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  • Louis Arata

Book Review: Map

Updated: Aug 17, 2020

Profound and relatable poetry.

Blame it on college English classes, the fact that I don’t gravitate toward poetry. After slogging through the Norton Anthology of English Literature, with its selections from The Faerie Queene, Alexander Pope, Wordsworth’s The Prelude, and Percy Shelley, I figured poetry wasn’t my thing. After all, how much landscape symbolism can you digest from all the Romantic poets? I always felt like I was missing something.

If I had started with more readily accessible poetry, would I have learned how to appreciate what the DWM canon poets were trying to do?

In 2012, I happened to read the obituary for Nobel prize-winning poet Wislawa Szymborska. I had never heard of her before. The article described her use of irony and humor as a means of asking questions about the human experience. In particular, it referenced her poem, “Cat in an Empty Apartment”:

Die – you can’t do that to a cat. Since what can a cat do In an empty apartment? Climb the walls? Rub up against the furniture? Nothing seems different here, But nothing is the same.

What could have been an overly sentimental poem ends up addressing the incomprehensible nature of loss. Rather than employing treacly adjectives, Szymborska focuses on the changes in spatial relation: “Nothing has been moved, / But there’s more space.” Szymborska once said, “I borrow words weighed with pathos, and then try hard to make them seem light.” In my own experience of grief, a death does seem to change the size of a room. I often feel like the person I have lost is somewhere in the next room, if I could only catch up with them.

In many of Szymborska’s poems, she questions our perspectives. There is a status quo to everyday life, yet why is that so? Why do we go about our daily routines? What is the purpose of our activities? Her poetry reminds us to pay attention to the miraculous in the seemingly mundane. She also inverts this expectation by poking fun at the seemingly miraculous as nothing special.

We call it a grain of sand, But it calls itself neither grain nor sand. It does just fine without a name             --View with a Grain of Sand

Her boundless curiosity peeks into corners, under leaves, inside molecules, and into the night sky. Sometimes her work can appear to be a laundry list of details, yet her selection of which items to include are as telling as the theme she is addressing. You get a sense that she may be grinning at her own whimsy, even as she exposes the complex for contemplation.

I prefer movies. I prefer cats. I prefer the oaks along the Warta. I prefer Dickens to Dostoyevsky. I prefer not to ask how much longer and when. I prefer keeping in mind even the possibility That existence has its own reason for being.             --Possibilities

I could continue selecting examples of her brilliance – and there are many – but I urge readers to discover her work. Map: Collected and Last Poems is an excellent place to start. 

Someone once asked Szymborska why she had published so few poems. She replied, “I have a trash can in my home.”

Szymborska’s work encourages me to not give up on poetry, because wonders still abound.

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