Wislawa Szymborski--Polish


Wislawa Szymborska
(1923-    )


Awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996, translator and essayist.  Born in Bnin, Poland in 1923, her poetry books are revered in her native land, and have been translated into dozens of languages. During World War II, she continued her studies and worked as a railroad employee and managed to avoid being sent to Germany as a forced laborer. At this time she began illustrating English language textbooks in earnest.  She published her first poem, “Szukam slowa” (“I seek the word”), in 1945.  Her first book of poetry was published in 1949, but did not meet the specification of the Communist Party.  In these early years Szymborska kept close to the party line, but managed to leave the party in 1966.  In the years leading up to her leaving the party she intensified her opposition to the government. 


Nothing has changed.
The body is susceptible to pain,
it must eat and breathe air and sleep,
it has thin skin and blood right underneath,
an adequate stock of teeth and nails,
its bones are breakable, its joints are stretchable.
In tortures all this is taken into account.

Nothing has changed.
The body shudders as it shuddered
before the founding of Rome and after,
in the twentieth century before and after Christ.
Tortures are as they were, it's just the earth that's grown smaller,
and whatever happens seems right on the other side of the wall.

Nothing has changed. It's just that there are more people,
besides the old offenses new ones have appeared,
real, imaginary, temporary, and none,
but the howl with which the body responds to them,
was, is and ever will be a howl of innocence
according to the time-honored scale and tonality.

Nothing has changed. Maybe just the manners, ceremonies, dances.
Yet the movement of the hands in protecting the head is the same.
The body writhes, jerks and tries to pull away,
its legs give out, it falls, the knees fly up,
it turns blue, swells, salivates and bleeds.

Nothing has changed. Except for the course of boundaries,
the line of forests, coasts, deserts and glaciers.
Amid these landscapes traipses the soul,
disappears, comes back, draws nearer, moves away,
alien to itself, elusive, at times certain, at others uncertain of its own existence,
while the body is and is and is
and has no place of its own.


Once We Knew...

Once we knew the world well.
It was so small it could fit in a handshake,
so easy you could describe it with a smile,
it was ordinary as old truths in a prayer.

History did not welcome us with fanfares.
It threw filthy dust into our eyes.
Before us only dead-end roads,
poisoned wells, bitter bread.

Our war's booty is knowledge of the world.
It is so large it can fit in a handshake.
so difficult you can describe it with a smile,
it is extraordinary as old truths in a prayer.




In sealed box cars travel
names across the land,
and how far they will travel so,
and will they ever get out,
don't ask, I won't say, I don't know.

The name Nathan strikes fist against wall,
the name Isaac, demented, sings,
the name Sarah calls out for water
for the name Aaron that's dying of thirst.

Don't jump while it's moving, name David.
You're a name that dooms to defeat,
given to no one, and homeless,
too heavy to bear in this land.

Let your son have a Slavic name,
for here they count hairs on the head,
for here they tell good from evil
by names and by eyelids' shape.

Don't jump while it's moving. Your son will be Lech.
Don't jump while it's moving. Not time yet.
Don't jump. The night echoes like laughter
mocking clatter of wheels upon tracks.

A cloud made of people moved over the land,
a big cloud gives a small rain, one tear,
a small rain-one tear, a dry season.
Tracks lead off into black forest.

Cor-rect, cor-rect clicks the wheel. Gladless forest.
Cor-rect, cor-rect. Through the forest a convoy of clamors.
Cor-rect, cor-rect. Awakened in the night I hear
cor-rect, cor-rect, crash of silence on silence.


Translated from Polish by Magnus J. Krynski