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November 08, 2004

Szymborska speaks

My friend Jan in Poland, who is braver every day than most of us are called to be our whole lives, is nonetheless worried about us.

His kind words remind me that we should think always of the people around the world--known to us or complete strangers--who look to America (as a nation and as individual Americans) for inspiration. We should be thankful for them, and thankful that even in a dark time the abiding values of freedom and dedication to liberty still shine out in the world. We must not, cannot fail them.

Jan sent me this note, which I happily share:

"I am sending you two poems by Wislawa Szymborska, a Polish 1996 (I guess) Nobel Laureate. They might have bearing on the elections, Bush, humanity, history or whatever. Hope they help in anything."

They have bearing on all of the above, and more. I'm copying them below. Read them for their lyric beauty and moral insight. But as with so many things these days, they are for when you're ready to fight--not when you're ready to cry.

Thanks, Jan, from all of us.


See how efficient it still is,
how it keeps itself in shape--
our century's hatred.
How easily it vaults the tallest obstacles,
How rapidly it pounces, tracks us down.

It's not like other feelings.
At once both older and younger.
It gives birth itself to the reasons
that give it life.
When it sleeps, it's never eternal rest.
And sleeplessness won't sap its strength; it feeds it.

One religion or another--
whatever gets it ready, in position.
One fatherland or another--
whatever helps it get a running start.
Justice also works well at the outset
until hate gets its own momentum going.
Hatred. Hatred.
Its face twisted in a grimace
of erotic ecstasy.

Oh these other feelings,
listless weaklings.
Since when does brotherhood
draw crowds?
Has compassion
ever finished first?
Does doubt ever really rouse the rabble?
Only hatred has just what it takes.

Gifted, diligent, hardworking.
Need we mention all the songs it has composed?
All the pages it has added to our history books?
All the human carpets it has spread
over countless city squares and football fields?

Let's face it:
it knows how to make beauty.
The splendid fire-glow in midnight skies.
Magnificent bursting bombs in rosy dawns.
You can't deny the inspiring pathos of ruins
and a certain bawdy humor to be found
in the sturdy column jutting from their midst.

Hatred is a matter of contrast--
between explosions and dead quiet,
red blood and white snow.
Above all, it never tires
of its leitmotif--the impeccable executioner
towering over its soiled victim.

It's always ready for new challenges.
If it has to wait awhile, it will.
They say it's blind. Blind?
It has a sniper's keen sight
and gazes unflinchingly at the future
as only it can.

"The Turn of the Century"

It was supposed to be better than the others, our 20th

But it won't have time to prove it.

Its years are numbered,

its step unsteady,

its breath short.

Already too much has happened

that was not supposed to happen.

What was to come about

has not.

Spring was to be on its way,

and happiness, among other things.

Fear was to leave the mountains and valleys.

The truth was supposed to finish before the lie.

Certain misfortunes

were never to happen again

such as war and hunger and so forth.

These were to be respected:

the defenselessness of the defenseless,

trust and the like.

Whoever wanted to enjoy the world

faces an impossible task.

Stupidity is not funny.

Wisdom isn't jolly.


Is no longer the same young girl

et cetera. Alas.

God was the last to believe in man:

good and strong,

but good and strong

are still two different people.

How to live--someone asked me this in a letter,

someone I had wanted

to ask that very thing.

Again and as always,

and as seen above

there are no questions more urgent

than the naive ones.

Posted by jay at November 8, 2004 11:54 AM | TrackBack
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