A Great Poet’s Passing

When I was sixteen, I went to Borders with my Dad. It was a Saturday morning and something that we did on a lot on Saturday mornings. We parted ways at the door, he going to the Lit or Sports or Obscure Mathematics sections, while I headed toward Poetry. “Pick out something interesting,” my Dad would say, as always.

That was a time when bookstores actually stocked books of poetry. Don’t get me wrong, if you want to find a huge binder of Shakespeare quotes paired with sleeping kitten clipart or any number of Edgar Allen Poe’s works, you can probably still find them in Barnes and Noble’s bargin bins. But 15 years ago things were different.

I remember I was sixteen because I was finally an upperclassmen in high school. Majorly cool, in other words, and open to exploring  just about anything outside of the Ohio norm.

I saw her name first: Wisława Szymborska. And then the cover:

And I knew that I just had to have it. I’m not a believer in these kinds of things–but it honestly spoke to me. Something calling from between the covers.

For years I read and reread and rereread that book. And her others, as well. I have many of them in my bookshelves, nearly turned to dust from the repetition of fingers turning the pages.

She propelled me to take an interest in poetry beyond what we were discussing in High School English class. And a few years later, when I met my first poet mentor, Karen Kovacik, who spoke of her Polish roots and her deep admiration for Wisława Szymborska’s work, I felt almost a kind fate in the whole thing. After that book, absolutely everything changed for me. I truly started looking, really looking at everything around me.

So when I learned yesterday of Wisława Szymborska’s passing, it truly shook me to my marrow. I’m not sure why, exactly, other than to guess that her work and her voice has played such a big part in so many moments of my life–personal and professional, that it’s hard to imagine that she’s not out there anymore. Although her poems are, I keep reminding myself.

The New York Times featured a nice piece on her today.

I’ll post just one short poem. I cannot say that I have a favorite from her collection, as it is always in flux. But here is one that I cherish:

Under One Small Star

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.


2 thoughts on “A Great Poet’s Passing

  1. I love this poem, J! I’ve never read anything by her before .. many thanks for sharing.

  2. I was really influenced by Polish poets early on, which probably explains a lot in my own writing. And then I studied under the brilliant Karen Kovacik, who is also Polish. But Szymborska was definitely my first poetry-love! If you’re looking for a great book, that one I mentioned above, view with a grain of sand, is a fantastic collection and also wonderful translation.

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