s a tricky subject,
always put off for later
and perhaps worthy of a better poet,
even more stunned by the world than I.
But time is short. I write.