Almost all my letters the other day began this way: I am not sure of the geography of things—

Some friends I haven’t written in awhile. Their previous letters I haven’t yet answered. I said: this is a letter I must write right now. I needed to write it.

Apparently I am the person who stays up at past four in the morning, making a sandwich, barefoot in the kitchen, listening to the news.

When did I become her? When the planes hit the towers? When the floods kept coming, submerging towns, washing away houses? When earthquakes moved local governments to issue tsunami warnings? When someone went on a shooting rampage on an island? When an active pursuit for two bombers becomes a manhunt that put a city under lockdown?

My letters were uncertain. Sometimes embarrassed. While I was writing I was telling myself what a complete fool I must sound like. I am a thousand miles away. How can I possibly care? And why would I?

But I needed to ask: Are you okay? Are you safe?

Death and loss and grief. And all that blood.

Days pass and it will be all I can think of, all I can feel: the weight of that. On my chest. Here. To feel the heart beating, and to feel the weight upon it, the terrible, inescapable weight of the empty space where something beautiful once was.

To think of what I have, and what was lost.

How indulgent, sneers another self. This is the kind of navel-gazing that nobody wants to hear.

Because elsewhere, the world turns. Elsewhere, more deaths. Elsewhere, everything you want me to turn my gaze to because don’t they deserve my attention, too?

There is always someone dying.

An acquaintance ripped off an air conditioner from the wall. He and his family then climbed out of that tiny hole, onto the roof, and waited until help came, shivering under the rain. Elsewhere there’s a baby being carried in a bucket. Elsewhere water bottles were being used as rafts. Elsewhere another family was being swept in the flood, passing under a bridge, and afterward you see the roof of their house floating, with no people on top of them.

I watched my grandfather breathed his last and I didn’t demand the rain. I stood under a staircase, in a dark corner, and buried my face in my hands. Then I walked around the hospital, chased doctors, and asked for them to sign the forms, my voice trembling, my cheeks wet. Elsewhere someone is buried alive and starts to decompose. Elsewhere journalists are slain, caught in the middle of a clan war. Elsewhere people walk home with ashes in their hair.

There is always someone dying.

In a particular letter, I wrote: I keep thinking how close it is to where you live, how it could’ve easily been you. How dangerous the world is. How nobody is really that safe. How, at any given day, it could’ve been me, in a wrong time, at a wrong place.

In another: I thought of you precisely because you loved to run.

In another: I just had to check.

I said, I’ve been watching the news. I said, It’s all horrifying.

I said, I wish we aren’t vulnerable to violence or terror.

It is painful, to be made aware, and to realise again and again how life is fleeting, how it is all borrowed. It also cuts deeper to know that sometimes it is we who make it so—people make it so.

There is always someone dying. And yet every day is a chance to live. I risk a cliche, but it’s the truth, isn’t it.

Every day reality demands that we must live.

Each letter ends with: I’m glad you weren’t there. Though I hurt for all the people who were there.

I hurt, and this is all I can write—what I needed to write. Perhaps someone else can say it better. This— life— the world— it is “perhaps worthy of a better poet,” as Szymborska said in another poem.

Perhaps this is a letter, too.

Reality Demands
Wisława Szymborska
Translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

Reality demands
that we also mention this:
Life goes on.
It continues at Cannae and Borodino,
at Kosovo Polje and Guernica.

There’s a gas station
on a little square in Jericho,
and wet paint
on park benches in Bila Hora.
Letters fly back and forth
between Pearl Harbor and Hastings,
a moving van passes
beneath the eye of the lion at Chaeronea,
and the blooming orchards near Verdun
cannot escape
the approaching atmospheric front.

There is so much Everything
that Nothing is hidden quite nicely.
Music pours
from the yachts moored at Actium
and couples dance on the sunlit decks.

So much is always going on,
that it must be going on all over.
Where not a stone still stands,
you see the Ice Cream Man
besieged by children.
Where Hiroshima had been
Hiroshima is again,
producing many products
for everyday use.
This terrifying world is not devoid of charms,
of the mornings
that make waking up worthwhile.

