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    VALERIEMAHA   55,142
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RIP Wislawa Szymborska, one of my favorite poets

Sunday, February 05, 2012

The path to international fame as a poet generally doesn't involve writing short poems about sea cucumbers. Yet for the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, who won the Nobel Prize in 1996 and died Wednesday, the little things -- onions, cats, monkeys, and yes, sea cucumbers -- turned out to be very big indeed.

A popular writer in Poland for many years, Szymborska became a reluctant international literary celebrity after her Nobel win.

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. Here is how she begins a poem called "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.

And the poem concludes:

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

Yet if Szymborska's touch is gentle, it can still burn or freeze. Consider her sea cucumber (or "holothurian") poem, which is called "Autotomy." The poem begins:

In danger, the holothurian cuts itself in two.
It abandons one self to a hungry world
and with the other self it flees.

It violently divides into doom and salvation,
retribution and reward, what has been and what will be.

An abyss appears in the middle of its body
between what instantly becomes two foreign shores.

Life on one shore, death on the other.

The sea cucumber can become two parts, one living, one dead. Szymborska compares this to the way in which writers have long argued that when they died, their work would live on — granting them a kind of immortality. But Szymborska is skeptical. She doesn't think anyone exists outside of time, or that writing poetry is a matter of falling on the right side of an abyss. As she puts it in the poem's conclusion:

Here the heavy heart, there non omnis moriar --
Just three little words, like a flight's three feathers.

The abyss doesn't divide us.
The abyss surrounds us.

The ending of the poem could seem grim. After all, she's suggesting that there is, in the end, no way to cheat time. But if that's the case -- if we can't continually evade death -- then this is at least something we all share. It's no surprise that her poem is dedicated to the memory of one of her friends.

Szymborska has now fallen into the very abyss that she wrote about with such understated passion. And yet it's hard not to think that, with all her delicate power, she somehow still walks on air above us.

David Orr's most recent book is called Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry.

Member Comments About This Blog Post:
LE7_1234 6/25/2012 11:42PM

    Thank you.


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    Thanks, you've introduced me to someone new.

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DARKTHOR 2/7/2012 11:27AM

    Deep words that wash over the consciousness beautifully.

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BRIGHTSPARK7 2/7/2012 1:11AM

    I have been considering the mystery of The abyss today and the process of bringing Presence to it, th egifts that the unknown has for us. Thank you for sharing this exquisite poet with us. I wrote my first ghazal this evening to share with my Poetry circle tomorrow. Last line goes, "Your words penetrate me like light entering the room at sunrise."
Thankyou for these words, Mahalakshmi.

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BECOMINGONE 2/6/2012 10:04PM

    You are so eclectic in your interests. As always, thanks for sharing this piece of yourself.


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2BMYOWN 2/6/2012 8:07AM

    Great blog, Maha, and lots to be said for making the everyday poetic, I think. You're giving me an education just by reading your blogs!

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CARRAND 2/5/2012 6:46PM

    Thank you for sharing.

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WATERMELLEN 2/5/2012 5:49PM

    Maybe the abyss surrounds us . . . maybe not. We cannot know. But finding consolation in the little things helps us remain anchored on our island in the abyss (if it turns out that's where we are) while we can.

Wonderful blog, thanks so much.

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REBCCA 2/5/2012 2:50PM

    "There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges (abyss), and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces."
Herman Melville

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GETSTRONGRRR 2/5/2012 2:09PM

    Thanks very much. I heard that broadcast while I was in Kansas last week and she seemed to write from a joyful heart

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DDOORN 2/5/2012 1:33PM

    Thank you 'Maha, for sharing your poetic heart with those uninitiated such as myself!


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DAISY443 2/5/2012 12:36PM

    Maha, as always, you are insightful and inspiring! Thank you!

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