Friday, June 22, 2012

Under One Small Star




By Wislawa Szymborska


Translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh


My apologies to chance for calling it necessity.
My apologies to necessity if I’m mistaken, after all.
Please, don’t be angry, happiness, that I take you as my due.
May my dead be patient with the way my memories fade.
My apologies to time for all the world I overlook each second.
My apologies to past loves for thinking that the latest is the first.
Forgive me, distant wars, for bringing flowers home.
Forgive me, open wounds, for pricking my finger.
I apologize for my record of minuets to those who cry from the depths.
I apologize to those who wait in railway stations for being asleep today at five a.m.
Pardon me, hounded hope, for laughing from time to time.
Pardon me, deserts, that I don’t rush to you bearing a spoonful of water.
And you, falcon, unchanging year after year, always in the same cage,
your gaze always fixed on the same point in space,
forgive me, even if it turns out you were stuffed.
My apologies to the felled tree for the table’s four legs.
My apologies to great questions for small answers.
Truth, please don’t pay me much attention.
Dignity, please be magnanimous.
Bear with me, O mystery of existence, as I pluck the occasional thread from your train.
Soul, don’t take offense that I’ve only got you now and then.
My apologies to everything that I can’t be everywhere at once.
My apologies to everyone that I can’t be each woman and each man.
I know I won’t be justified as long as I live,
since I myself stand in my own way.
Don’t bear me ill will, speech, that I borrow weighty words,
then labor heavily so that they may seem light.


Wislawa Szymborska, the 1996 Nobel Prize-winning poet who used the imagery of everyday objects and a mordant style to explore dramatic themes of human experience including love, war and death, died in Poland in February early this year. She was 88 and was one the greatest poets of this planet. She was one of my favorite too as most of her poems were quite accessible to me.


 She was so popular amidst readers that even the Nobel committee described her as the "Mozart of poetry" but with "something of the fury of Beethoven" . Her verse, seemingly simple, was subtle, deep and often hauntingly beautiful. She used simple objects and detailed observation to reflect on larger truths, often using everyday images - an onion, a cat wandering in an empty apartment, an old fan in a museum - to reflect on grand topics such as love, death and passing time.


Emily Dickinson  has said, "If I read a book and it makes my whole body feel so cold no fire can ever warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry." Going by this attribute, the above poem took my head off. She starts with  single lines, clusters of words and I am so enamored by her words that I start underlining it until I have pretty much underlined the whole thing. That's when I realized that the poem truly succeeded in its mission: the whole is more than the sum of its lines.


As David Orr says-“Szymborska is an ironist. But in her work, irony becomes playful, almost whimsical. She thinks of the poet as an acrobat who moves, as she puts it, with "laborious ease, with patient agility, with calculated inspiration." Szymborska's poems generally focus on everyday subjects or situations, and her tone stays firmly in the middle ground. She doesn't rant; she calmly assesses. She's a poet of dry-eyed, athletic precision: an acrobat, as she says, not a powerlifter.


As the poem progresses the speaker keeps shifting from one category to another . She begs forgiveness from inanimate objects and even concepts, then from places and from group of people-everything is anthropomorphized. She herself feels unequal to the world’s sufferings and fears that by narrowing her focus on the world to make it manageable, she has trivialized it. But all viewpoints are incomplete, all efforts inadequate:


“My apologies to everything that I can’t be everywhere at once.
My apologies to everyone that I can’t be each woman and each man.”


In another passage she says: 


"Forgive me, distant wars, for bringing flowers home.
Forgive me, open wounds, for pricking my finger.
I apologize for my record of minuets to those who cry from the depths."


We see the lyrical driving the logical here. The loveliness of the words is staunchly supported by their meaning. Beauty alone is laudable but beauty combined with truth make it dazzling. Aspects such as natural utilitarian desire, guilt and despair and  uncommon insight tinged with humor mesh so well in her verse. 


The poem’s conclusion itself is another poetic endorsement. 


“Don’t bear me ill will, speech, that I borrow weighty words,
then labor heavily so that they may seem light.”


The light she makes is a sort of moral illumination, shining back from details onto the inner lives of her readers. I think the author is showing (among other things) that she feels no guilt in finding joy in a world of pain.


Finally, the title "Under One Small Star," confesses that  the poet comes from a place of relative insignificance and hers specific life, small but curiously infinite existence , has an importance of its own . She is aware of what she is. She is a part of it. She is a witness. She feels her impact and simultaneously, her lack of impact. We know how she feels. don't we?



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