A Domestication of Death: The Poetic Universe of Wisława Szymborska
by Malgorzata Anna Packalén*
Strong relativism and openness are well known to be important dimensions in the temporal sphere at the basis of Wisława Szymborska‘s poetry. The way in which she links the past with the present, the present with what is to come and the event/experience of a moment with the weightless dimension of eternity is what gives this poetry its greatest strength.
This and the ever present existential questions are leitmotifs in Szymborska’s poetry. The poems describe with the same gravity both empirical reality and the non-existing, the potential – that which is best described by its absence, a kind of quasi-reality. The constant balancing act on the border between being and non-being is very strong in all sides of the poems’ variety and idea world. Szymborska does not attempt to go deep to find a code for the secret of being but rather tries to make us aware of its nature. Her anti-Platonic attitude also becomes stronger over the years, as she writes with obvious irony:
For unclear reasons
under unknown circumstances,
the Ideal Being has ceased to be enough for itself.
It could be and be without an end […]
why did it immediately hunt for impressions
in the bad company of materia?
Why did it need worthless
imitators, unlucky creatures
without prospects of eternity? […]
“Plato or why?” in: Chwila, Kraków 2002, translated by Janet Vesterlund
No Respect for Eternity
The “bad company of materia” is focused upon here because it is just through this materia that the being is continuously re-created, instead of “being and being without end”. The material sphere encloses elements of the perfect world of ideas. Concrete objects, despite their transient nature according to the philosophical doctrine of Plato, should be a necessary means for achieving eternal moralistic values. Szymborska has no respect for eternity, however – quite the opposite: it is the moment that – even brief and transient as clouds in the sky (an important metaphor in this context, to which I will return later) – gives our lives meaning. As the lyric subject says: “Life lasts as long as a few signs scratched by a claw in the sand”. At the same time we are reassured that:
There’s no life
that couldn’t be immortal
if only for a moment.
“On Death, without Exaggeration” in: Nothing Twice. Selected Poems1
The mortal and the immortal – it all holds together with the recurring question of being and/or non-being. The death motif has two important dimensions in this poetry. The poems about the deeply human have a very suggestive message: the chilling feeling and indifference toward others’ suffering. Her poem “Still” is especially expressive in this context, where she creates in the very first lines an almost anguished expressionistic situation: a train is on its way somewhere but no one steps off because the freight cars are hermetically sealed and the passengers – symbolically represented by Jewish names – can not determine the direction of the trip:
In sealed box cars travel
names across the land,
and how far they will travel so,
and will they ever get out,
don’t ask, I won’t say, I don’t know.
The name Nathan strikes fist against wall,
the name Isaac, demented, sings,
the name Sarah calls out for water for
the name Aaron that’s dying of thirst […]
“Still” in: Poems2
The poem can be interpreted on several levels but what can be felt especially strongly is the universally human meaning, here having both an existential and a deeply ethical dimension. Szymborska writes with particular consistency about the moral aspects of human history, which of course includes a long series of examples of spiritual imprisonment and different crimes against human rights – crimes that give all too clear evidence that people neither can nor wish to draw obviously correct conclusions about history’s cruel experiences. For that very reason, hatred, or sooner “its leitmotif – the impeccable executioner / towering over its soiled victim”, such as in the poem of the same title, “Hatred”, is one of our own century’s leitmotifs. It is hate that most often leads to war and to totally unnecessary suffering and death.
Conquering the Unconquerable
Szymborska shows a further dimension of the death motif. This has to do with “common” deaths, so to speak, results of the laws of nature. The death that –
In our planning for tomorrow,
it has the final word,
which is always beside the point.
“On Death, without Exaggeration” in: Nothing Twice. Selected Poems
It is this death, seen with intellectual valor and melancholy, that in some way is a constant part of Szymborska’s poetry. Stripped of all visible pathos, such as “[…] can’t take a joke”, it is many times –
Preoccupied with killing,
it does the job awkwardly,
without system or skill.
as though each of us were its first kill.
“On Death, without Exaggeration” in: Nothing Twice. Selected Poems
Awkward or not, death can not be stopped. Yet, it is not only a victor: the mystery of death is the equal of another mystery – man’s human creativity that helps him to conquer the unconquerable:
In vain it tugs at the knob
of the invisible door.
As far as you’ve come
can’t be undone.
“On Death, without Exaggeration” in: Nothing Twice. Selected Poems
At the same time it is the unassailable privilege of each of us to make the choice between rejecting or keeping silent:
Non omnis moriar – a premature worry.
But am I entirely alive and is that enough.
It never was, and now less than ever. […]
I can’t tell you how much I pass over in silence.
