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Monday 12 August 2013

Wislawa Szymborska: Nothing's a Gift


File:Lead sinker.JPG

A highly corroded lead sinker found at the beach: photo by Chemicalinterest, 24 November 2010

Nothing's a gift, it's all on loan.

I'm drowning in debts up to my ears.

I'll have to pay for myself

with my self,

give up my life for my life.


Here's how it's arranged:

The heart can be repossessed,

the liver, too,

and each single finger and toe.


Too late to tear up the terms,

my debts will be repaid,

and I'll be fleeced,

or, more precisely, flayed.


I move about the planet

in a crush of other debtors.

Some are saddled with the burden

of paying off their wings.

Others must, willy-nilly,

account for every leaf.


Every tissue in us lies

on the debit side.

Not a tentacle or tendril

is for keeps.


The inventory, infinitely detailed,

implies we'll be left

not just empty-handed

but handless too.


I can't remember

where, when, and why

I let someone open

this account in my name.


We call the protest against this

the soul.

And it's the only item

not included on the list.

Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012):
Nothing's a Gift (Nic darowane), 1999, from Poems New and Collected 1957-1997, translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

Slip below the surface (lead fishing sinkers): photo by Kurt Faler, 8 January 2009

Nic darowane
Nic darowane, wszystko pożyczone.
Tonę w długach po uszy.
Będę zmuszona sobą
zapłacić za siebie,
za życie oddać życie.

Tak to już urządzone,
że serce do zwrotu
i wątroba do zwrotu
i każdy palec z osobna.

Za późno na zerwanie warunków umowy.
Długi będą ściągnięte ze mnie
wraz ze skórą.

Chodzę po świecie
w tłumie innych dłużników.
Na jednych ciąży przymus
spłaty skrzydeł.
Drudzy chcąc nie chcąc
rozliczą się z liści.

Po stronie Winien
wszelka tkanka w nas.
żadnej rzęski, szypułki
do zachowania na zawsze.

Spis jest dokładny
i na to wygląda,
że mamy zostać z niczym.

Nie mogę sobie przypomnieć
gdzie, kiedy i po co
pozwoliłam otworzyć sobie
ten rachunek.

Protest przeciwko niemu
nazywamy duszą.
I to jest to jedyne,
czego nie ma w spisie.

File:Angeln zubehoer grundblei 01.jpg

Three types of small lead sinker
: photo by Raboe001, 10 December 2005

In more fortunate countries, where human dignity isn't assaulted so readily, poets yearn, of course, to be published, read, and understood, but they do little, if anything, to set themselves above the common herd and the daily grind. And yet it wasn't so long ago, in this century's first decades, that poets strove to shock us with their extravagant dress and eccentric behavior. But all this was merely for the sake of public display. The moment always came when poets had to close the doors behind them, strip off their mantles, fripperies, and other poetic paraphernalia, and confront -- silently, patiently awaiting their own selves -- the still white sheet of paper. For this is finally what really counts.

It's not accidental that film biographies of great scientists and artists are produced in droves. The more ambitious directors seek to reproduce convincingly the creative process that led to important scientific discoveries or the emergence of a masterpiece. And one can depict certain kinds of scientific labor with some success. Laboratories, sundry instruments, elaborate machinery brought to life: such scenes may hold the audience's interest for a while. And those moments of uncertainty -- will the experiment, conducted for the thousandth time with some tiny modification, finally yield the desired result? -- can be quite dramatic. Films about painters can be spectacular, as they go about recreating every stage of a famous painting's evolution, from the first penciled line to the final brushstroke. Music swells in films about composers: the first bars of the melody that rings in the musician's ears finally emerge as a mature work in symphonic form. Of course this is all quite naive and doesn't explain the strange mental state popularly known as inspiration, but at least there's something to look at and listen to.

But poets are the worst. Their work is hopelessly unphotogenic. Someone sits at a table or lies on a sofa while staring motionless at a wall or ceiling. Once in a while this person writes down seven lines only to cross out one of them fifteen minutes later, and then another hour passes, during which nothing happens ... Who could stand to watch this kind of thing?

