Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Two Poems by Wislawa Szymborska

She is my favorite poet for the last several years. Here are two of them:

Instant Living

Instant living.
Unreahearsed performance
Untried-on body.
A thoughtless head.

I am ignorant of the role I perform
All I know is it's mine, can't be exchanged.

What the play is about
I must guess promptly on stage.

Poorly prepared for the honour of living
I find the imposed speed of action hard to bear.
I improvise though I loath improvising.
At each step I trip over my ignorance.
My way of life smacks of the provincial.
My instincts are amateurish.
The stage-fright that is my excuse only humiliates me more.
Mitigating circumstances strike me as cruel.

Words and gestures that cannot be retracted,
stars not counted to the end,
my character like a coat I button up running ---
this is the sorry outcome of such haste.

If only one could practice at least one Wednesday,
repeat a Thursday!
But now Friday's already approaching with a script I don't know.

Is this right? -- I ask
(in a rasping voice
since they don't even let me clear my throat in the wings.)

You're deluded if you think it's only a simple exam
set in a makeshift office. No.
I stand among the stage-sets and see they're solid.
I am struck by the precision of all the props.
The revolving stage's been turning for quite some time.
Even the furthest nebulae are switched on.
Oh, I have no doubt this is the opening night.
And whatever I'll do
will turn for ever into what I have done.

Translated from the Polish by Adam Czerniawski from her collection, People on a Bridge.


Why does this written doe bound through these written woods?
For a drink of written water from a spring
whose surface will xerox her soft muzzle?
Why does she lift her head; does she hear something?
Perched on four slim legs borrowed from the truth,
she pricks up her ears beneath my fingertips.
Silence - this word also rustles across the page
and parts the boughs
that have sprouted from the word "woods."

Lying in wait, set to pounce on the blank page,
are letters up to no good,
clutches of clauses so subordinate
they'll never let her get away.

Each drop of ink contains a fair supply
of hunters, equipped with squinting eyes behind their sights,
prepared to swarm the sloping pen at any moment,
surround the doe, and slowly aim their guns.

They forget that what's here isn't life.
Other laws, black on white, obtain.
The twinkling of an eye will take as long as I say,
and will, if I wish, divide into tiny eternities,
full of bullets stopped in mid-flight.
Not a thing will ever happen unless I say so.
Without my blessing, not a leaf will fall,
not a blade of grass will bend beneath that little hoof's full stop.

Is there then a world
where I rule absolutely on fate?
A time I bind with chains of signs?
An existence become endless at my bidding?

The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
Revenge of a mortal hand.

trans.: Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

And, a link to her Nobel lecture.
Nobel for Literature, 1996.


Judith Shapiro said...

I love these two poems. "If only one could practice at least one Wednesday,
repeat a Thursday!
But now Friday's already approaching with a script I don't know." Indeed.