WISLAWA SZYMBORSKA: THREE POEMS

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

Pieter Brueghel
“Two Monkeys”
1562
Oil on wooden panel
20cm x 23cm
Gemaldegalerie, Berlin, Germany

GREEK STATUE

“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
draw
to itself
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

“The Gaddi Torso”
1st Century BC.
Marble
84cm high
The Uffizi Galleries, Florence, Italy

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.

Johannes Vermeer
“The Milkmaid”
1658-1660
Oil on canvas
17 7/8” x 16”
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam,
The Netherlands.

VERMEER

“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.

THE FLIGHT OF ICARUS!

matisse
Henri Matisse
“The Fall of Icarus”
1943
Gouache on paper cut out, collaged on canvas
35 x 26.5 cm
Private Collection

“‘I warn you,’ Daedalus had said, ‘not to fly so low that the mist or fog weighs down your wings, nor so high that the sun scorches you:  fly between the two!  Avoid too much heat and too much damp, too much dryness and too much cold.  Keep to the center of their wheel.  Don’t look at Bootes or Helice, or at Orion’s drawn sword.  Take me as your guide and follow!”

“But Icarus grows excited.  He forgets the advice.  Soon he masters the beating of his wings and swoops in wide, playful circles above the sea.  Does Minos see him laughing and dancing on the invisible crest of the world?  Like a swimmer, turning his back on the cries from shore, he is already far at sea.  He has tired of following his father’s shoulders, his snowy wings and shock of hair.  He enters into glory as into a garden, a garden of flames that surrounds him; and he breathes in.  ‘O Sun!  Father!’ he cries to the encircling fire.  Once more he kicks on the wind!  Again he beats his wings on the torrid wave of the wind!  Once more he thrusts up into the light!”[i]

We know of course, how this is going to end:  wings and wax melting, bursting into flames, and finally falling into the sea below.  Deadalus, the great engineer and inventor, who had constructed these devices for himself and his son, Icarus, had been imprisoned by King Minos in the very dungeon he had constructed for the Minitaur on orders from this king.

The excitement and enthusiasm of this young man overshadowed the warnings of his father, to stay the course.  It is an ancient moral tale from Ovid that has fascinated many generations of painters and poets:  from Pieter Breughel (both the Elder and the Younger) to Henri Matisse and from William Carlos Williams to Claude-Henri Rocquet.

Many years ago, in literature and composition classes in Baltimore we were  exposed to both classic and contemporary writers, especially Allen Ginsberg and Denise Levertov, Ed Sanders and Susan Sontag.  Ezra Pound, T. S. Elliot, Dylan Thomas and Marianne Moore were always mentioned as well, but William Carlos Williams was often sited only as a footnote.  Sometimes at night I would hit the library and find the new (at the time) two volume edition of Williams’ Collected Poems on the reserve shelf.  I read through the entire collection several times that semester.

I have read that Williams himself was aware of and frustrated by the lack of greater recognition his work was afforded at that time.  He continued to write nonetheless, and his last collection, “Pictures from Breughel” proved beyond a doubt his importance.  Three months after his death, Williams was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for this collection.  His deep seeing, attention to detail and sensitivity towards Breughel’s work have continued to influence many younger painters and poets.

II    LANDSCAPE WITH THE FALL OF ICARUS

“According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling
near

the edge of the sea
concerned
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings’ wax

unsignificantly
off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning”[ii]

matisse2
Pieter Bruegel
“La chute d’Icare”
Oil on panel
1562-1563
73.5 x 112 cm
Musee Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels

 


[i] Rocquet, Claude-Henri; Bruegel or the Workshop of Dreams; The University of Chicago Press; Chicago and London; 1991.  (p. 122).

[ii] Williams, William Carlos; “Landscape With the Fall of Icarus,” Pictures from Breughel; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1962; p. 4.