Wislawa Szymborska

February is also my birthday month which arrives this year on the cusp of the seventh decade of a long and eventful life. I found a poem for the occasion which resonates on many levels:


I’ll never find out now

What A thought of me.

If B.ever forgave me in the end.

Why C. pretended everything was fine.

What part D. played in E’s silence.

What F. had been expecting, if anything.

Why G. forgot when she knew perfectly well.

What H. had to hide.

If my being around

meant anything

to J. and K. and the rest of the alphabet.

This was written by Polish poet Wislawa Szmborska ( 1923-2012) who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996. She died in her home in Krakow at the age of eighty-eight. An anthology of her work has been translated into English by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh as View With a Grain of Sand. ABC was first published in a December issue of The New Yorker in 2004. The poem caught the attention of Dana Stevens (“The Poem Above My Desk”, www.slate.com,2012/02/03) who was drawn to the poem’s simplicity and complexity with the play of alphabet letters as a wistful meditation on the infinite and unresolved stories within each of our lives. Upon hearing of the poet’s passing, Katha Pollitt wrote “ …Szymborska’s signature quality is the way she puts tragedy and comedy, the unique and the banal, the big and the little, the remembering and the forgetting right next to each other and shows us that this is what life is:

After every war

someone has to tidy up.

Things won’t pick

themselves up, after all.

Someone has to shove

the rubble to the roadsides

so the carts loaded with corpses

can get by.

( “The End and the Beginning)

Szymborska’s most serious themes of history and its many horrors, passage of time, love and loss often co-exist with a wry ironic twist. She lived through appalling occupations by the Nazis and then decades of Soviet Stalinist communism. After a short “socialist realist” phase of her youth, she withdrew any interest in grand political schemes in favor of irony, wit and the individual. For Szymborska, it is the one who matters, transient, blind, foolish – plaything of chance – still also urgent , insistent and full of its own meaning –alive. (Katha Pollitt: www.thenation.com).

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