Wislawa Szymborska,
Monologue of a Dog
(Harcourt, 2006)

Wislawa Szymborska is a Polish poet who, until 1996 -- although highly regarded in Europe -- had never really been thrust into the world's attention. In that year, she won the Nobel Prize for Literature "for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality."

Her work has been translated into over a dozen languages; when I first ran across her poetry, not so long ago as these things stand, only three volumes of her work were available in English. That lack has, happily, been remedied. Monologue of a Dog is a new collection, published as a bilingual edition with the Polish original facing the very fluent English translations (by Clare Cavanaugh and Stanlislaw Baranczak).

Szymborska's poetry joins the transcendant with the mundane in a way that no other poet quite seems to manage, although Billy Collins, who wrote a foreword to this collection, comes close. Szymborska creates clear-eyed juxtapositions that subvert our sense of our own importance while at the same time reaffirming our worth in a universe that is wondrous because it is so improbable -- existence and identity are as much a matter of chance as anything else, as in "Among the Multitudes."

I might have been myself minus amazement,
that is,
someone completely different.

Her very matter-of-factness forces a new evaluation of reality, as in "Negative," which begins by picturing a scene in a photographic negative, then sidles unobtrusively into a reversal of our commonplace reality. She incorporates a particular brand of subversive, surrealist humor into her words that forces a reevaluation of what we see around us.

This is not to say that these are always gentle poems; rather, Szymborska has a way of quietly inserting profound sentiments into seemingly unremarkable events, as in "List," where in the course of a list of questions to which she has no answers she asks "When will wars cease,/ and what will replace them...?" which seems to remind us that nature abhors a vacuum.

Billy Collins tries to make the point that part of Szymborska's newfound prominence is due to the events of 9/11 and the need of Americans for a poetry that deals substantively with the horrors of human history. I'm not sure I can buy that argument, if for no other reason than the fact that Americans are not particularly drawn to poetry, save for a small subset habitually referred to as "intellectuals." Nevertheless, two poems in this volume in particular reveal that Szymborska can bring a large dose of humanity to the worst we have to offer each other: the title poem, "Monologue of a Dog Ensnared in History," is a biting, heart-wrenching look at the vicissitudes of life subject to human machinations, while "Photograph from September 11" reveals the poet's sympathy and empathy as well as her sense of the dignity that belongs even to victims.

by Robert M. Tilendis
13 May 2006

Buy it from Amazon.com.