Of a Dog

Wisława Szymborska
Clare Cavanagh
Stanislaw Barańczak

Some of us with all too long, unforgiving memories will recall that the Nobel Prize went not only to the likes of William Faulkner, Marie Curie, Francis Crick, and Samuel Beckett, but to the master of the morbid, Eugene O'Neill (1936), that sappy novelist John Galsworthy (1932) and the even more sappy novelist Pearl Buck (1938).

The first-rate neo-colonialist Theodore Roosevelt got crowned, nobly, in 1906, and, gasp, Henry A. Kissinger in 1973 --- presumably for casually organizing the bombings of Cambodia three years before.

Of all the recipients, one that would have you and me cutting out paper dolls on the kitchen floor, was Egas Moniz of Portugal in 1949. He perfected the lobotomy.

If you don't know what a prefrontal lobotomy is, maybe you've had one. You might even be Jack and Ted's sister: Joe Kennedy presented one to his daughter Rosemarie in 1941 (not a Nobel Prize; a lobotomy) because she had been a bit rowdy, needed a little discipline. She got it. James A. Watts, M. D. of Washington's St. Elizabeth's Hospital, performed it with an instrument "not unlike a butter knife." So much for individuality.

After that, all the other children, --- Jack, Ted, and Robert (and presumably mother Rose who wasn't warned of her daughter's change of mind until after the fact) --- were very disciplined, didn't ever want get the old man pissed off. For any reason.

(Speaking of lobotomies, your present reviewer and Dr. J. Phage --- who often writes for this magazine --- have recently petitioned Stockholm for a new prize. No, no: not for ourselves, certainly not for a Bush or a Blair --- but for a different category, one outside literature, science, world peace. It would be called the Funny Prize, and would be awarded to any and all poets, politicians and pop-up cartoonists who could make us insensate with silly writing.)

§     §     §

The Nobel Committee sometimes gets it right, such as with the 1996 literary prize to Wisława Szymborska. She's Polish, and her poems are wistful, funny, occasionally shaking, always comprehensible. She can (and often does) write about dogs and gods and stars and tablecloths (being pulled down by very young little girls). She writes about dying and graveyards, graveyards with "tiny graves" --- but the verses are never sententious, never teary:

    Here lie little Zosia, Jacek, Dominik,
    prematurely stripped of the sun, the moon,
    the clouds, the turning seasons.

Hers' is not so much a questioning as a round gentle O of wonder:

    Let people exist if they want,
    and then die, one after another:
    clouds simply don't care
    what they're up to

She reminds us of e. e. cummings: funny, sly, shy to condemn, wondering, wondering, always wondering ... why, for instance "we have a soul at times" but "no one's got it non-stop,/for keeps."

She also brings to mind Lawrence Ferlinghetti before he got swept up by Too Much Fame. She got Fame, too, but evidently, unlike him, it did not upset her balance, nor her wistfulness, especially when we find her writing lines like,

    let's act like very special guests of honor
    at the district fireman's ball,
    dance to the beat of the local oompah band,
    and pretend that it's the ball
    to end all balls.

    I can't speak for others ---
    for me this is
    misery and happiness enough:

    just this sleepy backwater
    where even the stars have time to burn
    while winking at us

It is those jumps that make us want to ring her up right this minute and invite her to the annual Carpathian Firemen's Ball; or perhaps, if she is adverse to a night dancing the polka, to spend a few hours lying about her yard gazing at Orion winking. Unintentionally.

The title poem might have some readers on edge especially the present generation, so idiotically called "boomers" when as far as we can see they are booming only when stoned or drunk. These nitwits are perfervid in their ignorance of anything in history that happened before the advent of the Lemonheads, Rancid, or the Arctic Monkeys. Szymborska's poem tells of a dog, a very special dog, owned by a special, awful 20th Century figure. When judging art, we are faced with the question of whether a poem works if you and I do (or do not) know the referent. Who is she writing about here? Probably no one under forty will be able to say. Out of simple affection for the writer, let's ruff the question of whether or not it is a piece of high art.

Meanwhile, know that the volume Monologues of a Dog is an impeccable face à face edition: Polish to the left, English to the right. Szymborska's one albatross bears the name of "Billy Collins." They say he's a poet; he should stick to poetry ... his 1500 word Forward to the edition could have been reduced to a dozen or so lines, preferably of verse. Szymborska herself doesn't care to cloud the horizon with more than a page or so of writings; why should he?

Collins comes up with the dumb idea that American poetry is taken up solely with time, where other poems of other nations are of history. Tell that to Emily and Walt and Ezra, Billy.

And he, too, is so bewitched by the phrase carpe diem that he uses it twice in two pages. Dumb me. I had to look it up. It means "seize --- or 'pluck' --- the day."

Forget the poetasters and dogsbodies; pluck the strings lightly, and daily, for Wisława Szymborska ... the dreamsmith of versifiers.

--- Michael Roethke
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