Mar 3 2012: A Gallery of Twenty-Nine Postcard Collages and Portraits (i.m. Wislawa Szymborska, 1923 – 2012)
When I heard news of the death of Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska on the 1st February 2012 it can’t have been too much of a surprise, given her advanced years and the presence of a cigarette in pretty much every photograph I’d ever seen of her. But, in an irony she’d perhaps have appreciated, a week later I happened to be rummaging in a box of random books, magazines and oddments at Colwick Racecourse in Nottingham and found a copy of Anna Bikont and Joanna Szczesna’s Pamiatkowe Rupiecie Przyjaciele i Sny Wislawy Szymborskiej (Commemorative Junk, Friends and Dreams of Wislawa Szymborska) published in Warsaw in 1997 to commemorate the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to her work the previous year. Although not bilingual (unlike my first encounter with her poetry – also in a junk shop – where I found a copy of Nic Dwa Razy (Nothing Twice) at some point in the later 1990s) the book featured more than enough compensatory material in its array of archive photographs, objects she collected, drawings and reproductions of the collage postcards she habitually sent to correspondents and friends to more than justify the twenty-pence outlay. And because of this, despite not having read her poems very often since my initial immersion in their vividly ironic style around 1998 – an obsessive Szymborska-reading period which was followed by another a few years later, perhaps around 2002 – somehow her passing had now obliged me to mark it by means of this odd coincidence, which – as she would have been all too aware herself – really was nothing more than a chance conjunction of slightly random events that only we, as humans, could be so bold, foolish or imaginitive as to find meaning in: “We call it a grain of sand”, she writes in Widok Z Ziarnkiem Piasku (View With A Grain Of Sand), “but it calls itself neither grain nor sand./It does just fine without a name/whether general, particular,/permanent, passing,/incorrect or apt”. In another poem, Schylek Wieku (The Century’s Decline) from the same 1986 collection, Ludzie Na Moscie (People On The Bridge), she counters any sense that she might have answers, beyond her knowledge that the world is what it is, and our presence in it is somehow both tragic and miraculous: “How should we live?”, someone asked me in a letter./I had meant to ask him/the same question…” As for death itself, in O Smierci Bez Przesady (On Death, Without Exaggeration) that inevitability, too, is exposed as a fortunately incompetent entity: “It can’t take a joke,/find a star, build a bridge”, she writes. “It knows nothing about weaving, mining, farming,/building ships or baking cakes.//In our planning for tomorrow,/it has the final word/which is always beside the point”. Szymborska’s is a voice that will only be missed if we neglect the fact that it remains just where it was, on the pages of her books, where she notes, in mundane defiance of death, that “As far as you’ve come/can’t be undone”.
FOOTNOTE I: We’re fortunate that her translators, Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, captured at least some of that voice in English, for those of us who can’t read her in the original Polish.
FOOTNOTE II: There’s also a rather good pop song, performed by Lucja Prus with music by Andrzej Munkowski, whose lyric is a setting of Szymborska’s poem Nic Dwa Razy (Nothing Twice): a performance of that song at the Sopot Festival in 1965 can be listened to here.