Lifesaving Poems: Wisława Szymborska’s ‘Psalm’

2013-09-24 17.30.54




How leaky are the borders of man-made states!
How many clouds float over them scot-free,
how much desert sand sifts from  country to country,
how many mountain pebbles roll onto foreign turf
in provocative leaps!

Need I cite each and every bird as it flies,
or alights, as now, on the lowered gate?
Even if it be a sparrow—its tail is abroad,
thought its beak is still home. As if that weren’t enough—it keeps fidgeting!

Out of countless insects I will single out the ant,
who, between the guard’s left and right boots,
feels unobliged to answer questions of origin and destination.

If only this whole mess could be seen at once in detail
on ever continent!
Isn’t that a privet on the opposite bank
smuggling its hundred-thousandth leaf across the river?
Who else but the squid, brazenly long-armed,
would violate the sacred territorial waters.?

How can we speak of any semblance of order
when we can’t rearrange the stars
to know which one  shines for whom?

Not to mention the reprehensible spreading of fog!
Or the dusting of the steppe over its entire range
as though it weren’t split in two!
Or voices carried over accommodating air waves:
summoning squeals and suggestive gurgles!

Only what’s human can be truly alien.
The rest is mixed forest, undermining moles, and wind.


Wisława Szymborska, from Miracle Fair: Selected Poems of Wisława Szymborska  (trs. Joanna Trzeciak), Norton, 2001

My edition of Miracle Fair contains a marvellous introduction of Wisława Szymborska’s work by her compatriot Czeslaw Milosz. Clear-sighted as the poetry he writes in praise of, he makes a number of startling observations which, had they been written by and about English poets, might have sparked a falling-out. (Who knows, maybe they did?) For example, he speaks of her poetry bringing ‘joy because she is so sharp, because she derives pleasure out of juggling the props of our common heritage’, but only a sentence or two later goes on to state:’ To be frank, hers is a very grim poetry.’

I think it is perfectly possible to hold these apparently binary thoughts in tension. Elsewhere Milosz explains the scientific-rationalist world-view that Szymborska inherited and was influenced by but never fully described to. Her achievement, he claims, is to find for Polish poetry a method of ‘existential meditation, leaving behind pure lyric and embarking on discourse.’ The influence of ‘biology lessons learned at school’ may never be far behind, ‘Yet she never makes the reductionist turn.’

This is a critical point and perhaps a counter-intuitive one: for the poems to work on us as ‘discourse’ they need first to work as poems. By all means let us remember the ‘semblance of order’ and ‘the guard’s left and right boots’, but, like the psalmist of the poem’s title, let us also consider the ant. Let us go further than that, into the realm of make-believe, childishness, even, and imbue it with consciousness.

It is the ‘What if?’ game played by all great poets (Kenneth Koch springs to mind). We know our history is terrible, but what if we could listen to the ant’s perspective on it for a moment? The ‘joy’ is that the ant, like the poet, feels ‘unobliged to answer’.

Lifesaving Poems


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