For over seven years, since tearing it out of a December 2004 issue of the New Yorker, I’ve had the same Wislawa Szymborska poem taped up above my desk. Here it is*:
I’ll never find out now
What A. thought of me.
If B. ever forgave me in the end.
Why C. pretended everything was fine.
What part D. played in E.’s silence.
What F. had been expecting, if anything.
Why G. forgot when she knew perfectly well.
What H. had to hide.
What I. wanted to add.
If my being around
to J. and K. and the rest of the alphabet.
I never get tired of this perfect little poem’s simultaneous simplicity and complexity, the way its playful personification of the alphabet coexists with a wistful meditation on the infinite unresolved stories contained within each finite human life. Like many of Szymborska’s poems (and I can’t claim to know her work well; I’ve only read one anthology, View with a Grain of Sand, translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, as well as poems, like this one, that showed up in magazines I read), “ABC” is a strangely apposite poem to re-read on the occasion of Szymborska’s death at her home in Krakow this week at age 88.
Whatever else Szymborska’s poems are about (a dinosaur skeleton, some antiquities glimpsed in a museum, a cat unable to understand why its owner has disappeared), they are almost always also about death, impermanence, and the passing of time. And yet her voice couldn’t be less funereal, melodramatic, or self-serious. Even her insights about the ephemerality of human existence can sometimes sound almost merry. In “No End of Fun,” a poem written from the point of view of the gods looking down with amused affection at human life, she writes, “Carry on, then, if only for the moment / that it takes a tiny galaxy to blink!”
Szymborska’s work is lucidly, sparklingly funny, with a keen eye for the transcendently mundane details of everyday life; perhaps it’s because she sensed time’s passage so sharply that she noticed so much, and recorded it with such precision and seeming delight. In the poem “Miracle Fair,” (also the title of a collection translated by Joanna Trzeciak) Szymborska ticks off a list of underrated “run-of-the-mill miracles”: “a miracle minus top hat and tails: / scattering white doves.” Her poetry has that same paradoxical combination of overabundance and plainness: It’s a miracle minus top hat and tails.
I first heard of Szymborska when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996, and read her only intermittently thereafter, in spite of the place of honor “ABC” occupies in my workspace (for a more complete appreciation of her work, I’d recommend Adam Gopnik’s lovely tribute on the New Yorker website). But one afternoon last summer, I found myself in the poetry section of Moe’s Bookstore in Berkeley, suddenly transfixed by her unique poetic voice; every poem I randomly browsed seemed more powerful and meticulously constructed than the last. Thanks to the Boston Globe’s excellent obituary, I now know that Szymborska also wrote a popular Polish newspaper column for decades—its characteristically modest title, “Non-Required Reading,” is also the name of a translated collection of her journalistic prose which I can’t wait to read. I can’t speak for J. or K. or the rest of the alphabet, but Wislawa Szymborska’s brief residence on the planet definitely meant something to D.
*“ABC” from Monologue of a Dog by Wisława Szymborska. Copyright © 2002 by Wisława Szymborska. Translation copyright © 2006 by Harcourt, Inc. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.