On Death, Without Exaggeration

Poem by Wisława Szymborska

It can’t take a joke,
find a star, make a bridge.
It knows nothing about weaving, mining, farming,
building ships, or baking cakes.

In our planning for tomorrow,
it has the final word,
which is always beside the point.

It can’t even get the things done
that are part of its trade:
dig a grave,
make a coffin,
clean up after itself.

Preoccupied with killing,
it does the job awkwardly,

without system or skill.
As though each of us were its first kill.

Oh, it has its triumphs,
but look at its countless defeats,
missed blows,
and repeat attempts!

Sometimes it isn’t strong enough
to swat a fly from the air.
Many are the caterpillars
that have outcrawled it.

All those bulbs, pods,
tentacles, fins, tracheae,
nuptial plumage, and winter fur
show that it has fallen behind
with its halfhearted work.

Ill will won’t help
and even our lending a hand with wars and coups d’etat
is so far not enough.

Hearts beat inside eggs.
Babies’ skeletons grow.
Seeds, hard at work, sprout their first tiny pair of leaves
and sometimes even tall trees fall away.

Whoever claims that it’s omnipotent
is himself living proof
that it’s not.

There’s no life
that couldn’t be immortal
if only for a moment.

always arrives by that very moment too late.

In vain it tugs at the knob
of the invisible door.
As far as you’ve come
can’t be undone.

— Wisława Szymborska, (The People on the Bridge, 1986). Trans. by S. Baranczak & C. Cavanagh

The Nobel Prize winning poet Wisława Szymborska (1923-2013) addressed existential questions of life and death throughout her artistic career. As a survivor of the violent 20th century, Szymborska became a poet of both national and global renown. Her life spanned many conflicts, Poland’s occupation and destruction by both Germany and Russia, and its chaotic independence. She never wavered in her observations. Hers was an unblinking eye, yet clarity never gave way to cynicism.

The way, in which Szymborska links the past with the present, the present with what is to come, and the experience of a brief and transient moment with the weightless dimension of eternity, is what gives her poetry its greatest strength. All her poems are deeply human and spiritual at its core; they are characterised by an elegant linguistic playfulness, and a striking combination of creative indifference, ingenuity, and humour; and most often contain a little twist at the end, like in the following two lines that provide conclusion to the poem Our Ancestors’ Short Lives:

“… Life, however long, will always be short.
Too short for anything to be added.”

UKAGP Newsletter – Spring 2021Art & Poetry
Subscribe | Home | Contribute