“A Large Number” in: Nothing Twice. Selected Poems
But this choice also brings with it the sadness that knowledge of rejected possibilities creates, that is “a premature worry”, for nothing is given, nothing can be taken for granted, everything can be questioned and we can likewise create everything through the power of our artistic creativity. This Horatian “non omnis moriar” is according to Szymborska, of course, one of humankind’s greatest gifts: what a person has created during his lifetime can make him immortal. It is not simply a gift, however, but also one of human beings’ burdens. Not to refute “non omnis moriar“, but – as Krystyna Pietrych very rightly points out – from the perspective of death, man is but a plaything in the hands of chance that sometimes passes beyond into fate itself.3 Chance – another key word in Szymborska’s dialectic poetic world – not only applies to the miracle of being or existence but also means that because of the very arbitrariness of life, it may be able to escape from death, as in the poem “Could Have”:
You were saved because you were the first.
You were saved because you were the last.
Alone. With others. On the right. The left.
Because it was raining. Because of the shade.
Because the day was sunny. […]
As a result, because, although, despite.
“Could Have” in: Nothing Twice. Selected Poems
Elegant Linguistic Playfulness
Here, there is also another aspect of Szymborska’s “paradise lost of probability”: chance in her poetry is a specific link between free choice and necessity. No one has true control over death, but it is not less one of man’s ancient doings and privileges to conjure a spell against death by continuously questioning the reality that is. Szymborska’s conjurations in this respect are expressed in a quite elegant linguistic playfulness, such as in the poem “Funeral”, which consists simply of a series of phrases snatched from the conversation between people during a funeral:
“so suddenly, who could have seen it coming”
“stress and smoking, I kept telling him”
“not bad, thanks, and you”
“these flowers need to be unwrapped”
“his brother’s heart gave out, too, it runs in the family”
“I’d never know you in the beard”
“he was asking for it, always mixed up in something” […]
“Funeral” in: Nothing Twice. Selected Poems
The first minutes of the funeral conversation expectedly have to do with the dead man, but life shortly takes over and the lines have more and more to do with the survivors’ quite undramatic, not to say banal, everyday lives and worries:
“you were smart, you brought the only umbrella” […]
“two egg yolks and a tablespoon of sugar”
“none of his business, what was in it for him”
“only in blue and just small sizes” […]
“give my best to the widow, I’ve got to run” […]
“give me a call”
“which bus goes downtown”
“I’m going this way”
“Funeral” in: Nothing Twice. Selected Poems
The author studiedly double codes the text in a kind of linguistic mimicry: as used as we are to seeing death in all its frightening character, we do not think about the obvious fact that, as death grips life, life also intervenes in death. Both grip each other with the same intensity. Everyday life can easily be taken over by a pathos that in turn just as easily yields to everyday life. Death is de facto not more frightening than life. And – paradoxically – it is in fact, more problematic for the living than for the dead. It is the living who demand guarantees about existence from some kind of higher power, about the meaning of life, about the unavoidability of fate.
|Wisława Szymborska, signing the guestbook, at the “International Conference on Wisława Szymborska’s Poetry,” Stockholm, May 23-24, 2003. See footnote.
Photo: Wlodzimierz Bolecki
The Survivors’ Dilemma
The confrontation with death not only encompasses man’s ancient anguish for himself but also belongs together with the survivors’ dilemma: someone else’s death can also affect the survivor in a strong and personal way. Much has been written about Szymborska’s lost partner and her elegies after his death. One in particular is Szymborska’s elegy “Cat in an empty apartment”. Regardless of whether the reader believes or does not believe that the event described is real, this particular poem is probably one of the most remarkable that has been written in the genre of a lamentation since Kochanowski wrote his “Treny” [Lament] in 1581. At the same time, it is probably only Szymborska who can describe a great personal loss from the perspective of an abandoned cat:
Die – you can’t do that to a cat.
Since what can a cat do
in an empty apartment?
Climb the walls?
Rub up against the furniture?
Nothing seems different here,
But nothing is the same. […]
Something doesn’t start
at its usual time.
Something doesn’t happen
as it should.
Someone was always, always here,
then suddenly disappeared
and stubbornly stays disappeared.
“Cat in an Empty Apartment” in: Nothing Twice. Selected Poems
If the cat could read, he would surely have recognized Kochanowski’s verse:
Your flight, my dearest, caused
This vast emptiness in my house.
We are a crowd yet no one’s here:
One tiny soul and so much is gone.
