Toy Balloons  

MAP: Collected and Last Poems
, Wislawa Szymborska.
Translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak. Edited by Clare Cavanagh.
(448pp, $32, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

We all have glaring gaps in our reading, right? Several years ago, I set myself the task of completing all of Dickens novels, for that very reason. But Ive never read any Trollope. Nor Austen. Poetry? Ive read all of Ashbery and OHara, but very little of that other celebrated New York poet, Kenneth Koch. Why? There seems to be no rhyme or reason to these omissions. I mention this only by way of introducing the fact... Wislawa Szymborska is the best poet Ive never read.

Ive been fully immersed in this Collected and Last Poems for a month or so, and havent really wanted to climb out of the water. I just didnt want to put the book down. Its a big, weighty American hardback, with a lovely dust jacket, fine paper and beautiful, clear typesetting. An object I shall return to again, with pleasure. It gathers together all of Szymborskas serious poems from 1944 to her last poems of 2011 before her death in 2012 (apparently she wrote quite a few rhymes and comic works, 'eavesdroppings', that were kept separate from the poetry proper). And the translations are limpid and exquisite. No wonder she was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1996. Shame on me, neglectful reader! Anyway, that has been righted now and, if you havent read Szymborskas work before, Id urge you to do so at some point, say with this authoritative and august book.

Born in Poland in 1923, Szymborska belongs to that Eastern European tradition which celebrates the idea that poets and novelists might also be philosophers too, even if their work takes the form of rhyme and fable. Her oeuvre clarifies (to me at least) a little more about what it means to be alive, about interconnectedness across time and place, and that poetry has its own special ways of engaging with the world. As she wrote in in 1944, Im coming back to you, the real world, / crowded, dark, and full of fate. Her poems have that uncanny knack of being able to fit all of the world in and then revealing to us that it is somehow more expansive than the sum of those parts, as in: So much world all at once - how it rustles and bustles! with its echoes of Louis MacNeices Snow (
World is crazier and more of it than we think,/Incorrigibly plural); or

   Everythings mine, but just on loan,
   nothing for the memory to hold,
   though mine as long as I look.
        (Travel Elegy)

There are recurring obsessions with time, place, identity and the accidents of birth:

   Nothing can ever happen twice.
   In consequence, the sorry fact is
   that we arrive here improvised
   and leave without the chance to practice
       (Nothing Twice)

as well as a constant questioning of self-hood: So how do you / suddenly lose the habit / of yourself? [...] // We know ourselves only / as far as weve been tested. (Moment of Silence). If this human questioning recurs in a quotidian setting in many of the poems, it is also frequently set against vast universals:

   Well versed in the expanses
   that stretch from earth to stars,
   we get lost in eth space
   from earth up to our skull.
       (To My Friends)

Szymborska is also a fan of the metaphysical conceit; her poems often set up a central device or motif that she then explores in multiple ways to arrive at some existential conclusion. In the magnificent poem Water, for example, the poet takes the simple symbolic element and explores its multiple emanations in culture, history and science. Science recurs in other poems too, such as The Railroad Station, which is almost a quantum poem, while in Still Life With Balloon the poet sets out the existential conceit in the first stanza:

   Returning memories?
   No, at the time of death
   Id like to see lost objects
   return instead

going on to explore her metaphysics through a thoroughly grounded list of objects - gloves, suitcases, umbrellas - before alighting on the balloon of the title:

   And lastly, toy balloon
   once kidnapped by the wind -
   come home, and I will say:
   There are no children here.

   Fly out the open window
   and into the wide world;
   let someone else shout 'Look!
   and I will cry.

Here the symbolic metaphor is carried with such easeful gravitas - the language of the translation pitch-perfect in its simplicity, as it deals with questions of dying. Theres a great ease and variety to Szymborskas forms too: simple rhymes, quatrains, free verse poems, prose poems, parables, and a wonderful wry humour:

   So hes got to have happiness,
   hes got to have truth, too,
   hes  got to have eternity -
   did you ever!
       (No End of Fun')

There is also, throughout, a controlled use of rhetorical shapes, repetitions and other framing devices. Unsurprisingly, this leads to a recurring fascination with writing itself, and numerous poems about the writing of poetry and the function of poetry in an individuals life. In The joy of Writing, meaning is figured as a doe, a female deer: Perched on four slim legs borrowed from the truth, / she pricks up her ears beneath my fingertips.

History, medicine, nature, science, evolution, art, literature, philosophy - throughout her oeuvre, Szymborska turned her attention to major topics and delivered philosophic insight on them in simply beguiling language. Her insights on our existential absurdities and conundrums are fascinating and, sometimes, devastating, as in her poem about middle-aged depression Going Home. Repeatedly she asks, why am I this person, and not that one? Or not that animal? What does this one time appearance on Earth afford us and mean? Is this the definitive, actual world? These questions come through time and time again in poems about people and higher animals, but also through investigations of creatures living in the microscopic world, microbes and foraminifera; or the lowlier animals such as insects and holothurians (sea cucumbers) which, when threatened cut themselves in two. Characteristically, Szymborska finds a human writing metaphor in this:

   We, too, can divide ourselves, its true.
   But only into flesh and a broken whisper.
   Into flesh and poetry.

There are simply too many outstanding poems in this Collected
works to cover in a review - I have starred some 40plus poems for revisiting - and my partner must have tired of hearing me say 'Wow!' every five pages or so, then putting the book down to stare into space, pondering. Szymborskas is a serious poetry of our human condition - but a poetry that is rendered here in delightfully light touch language, pared back from pretension and obscurantism. Like her toy balloon, the ideas are allowed to float gracefully and simply across our experience. And for that, we also have to praise the translators.

       Andy Brown 2015