In the conclusion of his book, Vermeer in Bosnia, Lawrence Weschler writes about two of Wislawa Szymborska’s poems: “In Praise of Dreams” from 1986, and “Maybe All This” from 1993. From the first poem he notes that Szymborska wrote: “In my dream . . . I paint like Vermeer of Delft.” And in the second one, he speculates: “. . . the picture Szymborska’s words have in mind must be something very like Vermeer’s Lacemaker. How marvelously, at any rate, the poem helps elucidate the painting, and vice versa.”1 To my mind, this is one of the most important functions of the ekphrastic tradition.
In her collected work, Wislawa Szymborska provides us with several examples of this tradition. One especially is a diminutive poem, of only six lines describing a diminutive painting of a milkmaid by Vermeer. When this was written, the author was surely reflecting upon earlier wars and invasions in Europe, especially in her homeland of Poland. Today however, it has taken on a new and timely meaning related to the Ukraine.2
In earlier work, Szymborska takes a more generalized view through a museum, taking note of certain historic objects: an antique plate, a necklace, gloves and shoes, swords, and even a lute. She alludes to the scene without illustrating it.
In another poem she doesn’t literally show the ‘Tower of Babel’ as it was painted by Pieter Brueghel, but she does set up a dialogue between two of its inhabitants. There are two different type faces printed throughout this conversation: Italic for the first one, and ROMAN for the second. Although they are both placed together on the ensuing lines, they clearly do not communicate in any logical way. The speaking in different languages and at cross purposes has begun.3
In several other poems however, Szymborska takes a cue directly from the works of art. These include an ancient Greek sculptural fragment, and paintings by both Pieter Brueghel and Johannes Vermeer.
BRUEGHEL’S TWO MONKEYS
“This is what I see in my dreams about final exams:
two monkeys, chained to the floor, sit on the windowsill,
the sky behind them flutters,
the sea is taking its bath.
The exam is History of Mankind.
I stammer and hedge.
One monkey stares and listens with mocking disdain,
the other seems to be dreaming away—
but when it’s clear I don’t know what to say
he prompts me with a gentle
clinching of his chain.”4
“With the help of people and the other elements
time hasn’t done a bad job on it.
It first removed the nose, then the genitalia,
next, one by one, the toes and fingers,
over the years the arms, one after the other,
the left thigh, the right,
the shoulders, hips, head, and buttocks,
and whatever dropped off has since fallen to pieces,
to rubble, to gravel, to sand.
When someone living dies that way
blood flows at every blow.
But marble statues die white
and not always completely.
From the one under discussion only the torso lingers
and it’s like a breath held with great effort,
since now it must
all the grace and gravity of what was lost.
And it does,
for now it does,
it does and it dazzles,
it dazzles and endures—
Time likewise merits some applause here,
since it stopped work early,
and left some for later.”5
Perhaps works of art actually do survive, in one way or another, in one form or another, in order to remind us of what is important. They need not follow the dictates of ‘socialist realism’ nor the fashions of ‘post-modernism’ and so many other contemporary isms. What we end up experiencing is the persistence of each artist, their story and how they want to tell it, even if it ends up being only a fragment, or a whisper. The artist’s voice, carried through even in a fragment, is an antidote to the craziness of our world during these times.
“As long as that woman from the Rijksmuseum
in painted silence and concentration
keeps pouring milk day after day
from the jug to the bowl
the World hasn’t earned
the world’s end.”6
1 Weschler, Lawrence; Vermeer in Bosnia; Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, Inc.; New York, New York; 2004; p. 403.
2 Szymborska, Wiesława; Poems New and Collected 1957-1997; (Translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Baranczak); Harcourt Brace & Company; New York, San Diego, London; 1998; p. 30.
3 Szymborska, Wiesława; Poems New and Collected 1957-1997; (Translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Baranczak); Harcourt Brace & Company; New York, San Diego, London; 1998; p. 57.
4 Szymborska, Wiesława; Poems New and Collected 1957-1997; (Translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Baranczak); Harcourt Brace & Company; New York, San Diego, London; 1998; p. 15.
5 Szymborska, Wisława; Here; (Translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Baranczak); Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Boston, New York; 2010; p. 77.
6 Szymborska, Wisława; Here; (Translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Baranczak); Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Boston, New York; 2010; p. 55.