Sunday, April 28, 2013

NPM: Wisława Szymborska doublet

Warsaw, 1969

Friends, readers, and crawlerbots: I am going to eat my shoes if you don't give me more frog poems. Actually -- would you feel more encouraged to give me frogs if I did eat my shoes? Fine, then: GIVE ME FROG POEMS AND I WILL EAT MY SHOES. And perhaps give you granola if I really like yours.

(They don't have to be poems, of course. Just read the rules to our game and give me a frog and give me a splash already.)


One good thing that came from my high school reunion was meeting for the first time in my adult life a former classmate named Angela. If memory serves, we regarded each other with a benign indifference throughout middle and high school, and I was thrilled to discover she had transformed into a literature geek since then. Not only was she familiar with Czesław Miłosz, she could pronounce his name! And even though she hadn't read anything by Bolesław Prus, she had heard of him -- the first American I've met who could say so. (Lest I sound snooty: I'd never heard of him either, not until my father sent me a copy of Lalka for Christmas.)

I've kept in occasional touch with her since then. Some weeks ago I dropped her a line soliciting recommendations for this year's (ongoing) National Poetry Month extravaganza. You see, I have a tendency to read (and, ergo, to write about) poetry written by dead white males, as I am myself a dead white male. I do not wish to overlook the ladies' contribution to the art, nor would I like for them to be underrepresented during our annual NPM festivities. Earlier today Angela got back to me with a short list; included was the name of Polish poet, Wisława Szymborska, surely added because she recalled me laboring to slur out "Miłosz" through a cloud of cheap bourbon.

So: two poems by Wisława Szymborska, of whose existence I was unaware until today. I hope you will be as glad to have learned about her as I am. (I will not attempt her last name, but her first name is probably pronounced something like "vis-wah-vah.")

A Film from the Sixties
Wisława Szymborska (1923 - 2012)
(trans. Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh)

This adult male. This person on earth.
Ten billion nerve cells. Ten pints of blood
pumped by ten ounces of heart.
This object took three billion years to emerge.

He first took the shape of a small boy.
The boy would lean his head on his aunt's knees.
Where is that boy. Where are those knees.
The little boy got big. Those were the days.
These mirrors are cruel and smooth as asphalt.
Yesterday he ran over a cat. Yes, not a bad idea.
The cat was saved from this age's hell.
A girl in a car checked him out.
No, her knees weren't what he's looking for.
Anyway he just wants to lie in the sand and breathe.
He has nothing in common with the world.
He feels like a handle broken off a jug,
but the jug doesn't know it's broken and keeps going to the well.
It's amazing. Someone's still willing to work.
The house gets built. The doorknob has been carved.
The tree is grafted. The circus will go on.
The whole won't go to pieces, although it's made of them.
Thick and heavy as glue sunt lacrimae rerum.
But all that's only background, incidental.
Within him, there's awful darkness, in the darkness a small boy.

God of humor, do something about him, okay?
God of humor, do something about him today.

Hitler's First Photograph

And who's this little fellow in his itty-bitty robe?
That's tiny baby Adolf, the Hitlers' little boy!
Will he grow up to be an LL.D.?
Or a tenor in Vienna's Opera House?
Whose teensy hand is this, whose little ear and eye and nose?
Whose tummy full of milk, we just don't know:
printer's, doctor's, merchant's, priest's?
Where will those tootsy-wootsies finally wander?
To garden, to school, to an office, to a bride,
maybe to the Burgermeister's daughter?

Precious little angel, mommy's sunshine, honeybun,
while he was being born a year ago,
there was no dearth of signs on the earth and in the sky:
spring sun, geraniums in windows,
the organ-grinder's music in the yard,
a lucky fortune wrapped in rosy paper,
then just before the labor his mother's fateful dream:
a dove seen in dream means joyful news,
if it is caught, a long-awaited guest will come.
Knock knock, who's there, it's Adolf's heartchen knocking.

A little pacifier, diaper, rattle, bib,
our bouncing boy, thank God and knock on wood, is well,
looks just like his folks, like a kitten in a basket,
like the tots in every other family album.
Shush, let's not start crying, sugar,
the camera will click from under that black hood.

The Klinger Atelier, Grabenstrasse, Braunau,
and Braunau is small but worthy town,
honest businesses, obliging neighbors,
smell of yeast dough, of gray soap.
No one hears howling dogs, or fate's footsteps.
A history teacher loosens his collar
and yawns over homework.


  1. Would it be hackish for me to liken that Hitler poem to Amanda Palmer's Dzokhar Tsarnaev poem?

    1. I don't want to sound judgmental.

      There you have it.