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Under One Small Star -- Wislawa Szymborska

Guest poem sent in by Vikram Doctor
(Poem #224) Under One Small Star
  My apologies to chance for calling it necessity
  My apologies to necessity if I'm mistaken, after all.
  Please, don't be angry, happiness, that I take you as my due.
  May my dead be patient with the way my memories fade.
  My apologies to time for all the world I overlook each second.
  My apologies to past loves for thinking that the latest is the first.
  Forgive me, distant wars, for bringing flowers home.
  Forgive me, open wounds, for pricking my finger.
  I apologise for my record of minuets to those who cry from the depths.
  I apologise to those who wait in railway stations for being asleep today at
        five a.m.
  Pardon me, hounded hope, for laughing from time to time.
  Pardon me, deserts, that I don't rush to you bearing a spoonful of water.
  And you, falcon, unchanging year after year, always in the same cage,
  you gaze always fixed on the same point in space,
  forgive me, even if it turns out you were stuffed.
  My apologies to the felled tree for the table's four legs.
  My apologies to great questions for small answers.
  Truth, please don't pay me much attention.
  Dignity please be magnanimous.
  Bear with me, O mystery of existence, as I pluck the occasional thread from
        your train.
  Soul, don't take offense that I've only got you now and then.
  My apologies to everyone that I can't be everywhere at once.
  My apologies to everyone that I can't be each woman and each man.
  I know that I won't be justified as long as I live,
  since I myself stand in my own way.
  Don't bear me ill will, speech, that I borrow weighty words,
  then labor heavily so that they may seem light.
-- Wislawa Szymborska
        (translated by Stanislaw Branczak and Clare Cavanagh)


There used to be a time when I was very young and full of intellectual
pretentions when I prided myself on having read as many of the winners of
the Nobel Prize for Literature as I could. And quite a weird bunch they were
too. I did make some nice discoveries - Kawabata and Singer, for example.
But some of the others still leave me baffled or bored - has anyone on this
list ever got great delight from Ivo Andric, Selma Lagerlof, Ivan Bunin and
others like them?

This is not fair, of course, some of these were of their time, and a lot
probably was lost when they were translated, and I'm sure they all deserved
their prizes, which are anyway always going to be a bit of a lottery. Its
just that as a guide to someone in their reading it did lead to quite a few
yawn-offs (I am going to risk being lynched by every Bengali on this list
and add Rabindranath Tagore to this category). So after a point I stopped
even trying to keep up.

Nonetheless, I did think of reconsidering when quite by chance I picked up a
book of Wislawa Szymborska's poems which came out after she won the Nobel
some years back. Because I guess I wouldn't have if she hadn't been
publicised by that, and I would have been the loser. As soon as I started
reading I was hooked. But I have to say this is partly because she hardly
seems like the stereotypical Nobel winner. The stereotype has many qualities
- noble, profound, impressive, intense, intellectual, opaque... but rarely
charming. And absolutely charming is what Szymborska is.

Its not twee charm, but something more. Its intelligence, and humour, and a
strong feminine sensibility and wisdom and humanity and all that, all of it
wrapped up and packaged with the lightest of hands, and in the most charming
of ways. Under One Small Star is a good example, but there is much more, and
well worth trying, Nobel or no Nobel.

General info:

In a poem titled "Big Numbers," Wislawa Szymborska writes that her
imagination doesn't cope well with big numbers./ It's still moved by
singularity." Indeed, throughout her career, she has kept her eye on
particulars: small creatures, overlooked objects, marginal characters,
everyday habits, neglected feelings. To each as well she brings an angled
perspective. It is the point of view of both a lonely skeptic and a canny
ironist; as it keeps a cloying sentimentality at bay, it encourages an
extraordinary detached sympathy with her subjects. "Take it not amiss, O
speech," she writes, "that I borrow weighty words/ and later try hard to
make them seem light." The light she makes is a sort of moral illumination,
shining back from details onto the inner lives of her readers. She has
published sparingly and writes with a careful precision. Her conceits are
elaborated with a  witty originality and spontaneity, and her work has been
immensely popular in Poland. Sine the age of eight, Wislawa Szymborska has
lived in Krakow. She graduated from the Jagellonian University, and she
began publishing in 1945. Although she has tried out political themes in her
poems, sometimes with a biting satirical force, her defense of the
individual - of "singularity" - draws on her unique powers of observation
rather than on any ideology. As an "unsurpassable model of the writer's
craft and a constant encouragement to transcend the obvious with thought,"
she has cited Montaigne's adage "See how many ends this stick has!"

        -- from The Vintage Book Of Contemporary World Poetry

30 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Rumaisa Aslam said...

To whom it may concern ,
Well i have gone through this poem which was amazing i m asking is there
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Heather Witham said...

This is my absolute favorite poem. Thanks for publicizing it further. :)


Brian Darsow said...

My brother quoted this poem to me a few days ago. He's really big into
international development and saving the world. He reads the poem as an
expression of the author's sincere apology that she cannot be everything to
everyone. He believes she is sad that she will never be able to do
everything she can to change our fallen world.

I, on the other hand, view the poem in a more ironic sense; I think the
author is showing (among other things) that she feels no guilt in finding
joy in a world of pain.

What do you think? Other interpretations?


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