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Review of Wislawa Szymborska’s Monologue of a Dog by Katherine Stevens

The paradox of a beauty that dares to go on without us is that beauty will not dissipate if and when we vanish but also that it does not care that we miss so much of it.

While we sleep, “facts are taking place,” Wislawa Szymborska writes in her poem “Early Morning”:

  I usually wake up in the role of belated witness,
  with the miracle already achieved…

Though these lines alone should be enough to convince readers of Szymborska’s excellence as a poet, the Nobel Prize and her general fame still seem something of a puzzle. Szymborska does not have the force of personality that stamp other Nobel laureates so clearly into the brain, the brutal Gambon-esque stature of Harold Pinter, the charming Caribbean intellect of Derek Walcott, or the high Irish warmth of Seamus Heaney. She isn’t even as funny as America’s rock star poet du jour, Billy Collins, with whom she shares a deceptively simple verse-style and who wrote the introduction to Monologue of a Dog.

The culmination of an alphabet’s worth of Szymborska’s recent poems to be translated into English, Monologue is in part a rumination on all the wonder and beauty of which we regularly fail to avail ourselves. Having cast herself in the role of the spectator poet, Szymborska is true to the character in every respect. Her attention is not to the spotlight but the darkness around it, and what that darkness says about the light at its eye. At once melancholy and celebratory, the collection winds its way through history, philosophy, botany, and that theater of the absurd we call the Everyday. There is no confusion, just a quest to get inside her amazement at life and discern its composition.

A nature nerd, Szymborska creates an almost Cartesian world in her lines. Though she writes in free verse, her style favors symmetry: “I am who I am” in “Among the Multitudes;” “There are dogs and dogs” and “There’s fate and fate” in “Monologue of a Dog Ensnared in History.” One feels the musical and mathematical tendencies of her poetry, pointing not to a great formula or equation but rather to a small expression of something obvious that is typically looked around instead of at.

Szymborska’s geometrically appealing verse echoes the beautiful simplicity of the Romantics—Shelley, in particular. September 11 is to her what it is to most people: a sudden and stunning erasure of life and space, an image that cannot be erased. In a poem about a photograph taken at Ground Zero, Szymborska does not need to bloat the moment with extra layers of metaphor. The depth and complexity is in the event, captured in the photograph, in the immortalized last moments of those souls who jumped from the Towers. Their hair comes loose, change falls out, they are dying and they are like any of us when we take a tumble or trip or jump the last few steps of a staircase. Szymborska cannot be a hero. The tragedy has long been completed. But she can acknowledge the incompletion of the photograph by insisting that she has left out the poem’s last line. It’s a Cartesian duality. Every part of this poem and her other poems are as much about what isn’t present as about what is.

Consider “Negative,” which describes life as “the storm before the calm.” A minimalist prone to a chatty line or an anecdotal verse, Szymborska here empties her work of all the trifles. Her poem “Clouds” is an existential crisis, a meteorological analysis, a monologue on time and history and the material world. She is but the recipient of images, the priest who answers the call.

While many poets bathetically turn small things into objects of great importance, Szymborska magically appropriates the largest, most important things and makes them smaller, more human and accessible. The overthrow of a tyrant is turned into the story of a dog’s abandonment and murder. Every person Szymborska has ever met has been reduced to a letter. The force of gravity abandons its duties helping solar systems to go round as a baby explores a world where she does not know that things will necessarily come down. Gravity is a shock to the child, like Northern Lights or the pressure gradient, which is responsible for water’s movement through plants (not capillary action, like they told you in school). And nothing less than the inability of plants to converse with mankind—the assumption being that there is some great loss of companionship by our lack of communication—is mourned.

And, of course, it’s not just that the dog’s story or the plants’ stories aren’t being told; it’s that they’re not being heard. While Szymborska is enough of a sentimentalist and a nerd (written with the utmost respect of a fellow sentimentalist-nerd) to literally mean plants and a dog, the point is clearly that there are VOICES that get muted, if not by nature, by bombs and revolutions, by an ear turned deaf, by ignorance and neglect, by time erasing memory, as well eroding the names engraved into the tombstones even as the buried bones deteriorate, by questions left unasked because no one knows how to answer them.

Collins, in the introduction to Monologue, notes Szymborska’s breathtaking switches in the poems’ “land-scope,” as it were: her manner of zooming in from the galactic to the microscopic and then panning back out again in the space of a few syllables. A small part becomes the whole; the whole becomes a part. We know that we can discern much from life just by studying a small cross-section of it, but we can also discern much about the details by seeing how they come together to make that curious thing called the Big Picture.

A narrator of her history more than a participant, Szymborska puts herself at a shy remove from the play in which she has cast herself the lead. As that “belated witness,” who sees all and only makes notes, it sometimes seems that she has not only woken up after the dawn but after the play as well. She may have the master eye, but in the end we all are looking through the same lens, “the miracle already achieved.”

Monologue of a Dog
Wislawa Szymborska
trans. by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak
2006, Harcourt Inc.
96 pp., $22.00
ISBN 0-15-101220-2

View bio for Katherine Stevens Published in Spring 2006

About HDM

Half Drunk Muse was one of the first poetry ezines. It was founded in 1999 and ceased publication in 2006.

Questions/comments? Email samiller@halfdrunkmuse.com.