Wislawa Szymborska: from Nobel Lecture: The Poet and the World, 10 December 1996 at the Stockholm Concert Hall, Stockholm, Sweden;  translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh


Nin Andrews said...

"I have to pay for myself
with my self"

And the last paragraph . . .
In the age of social media, the poets are all trying their best to defy this truth.

TC said...

Amen to that.

And you can say that again.

Amen to that!

Unknown said...




"Once in a while this person writes down seven lines only to cross out one of them fifteen minutes later, and then another hour passes, during which nothing happens . . ."


grey whiteness of fog against invisible
plane of ridge, shadowed leaf on branch
in foreground, wave sounding in channel

curvature of these surfaces,
one in so far as zero

is possible, nature as such
that, subject that is

fog against invisible shoulder of ridge,
fog on horizon to the left of the point

Hazen said...

A bio-pic about a poet: now there’s a project worthy of a Warhol.

Anonymous said...

I recently introduced a friend of mine to Szymborska's work. Her response was gorgeous and true: "How does she manage to write poems that are so resigned yet also filled with such longing?"

Mose23 said...

I can't remember
where, when, and why
I let someone open
this account in my name.

We call the protest against this
the soul.

I guess the accountants have everything down pat now.

Let's be properly precise about this.

tpw said...

Tremendous poem. There's such humanity in her work.

tpw said...

Tremendous poem. She is always so smart, wise, and human.


completely blown away by this poem

ACravan said...

This is indeed fine, but I really feel far away from the Polish original, which makes me kind of unsure about things. Not about those sinkers, though -- those I'm very sure about. Poets are probably lucky being underserved by biopic makers. It's difficult to think of a more distorted movie lens than that one or one, particularly in the political area, so susceptible to mediocrity and skullduggery. It's better that the work speaks for itself, I think. Curtis

Unknown said...

I like looking at the Polish. When I look at Spanish I see many words that are nearly identical to the English equivalents. Here, only one - "Protest". Odd. I know I am in a language with distinctly different roots from Latin. I have to totally trust the translator.

The poem is definitely an example of the universal "strange mental state popularly known as inspiration."

Harris Schiff

TC said...

Wislawa Szymborska's funeral, Krakow, February 2012

The song Szymborska chose to be played at her funeral:

Ella Fitzgerald: Black Coffee

I'm feeling mighty lonesome, haven't slept a wink,
I walk the floor, watch the door,
And in between I drink, black coffee,
Loves a hand-me-down brew,
I'll never know a white sunday, in this weekday blue,
I'm talking to the shadows one o'clock till four,
And lord how slow the moments go,
All I do is pour, black coffee..

Since the blues caught my eye,
I'm hanging out on monday,
But sunday dreams too dry.
They say a man, is born to go alone,
And a woman, is born to weep and fret,
To stay at home and drown her past regrets
In coffee and cigarettes.
And moody all the morning, moody all night.
And in between I drink black coffee.
Black coffee...

Another Szymborska poem, “Love At First Sight,” inspired the magisterial 1994 film Red by the late Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski.


They're both convinced
that a sudden passion joined them.
Such certainty is more 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
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.

(Love At First Sight / Miłość od pierwszego wejrzenia --
translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh)


Zbigniew Preisner setting of Szymborska's poem Love At First Sight (with English subtitles), from soundtrack of Kieslowski's Three Colors: Red (1994)

Zbigniew Preisner setting of Szymborska's poem Love At First Sight (plays over scenes from film), from soundtrack of Kieslowski's Three Colors: Red (1994)

"Polish Is Easy!": Takeshi Kaneshiro recites a fragment of Szymborska's Love at First Sight in the 2003 Hong Kong/Taiwan film Turn Left, Turn Right (directed by Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai)

TC said...

(And by the by, Duncan -- that Titian -- oh!)