Wednesday 11 July 2012


Reading comes hard at the moment. Poetry is easiest. Hardest to talk about, easiest to read.

I have fallen head over heels for Wislawa Szymborska (and am even now able to spell her name without looking). 'View with a grain of sand' , translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, brings together a handful of poems from each of a number of collections published between 1957 and 1993. The poems are remarkably consistent in tone and approach - Syzmbroska seems to have landed her mixture of playness and elegant skewering early, and maintained it. Her poems are both wide-ranging and narrowly focused; the intimacy of Syzmbroska's voice carries you through wry observations on love, the aftermath of war, loss, and joyful observations on the unending, unfolding world.

My favourite in the collection is 'Could Have' --

It could have happened.
It had to happen.
It happened earlier. Later.
Nearer. Farther off.
It happened, but not to you.
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.
You were in luck -- there was a forest.
You were in luck -- there were no trees.
You were in luck -- a rake, a hook, a beam, a brake,
A jamb, a turn, a quarter-inch, an instant . . . 
So you're here? Still dizzy from
another dodge, close shave, reprieve?
One hole in the net and you slipped through?
I couldn't be more shocked or
how your heart pounds inside me.

The urgency, the gratitude mixed with disbelief, that piercing, thankful, visceral last line ...

The image of a world in a raindrop in 'Water' captures the simultaneous scope and intimacy of these poems for me --

A drop of water fell on my hand,
Blood-let from the Ganges and the Nile, 
from the Ascension-day voyage off a seal’s whiskers to heaven,
from water out of the shattered pitchers in the cities of Ys and Tyre. 
On my index finger
the Caspian Sea is open 
and the Pacific meekly joins the Rudawa,
that same stream that floated as a little cloud over Paris 
in the year seven hundred and sixty-four
on the seventh of May at three in the morning. 
There are not enough mouths to utter
all your fleeting names, O water. 
I would have to name you in all tongues,
pronouncing all the vowels at once 
while also keeping silent–for the sake of the lake
that waits to be named 
and doesn’t exist on this earth, just as the star
reflected in it is not in heaven. 
Somebody drowned, someone dying was
crying out for you. It was long ago and it was yesterday. 
You have saved houses from fire, you have carried off houses
as you did trees, forests as cities. 
You’ve been in christening fonts and courtesan’s baths.
In kisses and coffins. 
Gnawing stone, nourishing rainbows,
in the sweat and the dew of the pyramids, the lilacs. 
How light is all this in the raindrop.
How gently the world touches me. 
Whatever, whenever, wherever has happened
Is written down on the waters of Babel.

There's a touch of Cummings' word-acrobatics to 'Allegro Ma Non Troppo', and that opening stanza just slays me --

Life, you're beautiful (I say)
you just couldn't get more fecund,
more befrogged or nightingaily,
more anthillful or sproutspouting. 
I'm trying to court life's favor,
to get into its good graces,
to anticipate its whims.
I'm always the first to bow 
always there where it can see me
with my humble, reverent face,
soaring on the wings of rapture,
falling under waves of wonder. 
Oh how grassy is this hopper,
how this berry ripely rasps.
I would never have conceived it
if I weren't conceived myself! 
Life (I say) I've no idea
what I could compare you to.
No one else can make a pine cone
and then make the pine cone's clone. 
I praise your inventiveness,
bounty, sweep, exactitude,
sense of order – gifts that border
on witchcraft and wizardry. 
I just don't want to upset you,
tease or anger, vex or rile.
For millennia, I've been trying
to appease you with my smile. 
I tug at life by its leaf hem:
will it stop for me, just once,
momentarily forgetting
to what end it runs and runs?

This is how I feel about life right now - close to overwhelmed by its bounty, clinging to the crest of the wave.

I loved 'Pi' - again, that dancing tone;

The admirable number pi:
three point one four one.
All the following digits are also initial
five nine two because it never ends.
It can't be comprehended, six five three five, at a glance,
eight nine, by calculation,
seven nine, or imagination,
not even three two three eight by wit, that is, by comparison
four six to anything else
two six four three in the world.
The longest snake on earth calls it quits at about forty feet.
Likewise, snakes of myth and legend, though they may hold out a bit longer.
The pageant of digits comprising the number pi
doesn't stop at the page's edge.
It goes on across the table, through the air,
over a wall, a leaf, a bird's nest, clouds, straight into the sky,
through all the bottomless, bloated heavens.
Oh, how brief -- a mouse's tail, a pigtail -- is the tail of a comet!
How feeble the star's ray, bent by bumping up against space!
While here we have two three fifteen three hundred nineteenmy phone number your shirt sizethe year nineteen hundred and seventy-three the sixth floorthe number of inhabitants sixty-five centship measurement two fingers a charade, a code,
in which we find hail to thee, blithe spirit, bird thou never wert
alongside ladies and gentlemen, no cause for alarm,
as well as heaven and earth shall pass away,but not the number pi, oh no, nothing doing.
it keeps right on with its rather remarkable five,
its uncommonly fine eight,
its far from final sevennudging, always nudging a sluggish eternity
to continue.

(And I am fascinated by how other translations I have read change the tone)

 ...The caravan of digits that is pi
does not stop at the edge of the page,
but runs off the table and into the air,
over the wall, a leaf, a bird's nest, the clouds, straight into the sky,
through all the bloatedness and bottomlessness.

And finally, a work that is not in the collection, but which I found online, and can sympathise with so much: the effort to maintain normality, the saying of things and refusing to hear them, the hearing of things and refusing to say them - the saying and the hearing that you perform, but that never touches you ...


It’s good you came—she says.
You heard a plane crashed on Thursday?
Well so they came to see me
about it.
The story is he was on the passenger list.
So what, he might have changed his mind.
They gave me some pills so I wouldn’t fall apart.
Then they showed me I don’t know who.
All black, burned except one hand.
A scrap of shirt, a watch, a wedding ring.
I got furious, that can’t be him.
He wouldn’t do that to me, look like that.
The stores are bursting with those shirts.
The watch is just a regular old watch.
And our names on that ring,
they’re only the most ordinary names.
It’s good you came. Sit here beside me.
He really was supposed to get back Thursday.
But we’ve got so many Thursdays left this year.
I’ll put the kettle on for tea.
I’ll wash my hair, then what,
try to wake up from all this.
It’s good you came, since it was cold there,
and him just in some rubber sleeping bag,
him, I mean, you know, that unlucky man.
I’ll put the Thursday on, wash the tea,
since our names are completely ordinary

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