The grass is green
on Maciejowice’s fields,
and it is studded with dew,
as is normal grass.

Perhaps all fields are battlefields,
those we remember
and those that are forgotten:
the birch forests and the cedar forests,
the snow and the sand, the iridescent swamps
and the canyons of black defeat,
where now, when the need strikes, you don’t cower
under a bush but squat behind it.

What moral flows from this? Probably none.
Only that blood flows, drying quickly,
and, as always, a few rivers, a few clouds.

On tragic mountain passes
the wind rips hats from unwitting heads
and we can’t help
laughing at that.

Where has the month gone? I feel like I’m just resurfacing.

Wisława Szymborska

They say he read novels to relax,
But only certain kinds:
nothing that ended unhappily.
If anything like that turned up,
enraged, he flung the book into the fire.

True or not,
I’m ready to believe it.

Scanning in his mind so many times and places,
he’d had enough of dying species,
the triumphs of the strong over the weak,
the endless struggles to survive,
all doomed sooner or later.
He’d earned the right to happy endings,
at least in fiction
with its diminutions.

Hence the indispensable
silver lining,
the lovers reunited, the families reconciled,
the doubts dispelled, fidelity rewarded,
fortunes regained, treasures uncovered,
stiff-necked neighbors mending their ways,
good names restored, greed daunted,
old maids married off to worthy parsons,
troublemakers banished to other hemispheres,
forgers of documents tossed down the stairs,
seducers scurrying to the altar,
orphans sheltered, widows comforted,
pride humbled, wounds healed over,
prodigal sons summoned home,
cups of sorrow thrown into the ocean,
hankies drenched with tears of reconciliation,
general merriment and celebration,
and the dog Fido,
gone astray in the first chapter,
turns up barking gladly
in the last.

My grandparents just left for the airport. They’re going to LA for a few months. I am left to house sit while they’re gone. A house. All to myself. I might just get some writing done. And read, by god, read.

Under One Small Star
Wisława Szymborska

My apologies to chance for calling it necessity.
My apologies to necessity if I’m mistaken, after all.
Please, don’t be angry, happiness, that I take you as my due.
May my dead be patient with the way my memories fade.
My apologies to time for all the world I overlook each second.
My apologies to past loves for thinking that the latest is the first.
Forgive me, distant wars, for bringing flowers home.
Forgive me, open wounds, for pricking my finger.
I apologize for my record of minuets to those who cry from the depths.
I apologize to those who wait in railway stations for being asleep today at five a.m.
Pardon me, hounded hope, for laughing from time to time.
Pardon me, deserts, that I don’t rush to you bearing a spoonful of water.
And you, falcon, unchanging year after year, always in the same cage,
your gaze always fixed on the same point in space,
forgive me, even if it turns out you were stuffed.
My apologies to the felled tree for the table’s four legs.
My apologies to great questions for small answers.
Truth, please don’t pay me much attention.
Dignity, please be magnanimous.
Bear with me, O mystery of existence, as I pluck the occasional thread from your train.
Soul, don’t take offense that I’ve only got you now and then.
My apologies to everything that I can’t be everywhere at once.
My apologies to everyone that I can’t be each woman and each man.
I know I won’t be justified as long as I live,
since I myself stand in my own way.
Don’t bear me ill will, speech, that I borrow weighty words,
then labor heavily so that they may seem light.

I have lists of things I needed to do today. None of which I have paid enough attention to, it seems. Oh well. There’s tomorrow. Today it was just rain, and reading, and soup.

Some People Like Poetry
Wisława Szymborska

Some people—
that is not everybody
Not even the majority but the minority.
Not counting the schools where one must,
and the poets themselves,
there will be perhaps two in a thousand.

but we also like chicken noodle soup,
we like compliments and the color blue,
we like our old scarves,
we like to have our own way,
we like to pet dogs.

but what is poetry.
More than one flimsy answer
has been given to that question.
And I don’t know, and don’t know, and I
cling to it as to a life line.

