In one of her late poems, Wislawa Szymborska is describing 9/11, seen through the image of a man falling from the bombed twin towers in New York. His hair is still not out of place, the change from his pocket still not falling. We know what happens to the person, but we don’t see it. She punctuates that moment in the air, in life, in a leap into nothingness with a possible chance. And the impossibility of it all. She leaves the said unsaid, finishing the poem with:

I can do only two things for them—
describe this flight
and not add a last line.

(Photograph from September 11)

Even in translations Szymborska (1923-2012) does not get lost. She writes about Nazi history in ‘The Hunger Camp As Jaslo’

Write it. Write. In ordinary ink
on ordinary paper: they were given no food,
they all died of hunger. “All. How many?
It’s a big meadow. How much grass
for each one?” Write: I don’t know.
History counts its skeletons in round numbers.
A thousand and one remains a thousand,
as though the one had never existed:
an imaginary embryo, an empty cradle,
an ABC never read,
air that laughs, cries, grows,
emptiness running down steps towards the garden,
nobody’s place in the line.

Festive offer

Possibly, Szymborska’s most powerful post-war poem is “The End and the Beginning,” a stark and unflinching portrayal of the aftermath of war. The poem describes the mundane tasks of cleaning up the debris and rebuilding after a conflict, highlighting the contrast between the grand rhetoric of war and the grim reality of its consequences. The poem’s opening lines, “After every war / someone has to clean up,” serve as a reminder of the human cost of violence and the enduring legacy of trauma. She writes in it, ‘Photogenic it’s not /and takes years./ All the cameras have left/ for another war.’

We are still watching wars, hostilities, genocide and human suffering. Her keen eye for details, of what matters, of what is of consequence makes apparent the importance of them all. Her themes are enduring, from something as ordinary as a cat or a tablecloth. Szymborska, who would have turned 100 last year, brought a new language of saying all things human in a startlingly different way. Her approach, her ideas, her craft and the stunned silence she leaves us with upon reading her work, make her appear familiar even though she wrote in Polish and we read her in translation across continents and time.

Nations’ borders are barely visible as if they wavered—to be or not.
I like maps, because they lie.
Because they give no access to the vicious truth.
Because great-heartedly, good-naturedly they spread before me a world not of this world.

(From Map)

That she continues to remain relevant in the times we live in makes her poetry all the more revealing. Szymborska’s poetry was deeply influenced by her experiences of living in post-war Poland. She witnessed first-hand the devastation and trauma of World War II, as well as the political repression and social unrest that followed. Her poems often grapple with themes of loss, memory, and the fragility of human existence.

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 every second.
My apologies to past loves for thinking that the latest is the first.
Forgive me, distant wars, for bringing flowers home.

(From Under one small star)

Szymborska’s poetry is a testament to the power of language to illuminate the human experience. Her poems, with their wit, wonder, and profound insights, continue to resonate with readers around the world for their timeless themes of love, loss, memory, and the search for meaning in a complex and often chaotic world.

In a world that often seems overwhelming and confusing, Szymborska’s poetry offers a moment of respite, a chance to pause and reflect on the beauty and mystery of life. Her poems remind us that even in the midst of darkness and despair, there is always the possibility of hope, joy, and wonder.

That she will try to be scientific and statistical about all things romantic makes her witty and commonsensical at one level, and philosophical and profound on the other:

Nothing can ever happen twice.
In consequence, the sorry fact is
that we arrive here improvised
and leave without the chance to practice.

(From Nothing Twice)

She takes the readers by surprise by her use of unexpected juxtapositions and startling imagery. She seamlessly blends the mundane with the profound, the humorous with the serious, creating a sense of surprise and delight. Her poems often challenge conventional ways of thinking, prompting us to reconsider our assumptions about the world and our place in it.

Szymborska’s language is deceptively simple, yet it is infused with a rich tapestry of meanings and allusions. We don’t find excessive ornamentation and sentimentality, instead, a direct and unpretentious style that allows her ideas to shine through. Her poems are accessible to readers of all backgrounds, yet they offer layers of meaning that can be explored and appreciated on multiple levels. She captures with ease the fleeting moments of beauty and wonder that often go unnoticed in the rush of daily life, inviting readers to pause and appreciate the ordinary.

There were doorknobs and doorbells
where one touch had covered another

Suitcases checked and standing side by side.
One night, perhaps, the same dream,
grown hazy by morning.

(From Love at first sight)

Szymborska’s poetic craft is marked by its remarkable precision and economy of language. Her poems often begin with seemingly trivial observations or everyday scenarios, only to gradually unfold into deeper reflections on life’s mysteries and paradoxes. In a world that often seems overwhelming and confusing, Szymborska’s poetry offers a moment of respite, a chance to pause and reflect on the beauty and mystery of life. Her poems remind us that even in the midst of darkness and despair, there is always the possibility of hope, joy, and wonder.

Her legacy is celebrated through numerous events and publications. 2023 was declared the “Year of Wisława Szymborska” to commemorate the 100th anniversary of her birth. Her Nobel citation 1996 calls her ‘Mozart of poetry’. In her Nobel lecture she says, ‘Granted, in daily speech, where we don’t stop to consider every word, we all use phrases like “the ordinary world,” “ordinary life,” “the ordinary course of events” … But in the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone’s existence in this world.’

She remains a patron saint of poetry for many of us and would continue to. July 2 is her birthday.

The writer is a poet and translator