The Birdcage Archives

Tuesday 2 February 2016

Remembering Wisława Szymborska

Hello Gentle Reader

While watching Downton Abbey last night, I struck by the peculiar thought – I have my own Gladys Denker at my own work! Yes a Denker; the cunning, astute, and even a bit shrewd creature. Though perhaps referring to this co-worker as a Denker is a bigger compliment then it is a genuine realization or even insulting. Denker is not a character of many admirable traits or qualities. She manipulates Andrew Parker into spending his money, so she can drink at “The Velvet Violin,” at his expense; though thankfully the equally cunning and charming (if albeit sarcastic manner) Thomas Barrow rescues Andrew from another fateful night of Denker drinking on his penny. Yes, that does sound similar to a co-worker of mine; though Denker (as her name suggests – is a thinker) where my co-worker is nothing more than a window dresser of her work, and sloppy on who she steps on to achieve something substance via her perception. If only my work had a Violet Crawley and a Spratt, perhaps this would all be more entertaining; but for now it’s not.

Wisława Szymborska has also immortalized this individual, in one of her poems: “Old Folks Home,” which displays the poets grace, humour, irony, and often keen sense of the human condition.

“Old Folks’ Home,”
                         By – Wisława Szymborska

Here comes Her Highness—well you know who I mean,
our Helen the snooty—now who made her queen!
With her lipstick and wig on, as we could care,
like her three sons in Heaven, can see her from there!

“I wouldn’t be here if they’d lived through the war.
I’d spend winter with one son, summer with another.”
What makes her so sure?
I’d be dead too now, with her for a mother.

And she keeps on asking (“I don’t mean to pry”)
why from your sons and daughters there’s never a word
even though they weren’t killed. “If my boys were alive,
I’d spend all my holidays home with the third.”

Right, and in his gold carriage he’d come get her,
drawn by a swan or a lily-white dove,
to show all of us that he’ll never forget her
and how much he owes to her motherly love.

Even Jane herself, the nurse, can’t help but grin
when our Helen starts singing this old song again—
even though Jane’s job is commiseration
Monday through Friday with two weeks’ vacation.

I’ve never been much of a individual for poetry; an obscure and oblique literary form as far as I was concerned for many years. The structure of lines made no sense at all; and though at times its use of language was pertinent and often was capable of metaphorically giving voice to emotional thoughts and ideas, it was at the end of day, still a form that existed beyond my own comprehension. Reading an Elizabethan sonnet or an Italian sonnet, was equivalent to torture. Poetry it seemed had been reserved for poets, and other poets – cryptic creatures, that corresponded via these odd landscapes captured in words, and emotional revelations.

Enter Wisława Szymborska; specifically her poem “Cat in an Empty Apartment.” The poem itself tackled the theme of death, but domesticated it, and was written via the perspective of a cat, who views its absent owner as negligent and neglectful in their care and duty of it. The poem makes light of a dark theme, but also discusses the concept of death, with a fresh perspective, and gentle way. The poem itself, from my understanding is learned by school children and recited often by them.

Wisława Szymborska was a quiet and modest giant of poetry and literature. She wrote it is estimated only three-hundred and fifty poems, and yet still achieved the Nobel Prize for Literature in nineteen ninety-six. However the Nobel was often referred to as the “Nobel Disaster,” (or the "Stockholm Tragedy) as with its announcement, the quiet poet, was soon sprung into a limelight that brought unwanted attention. Request for interviews, call of congenial congratulations poured in, and the telephone never ceased ringing. Then of course there was the incident at Stockholm itself. Being the year’s Nobel Laureate in Literature, Szymborska was put up in one of the most luxurious suites in the hotel; and as the story goes, she was a kind woman who lived a modest and simple life, in Krakow, in an apartment, which had been christened “The Drawer,” by close and dear friends; in the suite of this hotel however, Szymborska found herself sleeping in the bath tub, because she could not figure out how to work the light switches. During her time in Stockholm she delivered one of the shortest acceptance speeches, which was filled her humour and gracious gratitude to the Swedish Academy. The affair would soon end, but for Szymborska, her life had been changed from that point on.

The Nobel shockwave continued to ripple through her life, and she soon hired a secretary to assist with the management of her affairs. His first job: stop the phone from ringing; though the position was planned as temporary, her assistant Michał Rusinek, and the poet had become close friends, but professional nonetheless.

Szymborska was profound, accessible, humorous all wrapped up in her earthly poetry with a penchant for understatement. She was a quiet giant of literature, who passed away on February 1st, 2012, was dearly mourned and missed by not only the Polish public but by those who had come into contact with the poet. Her love of kitschy objects befits her personality; her misplacement of her Nobel medal in her drawer of an apartment; her love of creating her own postcards showcasing her humour – they each describe Szymborska, the modest, shy, quiet giant of poetry who has reshaped poetry as not a literary form locked away in the ivory tower, but a lively, earthly conversation about all the aspects of what it means to be human.

Rest In Peace Szymborska. To this day, your poetry is a bed time reading for me. When I have a bad day, I turn to you. When I require a thought to mull, I read you. When I need comforting, I long for you. Because of you, I have learned to have a greater appreciation for drawers, and their capacity to hold, treasure, and keep; and for that I smile for you.

Life is sometimes bearable My Dear Szymborska, and at times only with you.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary

P.S. Now if only I could get my hands on the two documentaries of Szymborska herself. But for now her books certainly do.

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