In yet another alarming gap in my cultural education, I’d not heard of Wisława Szymborska until Friko’s Poetry and Pictures introduced a poem of hers to me. The poem was The Joy of Writing, and its first line, as translated from the Polish by Czesław Miłosz, is this: “Where is a written deer running through a written forest?”
In that one line, Szymborska summons up the act of imagining, and the poem celebrates its joyful power.
In a drop of ink there are quite a few
hunters squinting one eye,
ready to rush down a vertical pen,
to encircle the deer, to take aim.
They forget that this is not life here.“An instant will last as long as I desire.” I imagine this pinned on a cork board above every writing desk, hanging from a banner in each artist’s studio, hovering in the air like melody while a composer sets down her notes.
Other laws rule here, in black and white.
An instant will last as long as I desire.
I pored through the meager poetry offerings in a local bookstore and found a slim volume of Szymborska’s work. The collection was called Here (Tutaj, in Polish), after its title poem. “I can’t speak for elsewhere,” Tutaj begins,
but here on Earth we’ve got a fair supply of everything.Szymborska takes as her starting point almost anything. She begins Foraminifera with: “Why not, let’s take the Foraminifera.” Her subject, then, a type of plankton (the Polish word for which is the glimmering Otwornice).
Here we manufacture chairs and sorrows,
scissors, tenderness, transistors, violins,
teacups, dams, and quips.
Recently, I was reminded of Szymborska again when Friko posted Reality Demands, which begins
Reality demandsThe poem recites a litany of examples, including these
we also state the following:
life goes on.
between Pearl Harbor and Hastings,
a furniture truck passes
before the eyes of the lion of Cheronea,
and only an atmospheric front advances
towards the blossoming orchards near Verdun.
I was put in mind of a visit some years back to the World War I battleground of Ypres. This low, flat land in Belgium, which the Great War reduced to mud so deep that soldiers drowned in it, has long since been returned to placid farmers’ fields. Brochures in hand, marking out the pathways, we walked the fields of battle, visited the graveyards, and trod a preserved area of trench.
Despite all that, I felt unequal to the task of imagining backward, for, as Szymborska writes in Reality Demands, “There is so much of Everything/that Nothing is quite well concealed.” Yet Ypres stayed in my mind. Slowly, haltingly, I began to set something down.
Verstummt squinted through the taxi’s mud-spattered window at the Belgian countryside. Between streaks of dried mud, he could make out puffs of cloud riding the sky. The clouds reminded him, as they often did, of his father’s Schaumtorten and its mounds of meringue whipped stiff with a wooden spoon. His father had shown him how to flick his wrist at each cycle of the spoon, but no matter how hard Verstummt whipped, the egg whites sat lifeless in the bowl.
As I continued to imagine backward, the hat traveled through many hands before it came into Verstummt’s. Years before, Horst Beckmann, a German soldier, had spotted it in a shop “in the backwater of the war, the last stop for soldiers coming in from Germany before they got a taste of the front.”
It was Horst Beckmann who recognized the heron feathers—after all, hadn’t his family come from the Tegernsee? . . . To see a hat from his homeland here in Belgium, that was the best of omens. Using the logic they all resorted to, he thought if he could keep the hat safe, then he too would make it safely home.In her poem, Microcosmos, Szymborska writes
I’ve wanted to write about them for a long while,The same holds true for Horst Beckmann’s Hat. Cottonwood published it so long ago it’s doubtful the volume could be found, if it even still exists. Should you wish to read further, the story can be found in its entirety here.
but it’s a tricky subject,
always put off for later
and perhaps worthy of a better poet,
even more stunned by the world than I.
But time is short. I write.
Postscript: My father served in the U. S. Army Air Forces in World War II. His words, evoking the sounds of displaced people along the Augsburg-Munich highway, are included in Horst Beckmann’s Hat. His father, too young by a hair to serve in the Great War, made Schaumtorten. He beat the eggs by hand.
Adolph Joseph Scheid, b. 09/28/1923 (Milwaukee, WI), d. 07/25/1996 (Pacific Grove, CA), US Army, 1ST LT, interred, San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery, Gustine, Merced County, California, Plot: C-1 0 439.
Wisława Szymborska, b. 07/02/1923 (Prowent, Poland), d. 02/01/2012 (Kraków, Poland), received the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature.
Szymborska reads Metaphysics
Credits: The photograph of Szymborksa can be found here. The photograph of Chateau Wood, Ypres, 1917, can be found here. The quotations from The Joy of Writing and Reality Demands can be found here. The quotations from Here, Foraminifera, and Microcosmos can be found here. The quotations from Horst Beckmann's Hat are, of course, my own.