Nothing like a bit of truth on an early Saturday morning.

True Love
Wisława Szymborska

True love. Is it normal
is it serious, is it practical?
What does the world get from two people
who exist in a world of their own?

Placed on the same pedestal for no good reason,
drawn randomly from millions but convinced
it had to happen this way – in reward for what?
For nothing.
The light descends from nowhere.
Why on these two and not on others?
Doesn’t this outrage justice? Yes it does.
Doesn’t it disrupt our painstakingly erected principles,
and cast the moral from the peak? Yes on both accounts.

Look at the happy couple.
Couldn’t they at least try to hide it,
fake a little depression for their friends’ sake?
Listen to them laughing – it’s an insult.
The language they use – deceptively clear.
And their little celebrations, rituals,
the elaborate mutual routines –
it’s obviously a plot behind the human race’s back!

It’s hard even to guess how far things might go
if people start to follow their example.
What could religion and poetry count on?
What would be remembered? What renounced?
Who’d want to stay within bounds?

True love. Is it really necessary?
Tact and common sense tell us to pass over it in silence,
like a scandal in Life’s highest circles.
Perfectly good children are born without its help.
It couldn’t populate the planet in a million years,
it comes along so rarely.

Let the people who never find true love
keep saying that there’s no such thing.

Their faith will make it easier for them to live and die.

Why are people surprised when I tell them that no one in my family reads what I write? It is the safest thing in the world, actually. Sure, it can get pretty damn lonely, but I’m alright there. Leave me in that corner. If they knew what I was always thinking, if they knew what I was feeling— many, many, many things would change. So let me be the one with the wounds and the sullenness. I was meant to have it.

In Praise of My Sister
Wisława Szymborska

My sister doesn’t write poems.
and it’s unlikely that she’ll suddenly start writing poems.
She takes after her mother, who didn’t write poems,
and also her father, who likewise didn’t write poems.
I feel safe beneath my sister’s roof:
my sister’s husband would rather die than write poems.
And, even though this is starting to sound as repetitive as
Peter Piper,
the truth is, none of my relatives write poems.

My sister’s desk drawers don’t hold old poems,
and her handbag doesn’t hold new ones,
When my sister asks me over for lunch,
I know she doesn’t want to read me her poems.
Her soups are delicious without ulterior motives.
Her coffee doesn’t spill on manuscripts.

There are many families in which nobody writes poems,
but once it starts up it’s hard to quarantine.
Sometimes poetry cascades down through the generations,
creating fatal whirlpools where family love may founder.

My sister has tackled oral prose with some success.
but her entire written opus consists of postcards from
whose text is only the same promise every year:
when she gets back, she’ll have
so much
much to tell.

Just came from one of my current favourite bookstores. Had some of my books consigned so I stopped by to pick up my money, which I have spent on – guess what – more books! Bought socks and ate cake. And opened a book and felt myself unravel at this:

The End and the Beginning
Wisława Szymborska

After every war
someone has to clean up.
Things won’t
straighten themselves up, after all.

Someone has to push the rubble
to the sides of the road,
so the corpse-laden wagons
can pass.

Someone has to get mired
in scum and ashes,
sofa springs,
splintered glass,
and bloody rags.

Someone must drag in a girder
to prop up a wall.
Someone must glaze a window,
rehang a door.

Photogenic it’s not,
and takes years.
All the cameras have left
for another war.

Again we’ll need bridges
and new railway stations.
Sleeves will go ragged
from rolling them up.

Someone, broom in hand,
still recalls how it was.
Someone listens
and nods with unsevered head.
Yet others milling about
already find it dull.

From behind the bush
sometimes someone still unearths
rust-eaten arguments
and carries them to the garbage pile.

Those who knew
what was going on here
must give way to
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.

In the grass which has overgrown
causes and effects,
someone must be stretched out,
blade of grass in his mouth,
gazing at the clouds.