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Wednesday 17 June 2015

Don't Look Back (Wislawa Szymborska: Lot's Wife)


Woman Lamenting by a Burning City: Jan Swart van Groningen, 1550-55, pen in black, brush in brown, 360 x 283 mm (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)

They say I looked back out of curiosity.
But I could have had other reasons.
I looked back mourning my silver bowl.
Carelessly, while tying my sandal strap.
So I wouldn't have to keep staring at the righteous nape
of my husband Lot's neck.
From the sudden conviction that if I dropped dead
he wouldn't so much as hesitate.
From the disobedience of the meek.
Checking for pursuers.
Struck by the silence, hoping God had changed his mind.
Our two daughters were already vanishing over the hilltop.
I felt age within me. Distance.
The futility of wandering. Torpor.
I looked back setting my bundle down.
I looked back not knowing where to set my foot.
Serpents appeared on my path,
spiders, field mice, baby vultures.
They were neither good nor evil now -- every living thing
was simply creeping or hopping along in the mass panic.
I looked back in desolation.
In shame because we had stolen away.
Wanting to cry out, to go home.
Or only when a sudden gust of wind
unbound my hair and lifted up my robe.
It seemed to me that they were watching from the walls of Sodom
and bursting into thunderous laughter again and again.
I looked back in anger.
To savor their terrible fate.
I looked back for all the reasons given above.
I looked back involuntarily.
It was only a rock that turned underfoot, growling at me.
It was a sudden crack that stopped me in my tracks.
A hamster on its hind paws tottered on the edge.
It was then we both glanced back.
No, no. I ran on,
I crept, I flew upward
until darkness fell from the heavens
and with it scorching gravel and dead birds.
I couldn't breathe and spun around and around.
Anyone who saw me must have thought I was dancing.
It's not inconceivable that my eyes were open.
It's possible I fell facing the city.

Wislawa Szymborska (1923 -2012): Lot's Wife, translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh in Poems New and Collected 1957-1997

Lot and his Daughters: Lucas van Leyden, c. 1520, oil on wood, 48 x 34 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

Lot and His Daughters (detail): Jan Massys, 1565, oil on oak, 148 x 204,5 cm (Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels)

File:Lot daughters Jan Muller.jpg

Lot and his Daughters: Jan Harmensz. Muller (1571-1628), c. 1600, oil on panel, 29 x 39 cm; image by Diomede, 27 April 2006 (Private collection)

Lot Fleeing with his Daughters from Sodom: Albrecht Dürer, c. 1498, oil and tempera on panel, 52 x 41 cm (National Gallery of Art, Washington)

Lot and His Daughters: Juan de la Corte, first half of 17th century, oil on canvas, 133 x 194 cm (private collection)

File:J G Trautmann Lot.jpg

Lot flieht mit seinen Töchtern aus dem brennenden Sodom: Johann Georg Trautmann (1713-1769), oil on canvas, 65 × 68 cm; image by Andreas Praefcke, 23 March 2006 (Collections of the Granddukes of Baden, Karlsruhe)

File:John Martin - Sodom and Gomorrah.jpg

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah: John Martin, 1852, oil on canvas, 136.3  x 212.3 cm (Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne)

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (detail): John Martin, 1852, oil on canvas, 136.3  x 212.3 cm (Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne)

Lot's Wife: The Unknown Woman

Alternate Universe Lot's Wife Turns Into a Gallon of Milk | by Marc-Anthony Macon

Alternate Universe: Lot's Wife Turns Into a Gallon of Milk: image by Marc-Anthony Macon, 18 April 2013

Orientation Targets - Titan I - VAFB (LF) | by TunnelBug

Orientation Targets -- Titan I -- VAFB (LF). Near the the VAFBOSTF facility, these two orientation targets stood -- just as they had more than four decades ago, when they were used in the guidance of the first operational Titan 1 missile complex in the United States. In a strange way, these objects seemed anthropomorphic in my imagination, and I felt I was standing in front of Lot's wife (from the Hebrew Scriptures), who had long since become a frozen pillar of salt: photo by Jonathan Haeber, 11 January 2010

Lot's Wife | by Mike Taylor - Light Hunter

Lot's Wife [Ottawa]: photo by Mike Taylor, 29 June 2014

P1030585 | by P_Linehan

Lot's Wife at the antique shop [Canaan, Maine]: photo by Peter Linehan, 3 May 2008

Blue Mesa | by Lazurite

Blue Mesa. Petrified wood in the lower Lot's Wife beds, part of the Sonsela Member of the Chinle Formation (Late Triassic). [Apache, Arizona]: photo by Lazurite, 25 October 2010

Lot's Wife Misses Her Train | by Voenix Rising

Lot's Wife Misses Her Train [Tucson Amtrak Station and Museum]: photo by Voenix Rising, 24 August 2008

Shy | by Brigadier Chastity Crispbread

Shy. Lot's Wife? [Berlin]: photo by James Guppy, 4 March 2009

Lot's wife looked back | by Idiolect

Lot's wife looked back: photo by Terri Lynn, 12 February 2008

riverside swimming (Elsie, Lot's wife, Lot) | by nathan_rank

Riverside swimming (Elsie, Lot's wife, Lot). Taken around 1930. Gladys Badgley, Elsie Jensen Bishoff, Lot Bishoff. [Indianola, Iowa]: image by Nathan Rank, 4 November 2007

Lot's Wife's Road | by sbisson

 Lot's Wife's Road. Looking back at Monument Valley from the road to Mexican Hat.: photo by Simon Bisson, 3 January 2009


LOT'S WIFE / LA MUJER DE LOT: photo by ARETE, 22 June 2009

Grounded | by Liamfm .

Grounded. The curse of Lot's wife... The bible never gave her name!!: photo by Liam Moloney, 22 June 2008

Lot's Wife | by hannibal1107

Lot's Wife. Looked back at the evil Mickey D's and was transformed into an extra large french fry: photo by Mike Steele, 24 March 2014


Nin Andrews said...

Love this post! Love the poem and the images.

TC said...

Thanks very much, Nin.

Szymborska is such a simple writer, really --- almost schematic, laying out a conventional proposition or a familiar narrative as template, taking these readymade outlines as is, then ringing the changes that subtly undermine and subvert them, gradually introducing the sense that what we had taken to be the originating concept of the poem has been turned on its head: an act of civilized sabotage that shows that the conventional and the familiar can't be trusted, reality is always so much more complicated. An adult kind of writing, no showing-off, only the plainest language, and always the feeling that someone whose judgment we can trust has been weighing things... and not yet quite come to a conclusion.

I like that feeling of openness, complication, no conclusion, it's something almost palpable, not possible to fake, and having to do in the end I suspect with experience of life.

About the images -- reflecting upon them we are reminded, as by Szymborska's words, that it's not difficult to imagine possible reasons and causes for the ambivalence of this woman whom the Bible gives no name, Lot's Wife.