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Monday 3 March 2014

Wislawa Szymborska: Cat in an Empty Apartment


Zawiercie, Poland: photo by Koos Fernhout, 6 January 2013

Die -- you can’t do that to a cat.
Since what can a cat do
in an empty apartment?
Climb the walls?
Rub up against the furniture?
Nothing seems different here
but nothing is the same.
Nothing’s been moved
but there’s more space.
And at nighttime no lamps are lit.


Footsteps on the staircase,
but they’re new ones.
The hand that puts fish on the saucer
has changed, too.


Something doesn’t start
at its usual time.
Something doesn’t happen
as it should.
Someone was always, always here,
then suddenly disappeared
and stubbornly stays disappeared.


Every closet’s been examined.
Every shelf has been explored.
Excavations under the carpet turned up nothing.
A commandment was even broken:
papers scattered everywhere.
What remains to be done.

Just sleep and wait.
Just wait till he turns up,
just let him show his face.
Will he ever get a lesson
on what not to do to a cat.
Sidle toward him
as if unwilling
and ever so slow
on visibly offended paws,
and no leaps or squeals at least to start.

Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012): Cat in an Empty Apartment, translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak

Semi-feral cats, disused industrial zone, Bytom Bobrek, Poland: photo by Koos Fernhout, 16 December 2013

Zawiercie, Poland: photo by Koos Fernhout, 6 January 2013


ACravan said...

I love this, but I must say that on another "no school" day (the promised big storm Titan punked out, but I'm not sorry -- we have to drive to Washington DC tomorrow), all the "cold weather content" (not to mention the unceasing cold) is driving me crazy. Encountering something as fine as this, which you know is written in a language you don't even partially understand, brings you face to face with a basic conundrum about reading and literature. It happens over and over, but it's good to be reminded of it -- how little you actually understand about the things you read. Based on previous work you've posted by this poet, the translators seem to have done a fine, very loving job, and the description of cat psychology and behavior seems to me 100 % accurate. Starting with people who like cats, at least, I think everyone should try to get to know and assist a feral cat at some point in their lives. Yes, they're all cats, but a million surprises follow. Curtis

awyn said...

I was researching eye stuff awhile back and found a study (wish I'd noted the URL!) where scientists were trying to determine "what a cat sees". They showed an image of what the cat sees when it sees a human face and, although to the human eye it's all blurry and strange ... it is immediately recognizable as ... the face of a cat. We are not them, they are not us, and yet ... I'm convinced, based on experience, that cats can also somehow, in a direct meeting of the eyes, their eye to our eye, read our minds Dogs, too. But Szymborska's catknow is right on. She so "gets" life, and how simply and poetically she expresses it. Thanks for this, Tom.

Maureen said...

May your drive be a safe one. Here in the D.C. area, we are experiencing blizzard conditions.

Nothing better than a Szymborska poem to begin the morning.

ACravan said...

I would love to see that study, Awyn. If a cat really sees a cat, that's just amazing. Yes, they read our minds, but I think that's also combined with the kind of close observation and practical analysis I wish I could always exercise. Thank you Maureen for your good wishes about the drive. I think/hope that by tomorrow things should be more orderly there than they are today. Stay safe in the blizzard. Curtis

Ed Baker said...

been mild here in D.C. past couple of years
which has spoiled everyone... this winter (snow-wise)
pretty much on the low side of normal.

going down to about 3 degrees tonight.... and below freezing for next few days...

I thought that eye study was using a fly's eye ?
(or was it a bee's eye?)
can't believe that the Government of the U.S.A. would sanction popping out of it s socket
the eyeball of a live cat ....

Nora said...

A while back, Google did an experiment with artificial intelligence. I forget the details exactly, but they constructed a large neural net and gave it information off the internet with no context whatsoever. After a time, the AI program produced an image of a cat. Unprompted, it had developed the idea of cat-ness.

This, combined with awyn's comment, makes me wonder: what if 'cat' is all there is? Or as Poe might say, "All that we see, all that. Is but a cat within a cat."

ACravan said...

I have been looking at these pictures all day. I particularly love the uppermost one because of the colors and the feeling of being transported to the daytime "very place" of the poem. The other photos supplement this. Curtis

TC said...

Many thanks, on a rainy night, from the sheltering semi-ferals here. (And thanks in particular Curtis for acknowledging the terrific photography, which made the poem palpable for me in some helpful new ways.)

The universe is indeed composed entirely of cat-ness, with a great deal of unnecessary other stuff noisomely clinging to it -- as has just been related to me by, who else, the mind-reading cat who controls the universe (a grudging time-share with the other cats who live here) and has just once again looked me directly in the eye to let me know he has stolen my chair.

