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Thursday, 2 January 2014

Wislawa Szymborska: Letters of the Dead


To Follow a Nebulous Shore (Prince Edward Island, Canada): photo by Jim Rohan (LowerDarnley), 22 December 2013

We read the letters of the dead like puzzled gods --
gods nevertheless, because we know what happened later.
We know what money wasn’t repaid,
the widows who rushed to remarry.
Poor, unseeing dead,
deceived, fallible, toiling in solemn foolery.
We see the signs made behind their backs,
catch the rustle of ripped-up wills.
They sit there before us, ridiculous
as things perched on buttered bread,
or fling themselves after whisked-away hats.
Their bad taste -- Napoleon, steam and electricity,
deadly remedies for curable diseases,
the foolish apocalypse of St. John,
the false paradise on earth of Jean-Jacques . . .
Silently, we observe their pawns on the board
-- but shifted three squares on.
Everything they foresaw has happened quite differently,
or a little differently -- which is the same thing.
The most fervent stare trustingly into our eyes;
by their reckoning, they’ll see perfection there.

Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012): Letters of the Dead, translated by Vuyelwa Carlin

File:Bundesarchiv Bild 183-1990-0206-324, Berlin, Passanten im Wind.jpg

Passers-by in wind, Karl-Marx-Allee, Berlin: photo by Ralph Hirschberger, 1990 (Deutsches Bundesarchiv)

Listy umarłych 

Czytamy listy umarłych jak bezradni bogowie,
ale jednak bogowie, bo znamy późniejsze daty.
Wiemy, które pieniądze nie zostały oddane.
Za kogo prędko za mąż powychodziły wdowy.
Biedni umarli, zaślepieni umarli,
oszukiwani, omylni, niezgrabnie zapobiegliwi.
Widzimy miny i znaki robione za ich plecami.
łowimy uchem szelest dartych testamentów.
Siedzą przed nami śmieszni jak na bułkach z masłem
albo rzucają się w pogoń za zwianymi z głów kapeluszami/
Ich zły gust, Napoleon, para i elektryczność,
ich zabójcze kuracje na uleczalne choroby,
niemądra apokalipsa według św. Jana,
fałszywy raj według Jana Jakuba...
Obserwujemy w milczeniu ich pionki na szachownicy
tyle że przesunięte o trzy pola dalej.
Wszystko, co przewidzieli, wypadło zupełnie inaczej,
albo trochę inaczej, czyli także zupełnie inaczej.
Najgorliwsi wpatrują się nam ufnie w oczy,
bo wyszło im z rachunku, że ujrzą w nich doskonałość.

Wislawa Szymborska: Listy umarłych (Letters of the Dead), from Wszelki wypadek (Could Have), 1972

Two Sun Storm (Darnley Beach, Lower Darnley, Prince Edward Island, Canada): photo by Jim Rohan (LowerDarnley), 20 December 2013


TC said...

A poet whose work makes us feel we are not alone, in this endless muddle... of the temporarily present.

Wislawa Szymborska: Bruegel's Two Monkeys

Wislawa Szymborska: Discovery

Wislawa Szymborska: Nothing's a Gift

Wislawa Szymborska: Under One Small Star

Nin Andrews said...

Yes, I agree. She is beyond great. But I have to confess, silly as it must sound, I feel oddly seen by the dead, as if they are still close somehow. Some trick of my mind, Iand the body--
my sisters observing that after my mom died I had knee surgery that didn't go well, and for months I have walked just like her and complained of the same places of pain in the leg and the lack of relief

and a similar issue with my father

And sometimes I feel as if I can hear their voices, reminding me of some old remedies, though my mother said-- time is the real remedy
to which my father would add the cliche
if it doesn't make you stronger, it will surely kill you. And he would laugh . . .

ACravan said...

Every time you've posted one of Szymborska's poems, I'm surprised by her unique (to me) slant, which you describe well in your note. I know she's from Planet Earth, but scanning the Polish alerts me to how incomplete that description is; the language is so removed from my own experience, more so it seems than other languages I don't understand written in alphabets other than my own. Seeing how the line lengths pretty much match up in the original and the translation almost makes the alike/unalike illusion perfect.

"like puzzled gods" is really something.

I can't believe the year is really starting today. I wish the shoreline were less nebulous. Curtis

TC said...

Many thanks, Nin and Curtis.

"...I feel oddly seen by the dead, as if they are still close somehow. Some trick of [the] mind, and the body..."

Yes. Planet Earth, but still -- a place constantly subject to (haunted by) spirit trickster visitations. We don't know what they know, or what they want, or even if they know or want anything at all... but still.

That uncanny sense of presence-in-absence, bringing our ghosts so near even as they remain so remote, nebulous, ephemeral, probably many of us have felt that, if we are susceptible to such visitations; and as we grow older, I expect many of us are.

"... they don't know / How soon we are coming to join them," I wrote in a poem after my mother had died; and I think they still don't know, and we are coming closer and closer, until, maybe, we merge with them, and become them, and they become us; and there we are.

(Will see if I am able to dig out that poem, and if so, will post it tomorrow, insh'Allah.)

Hazen said...

There’s so much depth of feeling in this. Szymborska is one who feels the world, who responds from the heart to events and the people caught up in them.

We take inordinate pride in being three moves ahead of the game, when it’s the fourth or fifth move—that we don’t see, or refuse to see—that has our Fate written all over it.

Wooden Boy said...

Wonderful how she subtly sends up our condescension.

The gaze in the last two lines is something to behold.

TC said...

We see them not quite seeing us not quite seeing them, blindness all round -- the acute incipient horror, the bland present reality.

I'm perpetually left behind in the dust wondering at that last move.

And oh no, where's my blindfold? -- will there be a next? And yegads, pace James Henry, another after that?

Hazen's comment brings to mind the chess game with Death in the Bergman film, The Seventh Seal.

If dead can dance, presumably dead can sing.

If dead can be singing in the choir loft while Szymborska's magnificently deadly dance with eternity is happening in our minds, I would perhaps imagine them singing so:

Lacrimosa, from Zbigniew Preisner: Requiem for My Friend

Meanwhile and in any case... this is that poem of which Nin's comment yesterday put me in mind, as promised if not requested: