The Silver Lining

Today I wanted to honor the voice of a woman. Her voice was often a quiet nudge, a gentle poke of irony, a song heard by few at first. Later — to her surprise and apparent unease — someone caught wind of that voice and gave her a Nobel Prize. And she went on with her poems.

For those unfamiliar with poetry  or with Nobel Laureates or Polish literature, the name Wislawa Szymborska might ring strange in your ears. Born in 1923, Pani Wislawa spent most of her life in Krakow — the same beloved city where I lived for a year and a half — where she wrote, studied in underground classes when the Nazis invaded her home, and eventually she had her first poems published there. She also spent time with other notable Polish writers like Czeslaw Milosz and studied sociology at the Jagiellonian University.

I first discovered her poetry while I studied at that same university. Her poems are quiet and often unobtrusive. They have a depth in their clarity. Even when they turn to grit and palpable anger, they wrap themselves in truth and perspective. I bought a book of her poetry, and I first read them in Polish. I stumbled over the nuance at times and over words more often, but the cadence and rhythm of her language is unmistakable. Pani Wislawa Szymborska passed away this week. As I know most of you don’t speak Polish, I’ll share a couple of them with you in English.

Wislawa Szymborska, Dwukropek

The End and the Beginning

After every war
someone has to clean up.
Things won’t
straighten themselves up, after all.

Someone has to push the rubble
to the sides of the road,
so the corpse-laden wagons
can pass.

Someone has to get mired
in scum and ashes,
sofa springs,
splintered glass,
and bloody rags.

Someone must drag in a girder
to prop up a wall,
Someone must glaze a window,
rehang a door.

Photogenic it’s not,
and takes years.
All the cameras have left
for another war.

Again we’ll need bridges
and new railway stations.
Sleeves will go ragged
from rolling them up.

Someone, broom in hand,
still recalls how it was.
Someone listens
and nods with unsevered head.
Yet others milling about
already find it dull.

From behind the bush
sometimes someone still unearths
rust-eaten arguments
and carries them to the garbage pile.

Those who knew
what was going on here
must give way to
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.

In the grass which has overgrown
reasons and causes,
someone must be stretched out
blade of grass in his mouth
gazing at the clouds.



They say he read novels to relax,
But only certain kinds:
nothing that ended unhappily.
If anything like that turned up,
enraged, he flung the book into the fire.

True or not,
I’m ready to believe it.

Scanning in his mind so many times and places,
he’d had enough of dying species,
the triumphs of the strong over the weak,
the endless struggles to survive,
all doomed sooner or later.
He’d earned the right to happy endings,
at least in fiction
with its diminutions.

Hence the indispensable
silver lining,
the lovers reunited, the families reconciled,
the doubts dispelled, fidelity rewarded,
fortunes regained, treasures uncovered,
stiff-necked neighbors mending their ways,
good names restored, greed daunted,
old maids married off to worthy parsons,
troublemakers banished to other hemispheres,
forgers of documents tossed down the stairs,
seducers scurrying to the altar,
orphans sheltered, widows comforted,
pride humbled, wounds healed over,
prodigal sons summoned home,
cups of sorrow thrown into the ocean,
hankies drenched with tears of reconciliation,
general merriment and celebration,
and the dog Fido,
gone astray in the first chapter,
turns up barking gladly
in the last.
Pani Wislawa Szymborska, niech pani miewa spokoj bez konca. Dziekujemy pani za wiele poezji, za slowa, i za pani zycie. 
(Ms. Wislawa Szymborska, may you have everlasting peace. Thank you for your poems, your words, and your life.)
It may seem silly, but I’d like to add Wislawa Szymborska as an honorary member of the Friday Fellows. She was the first Polish poet to capture me, and the first poet in a long time to do so at all.
How has poetry shaped your development as a person? As a writer? As a reader?

About Emmie Mears

Saving the world from brooding, one self-actualized vampire at a time.

Posted on February 3, 2012, in friday fellows and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. I hadn’t heard of her until she passed. But I have heard many writers talk about her. I am going to look her up and check out her work. Great post!

    • Thanks, Maggie! And thanks awfully for subscribing! 😀

      She’s definitely one of the great poets of the 20th century, and I’m quite sad to hear of her passing. At least she had a long life.

  2. Interesting. I had never heard of her until this post, and will have to read more of her poetry. Thanks for sharing this, Emmie.

  3. A beautiful nod to an amazing woman, Emmie.

    And poetry has meant everything to me. My diary is written in poems. As a musician, this is one of my favorite reviews: “Slide guitar and aggressive drums take the back seat to Lisa Hayes and her soul-searching brand of musical poetry.”

    I will definitely check Wislawa out – and thank you so much sharing.

  4. Consolation was stunning. Thanks for bringing her to my attention. I will have to look for a book of her poems. I think it would be a nice addition beside Pablo Neruda and Emily Dickinson.

  5. Thank you for posting this. My mother used to tell me about her and recite her poems but I forgot her name…
    I also lived in Krakow for about a year! What a beautiful, beautiful city!

  6. Thanks for sharing her beautiful poetry. I’d never heard of her but it is very touching.

  7. Thanks for sharing. I love the way her voice sounds in my head. The poetry is accessible yet deeply meaningful. I will read more from her and appreciate your bringing her to my attention. A lovely tribute.

  8. Emmie, Thank you so much for posting your thoughts (feelings) about Wislawa Szymborska. I searched online and have read a fraction of her poems. What a rare soul. Such beautiful, stirring words. I dare anyone to speak so simply and yet so deep.

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