Wislawa Szymborska

I was sad to learn that Wislawa Szymborska, one of my favourite poets, died yesterday in Krakow, aged 88.

Her total output was small – when she was awarded the Nobel prize she had published barely 200 poems, and in her lifetime published something less than 400 poems – but, like their author, the poems have a quiet authority and always brought a new way of seeing.

Take Cat in an Empty Apartment for example, a wonderful poem about the death of a friend – from the point of view of the cat:

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.

Nothing has been moved,

but there’s more space.

And at nighttime no lamps are lit.

Footsteps on the staircase,

but they’re new ones.

The hand that puts fish on the saucer

has changed, too.

Something doesn’t start

at its usual time.

Something doesn’t happen

as it should.

Someone was always, always here,

then suddenly disappeared

and stubbornly stays disappeared.

Every closet has been examined.

Every shelf has been explored.

Excavations under the carpet turned up nothing.

A commandment was even broken,

papers scattered everywhere.

What remains to be done.

Just sleep and wait.

Just wait till he turns up,

just let hims show his face.

Will he ever get a lesson

on what not to do to a cat.

Sidle towards him

as if unwilling

and ever so slow

on visibly offended paws,

and no leaps or squeals at least to start.

[Translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh]

Posted also in memoriam of Barney, faithful family dog who you can see at the coast at Kimmeridge in the masthead above, and who in his own way was quite fond of cats, who also died yesterday.

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