"Monologue of a Dog"

Written by: Wislawa Szymborska

Published by: HarcourtBooks
Translators: Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh
ISBN: 0151012202

Reviewed by: Lys Anzia

Genre: General Poetry

Stories / Poems. Plain and Simple. -
Mapping the Words of Wislawa Szymborska
on her Latest Book - Monologue of a Dog

"Szymborska represents a puzzling phenomenon: she electrifies her readers despite being modest, introverted, discreet and hushed," the Polish literary magazine, Institute Ksiazki recently said.


It's true. The sardonic yet soft words of poet Wislawa Szymborska in her new book of poems called Monologue of a Dog, out this year by Harcourt Books, is a toss-up between wisdom and charity, pain and laughter, acceptance and refute.

If we could boil the words down in Monologue of a Dog to only a few syllables it would still hold a spaciousness outside of time and place, outside of the event itself.

Like so many Polish poets before her, Szymborska's wisdom spans numerous wars and changes in politics and national governments. As Poland escaped from the tyranny of military coups, insurgent coalitions, and the ever shifting ends of the political tirade, this is the place where many of the world's best poets were created.

Born in 1923 in the small town of Bnin, Szymborska's life has obviously given much fodder to make her one of the greatest poets today.

Wislawa grew up surrounded by many Polish legends and stories.

Like the story of "Goldenhair", who miraculously gave life to her suitor by dripping water on his wound after he had been beheaded. Or the battle of "The Blind Man and the Jezinkas," who magically made men fall asleep in their presence. They woke with the pain of realizing that the Jezinkas had torn out their eyes on their sleeping. These are the old Polish stories of cruelty, of life and death, that have made plenty of room for Wislawa's poetic imaginations to thrive.

After receiving a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996, at the age of seventy-three, Wislawa began the process of taking what was once a very shy and private life into the limelight of public shows and world celebrity. Through public recognition she carried into those large rooms all the quiet yet practical moments that made her poems what they are today.

Good poems are stories. Stories plain and simple. Couched in the use of the familiar but based on the magical, the missing and sometimes the blatantly absurd.

Stories are the true point as Monologue of a Dog carries us page by page into Szymborska's Eastern European style of "I told you so" aesthetics. Starting from the point of "What if?" Wislawa masters the complete circle, the shape of the fable-how a story can sometimes begin and end on exactly the same blade of grass.

Like a 1960s Ingrid Bergman film placing magical significance in the insignificant, we are carried in reading Szymborska's work by our own curiosity. It's the vast empty-yet-full simplicity of the words though that keeps us reading.

We completely believe Wislawa as we read her. She insists upon it. Even though we know very little of her world or her history. "Fate has been kind to me thus far," says Szymborska as she explains the constant luck of the draw that bring her the gifts of days so often overlooked in life.

Clearly the words that map life exist for Wislawa as intact as the lines of her poems. Her poem "Puddles" shows us such a map up close:

I remember that childhood fear well.
I avoided puddles,
especially fresh ones, after showers.
One of them might be bottomless, after all,
even though it looks just like the rest.

I'll step and suddenly be swallowed whole,
I'll start rising downwards
then even deeper down
towards the reflected clouds
and maybe farther.

Then the puddle will dry up,
shut above me,
I'm trapped for good - where -
with a shout that never made it to the surface.

Understanding came only later:
Not all misadventures
fit within the world's laws
and even if they wanted to,
they couldn't happen.

Compassionate and cutting. Based on the tradition of bringing the supra-normal into the recognition of life as a series of sharp yet dull things, Szymborska's contrasting responsibility to the poem is mapped for us like a buried bone.

Searching and finding the treasure is not hard for us to do.

For the first time in any of Wislawa's books, Monologue of a Dog shows Szymborska's words with the original Polish on the left and the English translation by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh on the right. This wise choice of format by Harcourt Books gives us a chance to see a world that Wislawa inhabits with eyes wide, full of its own original sound as she reminds us that language can be "keys and coins to fall from pockets."

In the start of one of her best poem portraits, "Photograph from September 11," Szymborska traces the events of 9/11:

They jumped from the burning floors -
One, two, a few more,
higher, lower.

The photograph halted them in life,
and now keeps them
above the earth toward the earth.

Each is still complete,
with a particular face
and blood well hidden

As though nothing else matters, Szymborska gives her words apt time to fall from the sky, as harsh and silent as the dead of 9/11. In giving air to the words we can see that a moment of death has plenty of time-that it appears on the edge of realization where Wislawa wisely says, "There's enough time for hair to come loose." It's the connection of image after image that takes us on this journey, that changes us as we witness Szymborska's poems in this latest book of iconic paragraphs.

Growing up in a time of Nazi invasions and German orchestrations as Poles and Germans began building the Jewish death camps of Treblinka, Auschwitz, and Majdanek, Szymborska knows full well the true cost of life. She knows full well the temporary stands of human nature at odds with our own humanity and society.

Cached in the use of the familiar, Szymborska's poems bring us to the very edge of reality, to a cruel and sometimes haunting laughter at life.

Living now in the place known today as "the town of the Cardinal of Krakow," the same Polish town of Krakow that Pope John Paul II called his special home, Wislawa shops for groceries, goes for walks, looks out her window, sits at her desk, and writes her poems.

So much of the poet's life is uncharted and deep.

Just as water hits one rock in the rain and then drips down to hit another stone and then another, we follow Wislawa's poems. Like slow rain the words in Monologue of a Dog take us to a place to find new forms and new ways of reading. On each syllable we taste the salt of Szymborska's humanity again and again, time after time.

It's not so much how we interpret the words as how we allow the words to interpret us. That's the secret. It's a life of responsibility, "waiting, trusting," as Szymborska puts it.

Lys Anzia, is assistant book reviews editor for Moondance magazine. As 2006 nominee for the Pushcart Prize, Lys currently writes news articles through Women News Network for WUNRN - Women's UN Report Network, UN-INSTRAW, NewWest magazine, ProgressNow, SquareState and ColoradoPols magazine. Dedicated to help in the fight for women's rights around the globe Lys is also a producer for international radio syndicate WINGS - Women's International News Gathering Service. In 2003, she was picked as creative affiliate in poetry by UNESCO for poetry contributions to OtherVoices International, (Sam Hamill's) Poets Against War, BluePrint Review among others. Working for over fifteen years as an American historic dramatist Lys is also an honorarium recipient of the City of Boulder, Colorado -Boulder Library Foundation.