On Death, without Exaggeration

It can’t take a joke,
find a star, make a bridge.
It knows nothing about weaving, mining, farming,
building ships, or baking cakes.

In our planning for tomorrow,
it has the final word,
which is always beside the point.

It can’t even get the things done
that are part of its trade:
dig a grave,
make a coffin,
clean up after itself.

Preoccupied with killing,
it does the job awkwardly,
without system or skill.
As though each of us were its first kill.

Oh, it has its triumphs,
but look at its countless defeats,
missed blows,
and repeat attempts!

Sometimes it isn’t strong enough
to swat a fly from the air.
Many are the caterpillars
that have outcrawled it.

All those bulbs, pods,
tentacles, fins, tracheae,
nuptial plumage, and winter fur
show that it has fallen behind
with its halfhearted work.

Ill will won’t help
and even our lending a hand with wars and coups d’etat
is so far not enough.

Hearts beat inside eggs.
Babies’ skeletons grow.
Seeds, hard at work, sprout their first tiny pair of leaves
and sometimes even tall trees fall away.

Whoever claims that it’s omnipotent
is himself living proof
that it’s not.

There’s no life
that couldn’t be immortal
if only for a moment.

Death
always arrives by that very moment too late.

In vain it tugs at the knob
of the invisible door.
As far as you’ve come
can’t be undone.

– Wislawa Szymborska
(1923-2012)

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3 responses to “On Death, without Exaggeration

  1. There is much quoted from Szymborska today, but nothing more frequently than this poem.

    M
    __________
    Marie Marshall
    author/poet/editor
    Scotland
    http://mairibheag.com
    http://kvennarad.wordpress.com

    • Someone linked this poem earlier, but it made me bawl too much to even think about. I can’t bear the thought of seeing it everytime I bring up my blog – which makes it the better poem, really, but I can’t do that to myself.

      A Cat In An Empty Apartment
      Die? One does not do that to a cat.
      Because what’s a cat to do
      in an empty apartment?
      Climb the walls.
      Caress against the furniture.
      It seems that nothing has changed here,
      but yet things are different.
      Nothing appears to have been relocated,
      yet everything has been shuffled about.
      The lamp no longer burns in the evenings.

      Footsteps can be heard on the stairway,
      but they’re not the ones.
      The hand which puts the fish on the platter
      is not the same one which used to do it.

      Something here does not begin
      at its usual time.
      Something does not happen quite
      as it should
      Here someone was and was,
      then suddenly disappeared
      and now is stubbornly absent.

      All the closets were peered into.
      The shelves were walked through.
      The rug was lifted and examined.
      Even the rule about not scattering
      papers was violated.

      What more is to be done?
      Sleep and wait.

      Let him return,
      at least make a token appearance.
      Then he’ll learn
      that one shouldn’t treat a cat like this.
      He will be approached
      as though unwillingly,
      slowly,
      on very offended paws.
      With no spontaneous leaps or squeals at first.

      • On the surface it seems a rather banal subject, but suddenly it starts to tug in different directions? Self-absorption? Neglect? Clever poetry in translation.

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