A Writer Speaks from the Grave

In recent years, my long-time admiration for the work of the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska (who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996) has steadily increased, perhaps even more so since her death in 2012. She is, in some ways, a Metaphysical poet like John Donne or George Herbert—through the intimate speaking voice that she adopts, the logic of her poetry unfolds with a special clarity, humanity, and a surprising wit, as she almost always thinks outside of the box on any subject.

One of my favorite Szymborska books, Nonrequired Reading, however, is not poetry but a collection of book reviews that are actually short essays. She wrote these essays as a newspaper column. I know that in the Portuguese-speaking world this is an established literary genre called cronicas. It’s a great way for writers to make a little extra income, and write about pretty much whatever in the world they feel like writing about—real artistic freedom, there, in the unlikely location of a newspaper column. José Saramago and Antonio Lobo Antunes (Portugal) and Clarisse Lispector (Brazil), to name a few, have written highly regarded columns, which were then published in book form. I wonder if Poland has its own, similar tradition, or if there are other examples across other European countries. Perhaps some blogs and podcasts can be regarded as the new versions of cronicas.

In any case, Szymborska’s “book reviews” are a marvel. The books she picked to review were as wide ranging as you can imagine, books on gladiators, caves, hugs, the childhood of animals, the Chinese alphabet, or the memoirs of Napoleon’s valet. In each case, she will begin with the book in question, and then quickly shift to elaborate on some odd and incisive thought the book has inspired in her. Her review of Wallpapering Your Home, for example, becomes a harrowing compendium of how daily domestic tasks and projects can pile up to devour one’s life.

I read two thirds of Nonrequired Reading over the course of about six years. The book always sat on my desk somewhere, and when I felt the urge, I’d pick it up and savor another short essay (the longest are three pages). The best kind of literary bonbon. Yet last month I felt the need to read that last third in one steady gulp. Something about the doldrums of the year, politically, as the fate of our nation seems to be held, at least temporarily, in suspension, made me want more of Szymborska’s curiosity and honesty. Her wit would be a plus, too, a balm, perhaps, for my worries.

Which is mostly what I received, until I came to her review of A Fantastic Zoology, by Jan Gondowicz. In this book, which expands on Jorge Luis Borges’ encyclopedia of imaginary beings, we get further examples of unusual creatures from fairy tales, travel accounts, and so forth. But Szymborska notes that the most common beast is not imaginary at all, and can be seen regularly on TV, and “sometimes this entity takes the shape of someone’s talking head and sometimes of a whole triumphant human figure in snapshots from current wars.”

She then gives a more detailed description, and remember that Syzmborska wrote the following in 1995, a mere three years after Poland threw off the yoke of Soviet domination. And, I might add, twenty-four years from the present day. As I read on, I felt the increasing horror of my familiarity with this particular kind of monster:

“Known since time immemorial. He doesn’t change; only the methods change that he employs in gaining his end. Moderately ominous when he acts in isolation, which, however, rarely occurs, as he is contagious. He spits. He spreads chaos in the conviction that he is creating order . . . He departs from the truth in the name of some higher order. He is devoid of wit, but God save us from his jokes. He is not curious about the world; in particular he does not wish to know those whom he has singled out as enemies, rightfully considering that this might weaken him. As a rule, he sees his brutal actions as being provoked by others. He doesn’t have doubts of his own and doesn’t want the doubts of others. He specializes, either individually or, preferably, en masse, in nationalism, anti-Semitism, fundamentalism, class warfare, generational conflict, and various personal phobias, to which he must give public expression. His skull contains a brain, but this doesn’t discourage him . . . .”

And with this paragraph, Szymborska’s voice from the grave pulled me out of my depression about the threat to our country today, and energized me in ways I haven’t felt in months. That’s the ultimate power of literature, isn’t it? The best writing doesn’t die, its power is always worthy of the present tense, and simply waits for the arrival of readers in the future. In my case, I knew this Polish poet had something to give me this summer, but I didn’t know quite what. When her gift arrived it surprised me and yet seemed inevitable.

Since then, I’ve renewed my political engagement. I’ve attended a lively town hall by Rhode Island Congressional Representative David Cicilline, continued to push for Senators Reed and Whitehouse to hold similar town halls for a broad range of their constituents, picked my Democratic candidate—Elizabeth Warren–and am now contributing to Stacy Abrams’ voter protection initiative, Fair Fight 2020. And there’s much more to do.

Last week, my wife Alma and I joined a march on a Rhode Island detention center, which is holding immigrants rounded up by ICE. The march and protest was organized by Never Again Action, a Jewish political youth organization dedicated to sounding the alarm about what our government is doing, and where it might lead if something isn’t done to counter it. The protest march drew over 400 people, people of all faiths and backgrounds.

We shouted and sang the usual stirring slogans, and when we arrived at the barbed-wired Wyatt Detention Center we listened to fiery speeches while people waved to us from the narrow windows of the prison.

Alma and I then left for home as it grew dark, and missed by fifteen minutes the awful spectacle of a detention center captain driving his truck into protesters. A few people were hospitalized, the incident made national news, that captain has resigned, and I’m sure more than a few lawsuits will be headed his way.

If this violence was meant to intimidate, it failed. We’re already planning on attending the next march against that detention center. As I mentioned, there’s much more to do.

So thank you, Wislawa Szymborska, for the ever-living power of your voice. Heard.


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