Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Still (ca. 1957) by Wislawa Szymborska

I have always loved this poem. It sounds like rattling boxcars by the end, especially if you read it aloud. Ms. Szymborska also knows how to fold multiple meanings into one word, and her translators have kept that for us (no small feat). The title, for instance: it means quiet but also ongoing. This poet lived behind the Iron Curtain. I have found at least one other packed place in the poem. Maybe you'll find others.

Across the country's plains
sealed boxcars are carrying names;
how long will they travel, how far
will they ever leave the boxcar--
don't ask, I can't say, I don't know.

The name Nathan beats the wall with his fist,
the name Isaac sings a mad hymm,
the name Aaron is dying of thirst,
the name Sarah begs water for him.

Don't jump from the boxcar, name David.
In these lands you're a name to avoid,
you're bound for defeat, you're a sign
pointing out those who must be destroyed.

At least give your son a Slavic name;
he'll need it. Here people count hairs
and examine the shape of your eyelids
to tell right from wrong, "ours" from "theirs."

Don't jump yet. Your son's name will be Lech.
Don't jump yet. The time's still not right.
Don't jump yet. The clattering wheels
are mocked by the echo of night.

Clouds of people passed over this plain.
Vast clouds, but they held little rain--
just one tear, that's a fact, just one tear.
A dark forest. The tracks disappear.

That's a fact. The rail and the wheels
That's a fact. A forest, no fields.
That's a fact. And their silence once more.
That's a fact, drums on my silent door.

--Wislawa Szymborska
Translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh


Unknown said...

She's talking about the the trains that took the jews to concentration camps I think.

Tell me what you know...

Ann T. said...

Dear peedee,
I believe that absolutely. One difference is she brings in attempts to get away or save their children from the camps. We are used to viewing the Holocaust as a crime of no resistance. Yet another aspect was lost in "a dark forest" where no individual can come back and say they tried. The forest hides the crime--and--we are looking at the forest not the trees/individuals.

Behind the Iron Curtain, it would be approved to write about the horrible Nazis, and many good writers had to make their statements about Stalin by substituting the word Hitler. I do not know the poet's intention, but the title points to it.

Stalin relocated whole villages at his whim (and without their consent)by train and enjoyed wide arrest powers. He died in 1953. By 1956, Khrushchev was in power, some Russian prison camps were opened and prisoners released. The policy changes in Russia would have affected the People's Republic of Poland's policies on free speech. It's worth noting that the only leadership changes in PR Poland were in 1952, when Stalin's health was at last failing.

This collection of poems was published in 1957 but any poem in it may have been written earlier.

Thanks to you, I found the forest metaphors! Great poem, huh?

Thanks for writing in.
Ann T.