There is a stark difference between the universal and the cultural, the true and the rational, and voice and language. In The End and the Beginning, as in her other works, Wislawa Szymborska floats through the universe. She enters space— a place without borders—and leaves the spatial, where implied borders are essential. She is always attached to the earth by a thread, though, no matter how far she travels. Szymborska can only temporarily defy gravity, you see. She must land back on earth and leave space if she is to survive.
Szymborska’s poetry shoots off from the bordered earth, through the layered atmosphere and towards the borderless space. For Czeslaw Milosz, Szymborska’s poetry crosses borders and binaric divisions. He writes, “Poetry that speaks to the enduring and irreversible coordinates of human fate—love, striving, fear of pain, hope, the fleeting nature of things and death—leads us to believe that the poet is one of us and shares in that fate. ‘We,’ the subject of such poetry, is determined neither by nation nor by class… It is a serious and bold enterprise to venture a diagnosis, that is, to try to say who we are, what we believe in, and what we think.”
Poetry, perhaps more than other genre of literature, contains a prophetic essence: as inspired by the muse, as a dialogue with God, ideas that reach back to Homer and Hesiod and Plato, who claims that the poet is possessed by the supernatural. According to Socrates, poets only speak and reveal natural truths but do not know the truths that they speak of. They become the medium of truths and not their creators. The idea of prophetic inspiration seems quaint in the present scenario, particularly so because we live in a world that quantifies, verifies, and rationalizes.
The moment that knowledge dawns, poetry ceases to be, much like Cinderella’s robes. Szymborska writes, “Poetry— / But what is poetry anyway / more than one rickety answer / has tumbled since the question was first raised. / But I just keep on not knowing, and I cling to that / like a redemptive handrail.” One keeps writing as long as one does not know because writing is an illusion of knowledge and all poetry is an essay at knowledge, or at least at dispelling ignorance.
Not knowing becomes redemptive for the author, because the idea of not knowing is the beginning of “moksha,” release from the cycle of pain and existence. While for Buddha, salvation began with incomplete knowledge and meditation brings comprehension, Szymborska walks the same path, only her way to knowledge is writing. In “Sky,” Szymborska envisions a window without frames: “It should have begun with this the sky. / A window minus sill, frame, and panes. / An aperture, nothing more, / but wide open /…. Divisions into sky and earth— / it’s not the proper way / to contemplate this wholeness. / It simply lets me go on living / at a more exact address / where I can be reached promptly / if I’m sought / My identifying features / are rapture and despair.”
It is as if the universe narrates to her its secret code and waits for her and us to decipher it. Szymborska finds a design in the madness of life, though her design is limited because it is cultural, and its codes are human. But Szymborska seems to understand this inadequacy, and the inadequacy too of her modes of comprehension. Frances Padorr Brent observes in a book review:
In Szymborska’s work, there is hesitancy and modesty– perhaps a matter of personality– an emphasis on the difficulty of telling the truth, to get it right, to thread one’s way through a maze of official half-truths. In post-war Poland, which had lost more than 6,000,000 people to the Germans, it was not permissible to speak directly about the 2,000,000 Jews who died at Auschwitz or the different segments of the Polish society. The encounter with communism, which the Polish critic Jan Kott, calls the “serpent’s sting,” insinuated itself into Polish art, leaving a hole of silence, representing what was sometimes compromised, sometimes excised.
On the one hand there is a linguistic shortfall in the modes of universal comprehension, on the other there is a silence in culture. Ironically this does not count as an inadequacy for Szymborska. She considers it a boon:
We’re extremely fortunate
not to know precisely
the kind of world we live in.
One would have
to live a long, long time,
than the world itself.
Get to know other worlds,
if only for comparison.
Rise above the flesh,
which only really knows
how to obstruct
and make trouble.
Lacan says in a lecture, if we knew that we would live forever, life would be unbearable: “Death belongs to the realm of faith. You are right to believe that you will die. It sustains you. If you didn’t believe it, could you bear the life you have? If we couldn’t totally rely on the certainty that it will end how could you bear all this? Nevertheless, it is only an act of faith and the worst thing about it is that you are not sure.” Szymborska, like Lacan, relishes her mortality and brings all humans to the same level.
In “No Title Required,” Szymborska questions whether there is actually a difference between the important and the unimportant, flattening the hierarchical distinction. There is neither a god of small things, nor a god of big things because in nature there is nothing significant or insignificant. If God is omnipresent, there ought to be no insignificancies. All is happenstance, as Szymborska writes in her poem, “Séance:”
Happenstance looks deep into our eyes.
Our head grows heavy.
Our eyelids drop.
We want to laugh and cry,
it’s so incredible
[…] It has to mean something.
To hell and back,
and here we meet halfway home.
[…] And for a moment we are filled with joy,
radiant and deceptive.
Szymborska has an extraordinary take on the ordinary itself, distinguishing between the reality of things as they are perceived and the “executant” reality of what they really are. Understanding the world is like translation; something is always lost. Translation is in fact always already happening around us: all speech is a kind of translation and all writing is another translation—the only authenticity is the unconscious that initiates human behavior. Szymborska focuses on the outside to delve within, rather than the other way round. For her, the path to the interiority of the spirit is through the exteriority of the universe. She breaks down the universe into its constituent objects to find access to that spirit, which is the proper role of a prophet. In this sense, the author moves in a direction opposite to that of God, and cannot understand the workings of God as a result. This may be the root of her dejection in these poems. She can begin to disassemble, but there is always more to disassemble.
This is hope. This is the extension and also the limit of her prophecy.
Mohineet Kaur Boparai has completed her PhD from the Department of English, Punjabi University, Patiala in India. Her research interests include issues of subalternity and agency. She has published four books of poetry and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize twice. Her poetry has appeared in several journals and anthologies. Zymbol magazine named her India’s Rising Star in an interview. She is 32 and lives at Moga in India.