“Tren VIII”, translated by Adam Czerniawski, in: Jan Kochanowski, Treny, edited by Piotr Wilczek, Katowice 1996
“This vast emptiness in my house”– that is how it also feels for the living creature whose master “stubbornly stays disappeared”. The mourning that is reserved in some ancient human tradition for people has been permitted a cat. But the cat can not verbalize its feelings, nor can it hold a dialogue with the dead, or even less, ask questions about them in the lyrical duet in that way that the lyric “I” does in the poem “Plotting with the Dead”. The cat is not even aware of the death itself, the funeral, etc. It is only aware of the sudden emptiness. It does not even know – fortunately – that death can neither be stopped nor persuaded, that it is everyone’s unavoidable fate, the only one that – as Szymborska ironically reminds us – is statistically completely proven:
Out of every hundred people […]
one hundred out of one hundred –
a figure that has never varied yet.
“A word on statistics” in: Chwila, Kraków 2002, translated by Joanna Trzeciak
The acceptance of the power of fate is a fact that everyone sooner or later must face, must submit to and must reconcile himself with. In protest against fate however the lyric “I” defies the power of death with the small, insignificant means that it has at hand – such as in the poem “Parting with the View”, that is by refusing a beautiful and beloved place that the survivor used to visit with the loved friend, now gone, its presence:
I know that my grief
will not stop the green. […]
I take note of the fact
that the shore of a certain lake
is still – as if you were living –
as lovely as before. […]
There’s one thing I won’t agree to:
my own return.
The privilege of presence –
I give it up. […]
“Parting with the View” in: Nothing Twice. Selected Poems
At the same time, Szymborska writes in her poem “Clouds”:
People may do what they want,
then they die, all of them, one after another,
for them – the clouds – there’s
strange about that.
“Clouds” in: Chwila, Kraków 2002, translated by Janet Vesterlund
Here can be seen a glimpse of Szymborska’s very special life philosophy. As Anna Legezynska points out, the existential time in Szymborska’s poetry is the present.4 What happens here and now is just exactly what a person can try to capture for a short moment. Everything else exists as a hypothesis, either reconstructed from memory (the past) or as a product of speculations about the future. The clouds, a key word in Szymborska, not only in her latest collection of poems, aptly symbolizes the transitoriness and fickleness of life, of the moment. It makes one aware of the complex nature of being and non being, about the natures of life and death in all their dimensions. It also reflects the lyric “I’s” impressionistic view of life: that everything “after a fraction of the moment stops […] being this and starts being that.” A small change of light, perspective and mood is enough for us to be able to both capture and re-evaluate these short moments in life –
A forest that looks like a forest, forever and ever amen,
and over the forest birds in flight that play being birds in flight.
As far as the eye can see this moment reigns supreme.
One of the moments on earth
that was asked to be enduring.
“Moment” in: Chwila, Kraków 2002, translated by Janet Vesterlund
Here, of course, we can hear the echo – as many researchers have noted – of Goethe’s words “Verweile doch! Du bist so schön!“, with which Faust signed the contract on his soul, here however in Szymborska’s sarcastic tones. In “Faust” man is encouraged to constantly strive to give his life meaning. This is also what makes it possible for the powers of the heavens to save Faust’s soul from the claws of Mephistopheles: “He who fails not to try / it is he we can save”. “Wer sich immer strebend bemüht, den können wir erlösen“. The lyric subject in Szymborska’s poem “Advertisement” consciously defies this classic literary line with the words:
Sell me your soul.
There are no other takers.
There is no other devil anymore.
“Advertisement” in: Nothing Twice. Selected Poems
These reflections about death demonstrate no theological arguments, however, and “One of the moments on earth / that was asked to be enduring” is not said to a religious purpose. On the contrary – Szymborska’s poetic credo and firm conviction of faith are strongly marked by stoicism: seizing the moment, this “Verweile doch” privilege, is man’s only means of being able, for a moment, to challenge, and even deny, death, of being able in that way to defy the world’s rational understanding of its surroundings.
This poetic and metaphysical sphere, somewhere between “memento mori” and “carpe diem“, is the space that is at our disposal during our lifetimes, when we are all of us to a greater or lesser extent at the mercy of chance. This space coincides with eternity. Our own short time on earth is in any case “only a fragment wrested from the storm”, because life must not be shadowed by man’s masochistic “memento mori” that meets the reader, such as in baroque poetry. We are confronted every day with the wonders of existence and all the potential possibilities there are.
Of these, death is only the last of our human existence’s constantly passing and constantly changing forms. Our relations with other people belong here as well. As William Morris wrote in 1888 in his work “A Dream of John Ball”:
Fellowship is heaven, and lack of fellowship is hell:
fellowship is life, and lack of fellowship is death […]
A lack of human contact is here compared with death. The same message is found in Szymborska’s poems. These relations between human beings are among the fundamental aspects of human existence/life. The entire civilized world represses death and, with this, also the freedom to decide over our “time on earth”. Knowledge of death and acceptance of it give us the freedom to love and to do so with a gravity that only the given limit can allow. Flight from death is also a flight from life itself, from love. Because love is that which is each person’s specific “non omnis moriar-capital” and – as the lyric “I” in one of the poems says –
the first love is the most important.
