by Wislawa Szymborska
Translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak
Life is the only way
to get covered in leaves,
catch your breath on the sand,
rise on wings;
to be a dog,
or stroke its warm fur;
to tell pain
from everything it’s not;
to squeeze inside events,
dawdle in views,
to seek the least of all possible mistakes.
An extraordinary chance
to remember for a moment
a conversation held
with the lamp switched off;
and if only once
to stumble upon a stone,
end up soaked in one downpour or another,
mislay your keys in the grass;
and to follow a spark on the wind with your eyes;
and to keep on not knowing
The author of this poem is the Nobel Prize winner -Wislawa Szymborska. She is that rarest of phenomena- a serious poet who commanded amazing popularity in her native land as the most representative Polish poet of last century. She is one of the most accessible of all poets I have read and therefore one of my favorite poets.
It’s hard to follow a poetic explanation on Life . Every line in this poem draws a sigh out of the reader. If you take out each line by itself, they might seem quite unpoetic. Or is it that the magic of the poem is in the opening line? It is only when dovetailed with this opening line that the rest of the poem’s lines acquire their magical qualities.
The above poem is a good note on life. There is a reward for being fully open to all of life’s pain and its promise.
Life is the only way…”
It wakes the reader up! We’re all ears now; what is this ‘Life’ thing? Oh let’s see what it’s all about. This is going to be deeply philosophical and wrenching. Intense. But then Szymborska follows it up with all these simple and yet wonderful, wonderful lines that defy any sort of intellectual analysis. It defies them. It denies them the opportunity to probe the poem for this or that with their rude speculative tools. Follows it up with lines that are almost Koan-esque in nature, accessible only to the intuition and leaves the reader with the sense that he/she now shares this secret knowledge of Life with the poet ‘ a knowing, and at the same time a Not Knowing that gives us joy, the joy
“to keep on not knowing
How nice! The frustrations of not-knowing are an opportunity, one for which to be grateful. We can’t have answers to our biggest questions – but in that piquancy somehow lies our big chance.
Life is the only chance ‘to mislay your keys in the grass’-that must be an intensely romantic moment!..hehe . ‘To tell pain from everything it’s not’- I lifted up my eyes for a momentary flashback after reading that line. ‘a conversation held with the lamp switched off’, I would love this. ‘To squeeze inside events’- some of you who have experienced turbulent times may already be doing that. But the gift of being fully present, ‘to squeeze inside events’, also brings responsibility: to bear witness (like after a holocaust).
There is a stamp of unmistakable originality, playfulness, delightful inventiveness, prodigality of imagination in most of her poems. I love her laconic style and precision. Her poetry is devoid of any affectation and is fresh and full of charm and wit.
Reference: Monologue of a Dog: Wislawa Szymborska (Author), Stanislaw Baranczak (Translator), Clare Cavanagh (Translator), Billy Collins (Foreword). Publisher: Harcourt.