This poem is so heartbreakingly beautiful, how can one even speak of it without a certain sullying, without leaving that dread tell-tale scent of human-ness.

Readers of Szymborska's poetry will be aware that her poems, long created under conditions of implicit literary censorship, are open to reading at many different levels.

We do know she loved cats. "Many years ago in Kraków, when I met Szymborska," wrote Polish writer George Gomori in a 2012 obit," she was cradling a cat in her lap and I still own a photograph of the scene."

But it may also be pertinent to note that after an early divorce, Szymborska -- who did not so much conceal her personal life in her poems as remove it to an ironic distance, into a space where parable universalizes and makes common the personal -- maintained a long relationship, from the 1960s onward with the Polish writer Kornel Filipowiz, who died in 1990.

Addressing the theme of "survivors' dilemma" in a thoughtful essay on Szymborska's work, Slavic scholar Malgorzata Anna Packalén has written:


The confrontation with death not only encompasses man's ancient anguish for himself but also belongs together with the survivors' dilemma: someone else's death can also affect the survivor in a strong and personal way. Much has been written about Szymborska's lost partner and her elegies after his death. One in particular is Szymborska's elegy "Cat in an empty apartment". Regardless of whether the reader believes or does not believe that the event described is real, this particular poem is probably one of the most remarkable that has been written in the genre of a lamentation since Kochanowski wrote his "Treny" [Lament] in 1581. At the same time, it is probably only Szymborska who can describe a great personal loss from the perspective of an abandoned cat:

Die – you can't do that to a cat.
Since what can a cat do
in an empty apartment?
Climb the walls?
Rub up against the furniture?
Nothing seems different here,
But nothing is the same. […]

Something doesn't start
at its usual time.
Something doesn't happen
as it should.
Someone was always, always here,
then suddenly disappeared
and stubbornly stays disappeared.

"Cat in an Empty Apartment" in: Nothing Twice. Selected Poems

If the cat could read, he would surely have recognized Kochanowski's verse:

Your flight, my dearest, caused
This vast emptiness in my house.

We are a crowd yet no one's here:
One tiny soul and so much is gone.

"Tren VIII", translated by Adam Czerniawski, in: Jan Kochanowski, Treny, edited by Piotr Wilczek, Katowice 1996

TC said...

By the by, though her poetry is most notable for its unique vision into the intrinsic melancholy of things, Szymborska's charming cat-collage postcards, sent to friends, show another aspect of her creative gift, the marvelous sense of humour.

Here, for example, is The young lady of easy virtue (Panienka lekkich obyczajow).

And then there's her slightly startling toothpaste-ad feline friend, Smiling Male.

TC said...

Nora, about that Technium bit -- hmm.

Our first giggle of the month.

(No, I'm told we were caught laughing either on Saturday or Sunday, as well.)

Nin Andrews said...

I do hope we all get a thaw here--I was thinking of Curtis a lot yesterday. We are cold and snowy here but not iced. And not so much snow. Just cold.
I love the poem/poet--was distracted by the disturbing similarity to events in my life. A friend, a dear man and a hermit, was found dead in his house last weekend. I just got the word Monday. No idea what happens to the cats.

TC said...

What a winter you are having there in your own not quite private Poland, Nin. All those dead mystery guys turning up in the permafrost, spooky, ow.

Real life is almost like a Szymborska poem so (too) much of the time.

Two of our cats began their lives, almost twenty years ago now, with a pair of elderly Russian (almost Polish) brothers, who passed on in rapid succession, leaving the cats to make do as they could out on the streets.

It's astonishing how much cats can endure in that sort of situation, but the truth is, even the most independent and aloof (like this sibling pair), given the option, will finally prefer the relative comforts of even a draughty, cold, rickety old house.

ACravan said...

The postcards, especially the first one, I think, are so funny and charming. What a remarkable person. I hope Nin and we get a thaw soon. It's a bore talking about the weather all the time, but this year has been simply astonishing and the cold is all anyone (adults at least) are thinking about. We'll be driving to DC shortly so it's not as though life has stopped entirely. I'm a little obsessed now with the idea that it's all cat all the time, but one some level it makes a lot of sense, especially if you live in a house where cats substantially outnumber other creatures. I find this is my best newspaper and I would feel that way even if all the other former newspapers weren't failing. Curtis

Mose23 said...

I'd like to think this is as close to cat thinking as anyone could get.

There's the sense in many of her poems of the thoughts running counter to the world's turning; the dissident as cat here, trying to make sense of a world at odds with her will.

TC said...

Her gentle way of going against the grain, turning the easy expectation on its head, playing up the limitations of consciousness, acknowledging the jurisdiction of disappointment and loneliness and loss in any human life -- it's these things, I think, which give coming back to her poems a feeling of coming back to the truth.