Years ago, my girlfriend and I were sitting on the floor of a friend in Berkeley, California, arguing theology, reading poetry, drinking tea. I observed about a poem of Wisława Szymborska's that it felt "Buddhist"--a perilous remark, as the friend we were visiting had studied Buddhism at Naropa, whereas I what I had done at the time was a little sitting at the Zen Center and some reading. Truth be told, that's still what I've done. "Hmmmm," said my girlfriend, raising an unconvinced eyebrow. "Buddhist?!" retorted our host. "There's too much self in it!" The poem, if I recall corretly, was the title poem in her 1995 selected poems:
View with a grain of sandThere's a lot of chatter I could offer here, about qualities and things, about the indifference of the in-itself. I could add that that I stand by my assessment of the poem as resonating with (though probably not motivated by) Buddhism. But I want to juxtapose the poem to another of Szymborska's which certainly has, I think, more "self" in it, albeit in a way which sits easily alongside the other poem. The difference between poetry and theory is that poetry is not anxious about getting its story straight. It has an easier conscience, or at least it knows what it's likely to get.
We call it a grain of sand,
but it calls itself neither grain nor sand.
It does just fine, without a name,
whether general, particular,
incorrect, or apt.
Our glance, our touch means nothing to it.
It doesn't feel itself seen and touched.
And that it fell on the windowsill
is only our experience, not its.
For it, it is not different from falling on anything else
with no assurance that it has finished falling
or that it is falling still.
The window has a wonderful view of a lake,
but the view doesn't view itself.
It exists in this world
soundless, odorless, and painless.
The lake's floor exists floorlessly,
and its shore exists shorelessly.
The water feels itself neither wet nor dry
and its waves to themselves are neither singular nor plural.
They splash deaf to their own noise
on pebbles neither large nor small.
And all this beheath a sky by nature skyless
in which the sun sets without setting at all
and hides without hiding behind an unminding cloud.
The wind ruffles it, its only reason being
that it blows.
A second passes.
A second second.
But they're three seconds only for us.
Time has passed like courier with urgent news.
But that's just our simile.
The character is invented, his haste is make believe,
his news inhuman.
Could HaveThe first poem keeps undoing it's own figures, reminding us that its simile is "only a simile," that our descriptions of the lake or the pebble or the cloud mean nothing to them. The self is there, but compelled to assume its quiet and contingent station. In the second poem, the self's contingency is center stage, but it is not "my" contingency--until the eerie and disorienting inversions of the last stanza and especially the last line.
It could have happened.
It had to happen.
It happened earlier. Later.
Nearer. Farther off.
It happened, but not to you.
You survived because you were first.
You survived because you were last.
Because alone. Because the others.
On the right. The left.
Because it was raining. Because it was sunny.
Because a shadow fell.
Luckily there was a forest.
Luckily there were no trees.
Luckily a rail, a hook, a beam, a brake,
A frame, a turn, an inch, a second.
Luckily a straw just then was floating by.
Thanks to, because, despite, and yet.
What would have happened if a hand, a leg,
A step, a hair away...?
So you are here? Straight from that moment still suspended?
One hole in the net and you slipped through?
I couldn't be more wonderstruck, can't be silent enough.
how your heart pounds inside me.
Wisława Szymborska died today. She was 88 years old.