Blog Post

She Was. She Passed.

In 2009, I visited Kraków for the first time.  One day I bought a book by Wysława Symborska (1923-2012) and carried it around with me for a few hours.  Everywhere I went people stopped me to ask what I thought about her poetry.  I spoke at length with a hotel clerk and a grandmother on a bench in a park. I can't imagine anything similar happening in the United States.

In 1996 Szymborska became only the ninth woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. That puts her in an elite subset of an already quite exclusive group of writers. When I heard that she had passed away on February first, I expected that she would receive star treatment from media outlets around the globe, from Rzeczpospolita to the New York Times

I did not expect to find Facebook posts by Polish speakers saying horrible things such as "Good riddance!" Szymborska was a member of PZPR (the Polish United Workers' Party) from 1952 to 1966, and her first two collections of verse quite literally followed the party line and sang the praises of Lenin and Stalin. She later repudiated this early phase in her career, but apparently she did not do so forcefully or directly or abjectly enough to satisfy everyone in her homeland or in the Polish diaspora.

Szymborska's books were always short. The last book published while she was alive, Tutaj [Here] (2009), contains nineteen poems and is just over forty pages long.  Its final poem, "Metafisyka," is valedictory in a way that now sounds prescient. You can find different translations here and there around the Web; the definitive one is probably by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Barańczak, and you can find it readily on Google Books.  Here's my own:

Metafisyka

Było, minęło.
Było, więc minęło.
W nieodwracalnej zawsze kolejności,
bo taka jest reguła tej przegranej gry.
Wniosek banalny, nie wart już pisania,
gdyby nie fakt bezsporny,
fakt na wieki wieków,
na cały kosmos, jaki jest i będzie,
że coś naprawdę było,
póki nie minęlo,
nawet to,
że dziś jadłeś kluski ze skwarkami.


Metaphysics

It was. It passed.
It was, so it passed.
In an always irreversible order,
because that's the rule in this loser's game.
A banal proposition, hardly worth writing,
except it's an incontrovertible fact,
a fact forever and ever,
throughout the cosmos, as it was and will be,
that something truly was,
until it passed,
even that
today you ate dumplings with bacon.

In the final line of their version of "Metafisyka," Cavanagh and Barańczak translate kluski ze skwarkami (potato dumplings topped with fried pieces of bacon) as "a side of fries." They replace an example of staropolska kuchnia (old-fashioned Polish cuisine) with a dish that will presumably be comparably familiar and mundane for an American audience. But in the process they also McDonaldize the poem.

I would argue that Szymborska's choice of food is necessarily idiosyncratic and personal.  For instance, she didn't choose bigos (sauerkraut stew), barszcz czerwony (beet soup), pierogi ruskie (potato- and cheese-filled dumplings), or any of the other stereotypically Polish dishes that you'll find in every touristy restaurant in Kraków, Gdańsk, Poznań, and Warsaw. She chose a humble dish that isn't quite a generic colorless McSideDish.

Yes, Szymborska probably thought of kluski ze skwarkami as comfort food, and she might have associated it with home, childhood, or a particular location. But we don't know and can't know for sure. She's left us with evidence of a selection made, of a stray preference for this kind of meal over that, but the mind and the heart that lie behind and inform that decision have "passed," irrecoverably and incontrovertibly."That's the rule."

Brian Reed's picture
Professor of English
Brian Reed is Chair of English and Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Cinema, and Media at the University of Washington, Seattle. He is the author of three books--Hart Crane: After His Lights (2006), Phenomenal Reading: Essays on Modern and Contemporary Poetics (2012), and Nobody's Business: Twenty-First Century Avant-Garde Poetics (2013)--and the co-editor of two essay collections, Situating El Lissitzky: Vitebsk, Berlin, Moscow (2003) and Modern American Poetry: Points of Access (2013). A new book, A Mine of Intersections: Writing the History of Contemporary American Poetry, is forthcoming in 2016.