Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Caryl encounters: The Greta Garbo of Poetry

I only found her after she had died. Then she chased after
me, popping up unexpectedly on Salon, and then aga
in in a recent  issue of the New York Review of Books. She didn’t come to wide attention until age 60 when she won the Nobel Prize for literature, the first female writer from Poland to do so.  Some called the shy, reclusive woman ‘the Greta Garbo of poetry'.  The notoriety paralyzed her from writing for two years; “the Stockholm syndrome", she dubbed it.
But then she began again. In a simple and accessible voice, she took on everyday topics :“chairs and sorrows, scissors, tenderness, transistors,violins, teacups, dams and quips”-- but in a profound way. I will tell you her name--Wislawa Szymborska--but it is hard to remember. Her poems, fewer than 400 in  her 88 years, however will haunt you.  She’s probably best known for "Cat in the Empty Apartment" but this is the poem that hooked me.

Hard Life With Memory 
   by Wislawa Szymborska

I’m a poor audience for my memory.
She wants me to attend her voice nonstop.
but I fidget, fuss,
listen and don’t,
step out, come back, then leave again.

She wants all my time and attention.
She’s no problem when I sleep,
The day’s a different matter, which upsets her.

She thrusts old letters, snapshots at me eagerly,
stirs up events both important and un-, 
turns my eyes to overlooked views,
peoples them with my dead.

In her stories I’m always younger,
Which is nice, but why always the same story.
Every mirror holds different news for me. 

She gets angry when I shrug my shoulders.
And takes revenge by hauling out old errors,
weighty, but easily forgotten.
Looks into my eyes, checks my reaction.
Then comforts me, it could be worse.

She wants me to live only for her and with her.
Ideally in a dark, locked room,
but my plans still feature today’s sun,
clouds in progress, ongoing roads.

At times I get fed up with her. 
I suggest a separation. From now to eternity.
Then she smiles at me with pity,
since she knows it would be the end of me too.

(Translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw 
If you want to read more of Szymborska's work, you might like Here (cover shown above), her most recent collection which includes "Hard Life".  She worked (and smoked) to her final days;
she died in Krakow, Poland on February 1.  Her last words will be published in the coming months. I'll let you know if you want me to.  But first tell me: Do you like poetry? Would you like to read it occasionally at Second Lives Club? Will you share a favorite poem or poet with us now?


  1. I love when I discover a new writer, poet. Yes, I like poetry and would love to read more. Poetry seemed to be a large part of my life when I was a teenager and young adult. Then it got replaced by longer escapist literature. And now I find, I'm circling back to appreciate it again...from a different angle. I worry that the things that entrance me now are short, staccato lit forms. A little scary for someone who writes/edits almost exclusively on the web. Is my online obsession similar to a teenager's? Oh no, just encountered another neuroses. Thank you very much, Carrie...and so nice to see you Sunday at the Farmer's Market!

  2. Reading poetry is one of my 2012 'resolutions'. But have I picked up a volume of verse yet? Nope. Here is is the perfect time and reason to do so- thanks!

  3. I think it's a fine idea to feature poetry occasionally on Second Lives Club. I do exactly that on, although our poems are all written by readers of the site. Poetry is more than folderah and flowers; it's the distillation of all of our experience, high and low.

  4. I began my writing life as a poet, so of course I would love it if you would feature poetry here from time to time. What I'm loving about this site is how literary it is...I sense that thought, words, and craft are valued here. Thank you for this post about Szymborska. I've long admired her poetry; VIEW WITH A GRAIN OF SAND is on the bookshelf to my right. Do you know Kristof Kiesloski's beautiful film trilogy TROIS COULEURS (BLEU, BLANC, ROUGE)? One of Szymborska's poems is featured in ROUGE.