Friday, February 7, 2014

"Letters of the Dead" (Wislawa Szymborska)

Letters of the Dead
Wislawa Szymborska
Translated from the Polish by Vuyelwa Carlin

We read the letters of the dead like puzzled gods –
gods nevertheless, because we know what happened later.
We know what money wasn’t repaid,
the widows who rushed to remarry.
Poor, unseeing dead,
deceived, fallible, toiling in solemn foolery.
We see the signs made behind their backs,
catch the rustle of ripped-up wills.
They sit there before us, ridiculous
as things perched on buttered bread,
or fling themselves after whisked-away hats.
Their bad taste – Napoleon, steam and electricity,
deadly remedies for curable diseases,
the foolish apocalypse of St. John,
the false paradise on earth of Jean-Jacques . . .
Silently, we observe their pawns on the board
– but shifted three squares on.
Everything they foresaw has happened quite differently,
or a little differently – which is the same thing.
The most fervent stare trustingly into our eyes;
by their reckoning, they’ll see perfection there.

The Polish poet, essayist, and translator Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012) received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996. The Economist reported at the time of her death that her friends considered the speech a kind of curse: it was only the third she'd given in her lifetime, and she herself called it a "torture," and friends referred to it as the "Nobel disaster" since it was years afterward before Szymborska published another poem.  

When faced with the prospect of explaining what, exactly, it is the poet does, she responded in her lecture "The Poet and the World" that "I'm not very good at it. This is why my lecture will be rather short. All imperfection is easier to tolerate if served up in small doses."

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