The Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska’s obituary was in the Times today. The photo of her with a cigarette on the dust jacket of the one volume of her poems that I own foretold a death from lung cancer. She lived 88 years. Turn those 8s on their sides and you have symbols of infinity — a fitting length of life for a curious person with a graceful sense of wonder.
Reading about her life gave me reason to recall images of the Jagiellonian University buildings, including the library with Copernicus’ On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres on display and, on a more prosaic level, a vegetarian restaurant, where Polish food came closest to aligning with my dietary preferences, deep in a stone cellar between the university and the medieval square at the heart of Krakow’s Old City.
Her obituary addressed something that had intrigued me. It said: “Her poems were clear in topic and language, but her playfulness and tendency to invent words made her work hard to translate.” See for yourself.
So much of the world all at once — how it rustles and bustles!
Moraines and morays and morasses and mussels,
the flame, the flamingo, the flounder, the feather —
how to line them all up, how to put them together?
All the tickets and crickets and creepers and creeks.
The beeches and leeches alone could take weeks.
Chinchillas, gorillas, and sarsaparillas —
thanks so much, but this excess of kindness could kill us.
Where’s the jar for this burgeoning burdock, brooks’ babble,
rooks’ squabble, snakes’ squiggle, abundance, and trouble?
How to plug up the gold mines and pin down the fox,
how to cope with the lynx, bobolinks, streptococs!
Take dioxide: a lightweight, but mighty in deeds;
what about octopodes, what about centipedes?
I could look into prices, but don’t have the nerve:
these are products I just can’t afford, don’t deserve.
Isn’t sunset a little too much for two eyes
that, who knows, may not open to see the sun rise?
I am just passing through, it’s a five minute stop.
I won’t catch what is distant; what’s too close, I’ll mix up.
While trying to plumb what the void’s inner sense is,
I’m bound to pass by all the poppies and pansies.
What a loss when you think how much effort was spent
perfecting the petal, this pistil, this scent
for the one-time appearance, which is all they’re allowed,
so aloofly precise and so fragilely proud.