That’s very romantic
but it’s not the case with me. […]
still breathe deeply within me.
This one lacks the breath to sigh.
But still, just the way it is,
it can do what the rest are not yet able to do:
not even dreamt of
it accustoms me to death.
“First Love” in: Chwila, Kraków 2002, translated by Joanna Trzeciak
Time and Timelessness
In this way death is domesticated in Szymborska’s poetic universe: by seizing the moment with the force of emotion, just at this line between time and timelessness. Szymborska’s lyric subject takes the role of a kind of late modern writer of didactic verse, teaching morals through poetry, although often in the disguise of unconventionality or irony. From the perspective of other beings in the universe our human world often seems full of cruelty and foolishness. What separates us from the other beings in this evolutionary chain, however, is our ability both to feel and show emotions, to think and to remember. In spite of the fact that the natural cycle reduces each existence to a link in this chain, every human being has something that is not included in this circle: a soul. The natural biological cycle is in this way complemented with its metaphysical dimension. Here, Szymborska’s philosophical tendency lies close to Descartes’ dualism. Man has long known that death as a biological fact and physical decay can be the subject of scientific observation and analysis. What happens to our brains or souls after death is still a factor of faith and an object of speculation.
It is hardly possible to find confirmation of a religious or non-religious position in Szymborska’s poems. God is not explicitly named, but the Christian tradition is present with its third dimension: the immortal soul, our promise of safety in the face of the frightening abyss of eternity, even if “Nobody has one all the time / or forever”. Therefore the living and the dead, human and non-human, large and small, known and unknown, present and absent move around one another in Szymborska’s poems and populate the poetic cosmos which is also the timeless universe of being.
The inherent lyric subject in Szymborska’s poetic universe would thus be able to say – as though these were his very last words – that which Descartes himself was said to say on his deathbed: “Ça mon âme, il faut partir” (“Thus my soul, it is time to go”), although of course with the relating-reflecting-self-ironic complement so typical of Szymborska:
Life, however long, will always be short.
Too short for anything to be added.
“Our Ancestors’ short lives” in: Nothing Twice. Selected Poems
|Wisława Szymborska (left) with the author in Stockholm, 1996.
Photo: Tommy Westberg
1. Wisława Szymborska, “On Death, without Exaggeration in: Nothing Twice. Selected Poems. Selected and translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, Kraków 1997.
2. Wisława Szymborska, Poems. Selections, translations and afterword by Magnus J. Krynski, Robert A. Maguire, Kraków 1989.
3. Krystyna Pietrych, “Pytania o trascendencje”, O wierszach Wisławy Szymborskiej, ed. Jacek Brzozowski, Lódz 1996, pp. 116-117.
4. Anna Legezynska, Wisława Szymborska, Poznan 1996, p. 54.
* Professor Malgorzata Anna Packalén’s essay was her contribution to the International Conference on Wisława Szymborska’s Poetry (Stockholm, 23-24 May 2003), organized by the Royal Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities in collaboration with the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, Stockholm University and the Department of Slavic Languages, Uppsala University, supported by the Embassy of the Polish Republic and the Polish Institute in Stockholm.
Malgorzata Anna Packalén (neé Szulc) was born in Poznan, Poland. She obtained her Bachelor Degree in Polish and Swedish Philology at Adam-Mickiewicz University, Poznan, where she also received her Masters Degree in 1977. She was a recipient of the Swedish Institute’s scholarship program in Sweden in 1975-76.
Packalén has been affiliated to the Department of Modern Languages at Uppsala University since 1979. Here she did research studies in Slavic languages in 1982-87 and received her Ph.D. in Slavic languages in 1987. She was holder of Postdoctoral Fellowships at the Department of Slavic Languages at Uppsala University in 1989-91, Research Fellow at The Swedish Research Council (HSFR) in 1991-92 and has been a researcher and Senior Lecturer in Polish since 1993. She became an Associate Professor at Uppsala University in 1997 and Professor in Polish in 2000.
M.A. Packalén has published a monograph on contemporary Polish poetry Pokolenie 68. Studium o poezji polskiej lat siedemdziesiatych (The Generation of ’68, Studies in Polish Poetry of the 70s., 1987, second ed. 1997), a comparative study of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Polish and Swedish literature Under två kulturers ok (Under the Yoke of Two Cultures, 2001). She is co-editor of an anthology Swedish-Polish Modernism. Literature – Language Culture (2003). Her publications include articles on Polish language, poetry and prose, as well as cultural and gender studies. She was also author of numerous articles on Polish literature for the Swedish National Encyclopedia, Nationalencyklopedin (1990-1999).
First published 26 February 2004
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