Mart of Instant Miracles

Posted: September 12, 2009 in Poetry Endorsements

Wislawa Szymborska
People on a Bridge
Translated by Adam Czerniawski

Some poets take time to be discovered by individual readers. What is the fame of today might not turn into interest for certain readers until a lifetime down the road. The name Wislawa Szymborska is synonymous with excellent poetry, though I’ve never had a taste for her writing until recently. It’s not that I ever accused her poems of lacking talent, it’s just a right poet – wrong time scenario. Luckily, the time has come when our consciousnesses have collided. Hopefully, after this post, you’ll collide with it as well or keep a bookmark as a reminder.

Polish poetry critic Zbigniew Bienkowski called Szymborska’s poetry “open to a world of thought” and “anti-intellectual,” adding that the poet herself “…has the courage and the luck to indulge in homely, amateur thought.” This is not an insult, but it is also far cry from carrying the proper connotation. I believe that the plainness of her language (at least judging by the English translation) and seemingly natural flow of thought is what led to his assessment. Almost every poem in “People on a Bridge,” however, beams as an example of what poets do when they set their minds to translating inspiration into words, ideas into designs, blueprints into poems.

Szymborska’s writing style has a natural, almost conversational tone and flow to it that straighten out obscure notions/meditations. According the poet herself, she writes in terms of stories and essay-poems, which explains the natural flow. This flow is not without thorough thought and disciplined execution, as seen in her precise and deliberate word choice (again, I put my faith in the translator) and organization of thoughts. Even poems as deceptively simple as “Miracle mart” can astound with their simplicity based solely on poetic observation and arrangement/presentation of ideas.

Miracle mart
Common miracle:
the happening of many common miracles.

Ordinary miracle:
invisible dogs barking
in the silence of night.

A miracle among many:
a tiny ethereal cloud
able to cover a large heavy moon.

Several miracles in one:
an alder reflected in water
moreover turned from left to right
moreover growing crown downwards
yet not reaching the bottom
though the waters are shallow.

An everyday miracle:
soft gentle breezes
gusting during storms.

Any old miracle:
cows are cows.

And another like it:
just this particular orchard
from just this pip.

Miracle without frock coat or top hat:
a scattering of white doves.

Miracle – what else would you call it:
today the sun rose at 3.14
and will set at 20.01.

Miracle which doesn’t sufficiently amaze:
though the hand has fewer than six fingers
yet it has more than four.

Miracle – just look around:
the world ever-present.

An extra miracle, just as everything is extra:
what is unthinkable
is thinkable.

The above is a great example of a complex idea being presented through very plain language. What makes the poem so affective is the thought upon which the plain words beg the reader to ponder. Seemingly throw-away lines like “Any old miracle:/cows are cows,” while pretending to be platitudes, are really clues for meditation. “Miracle mart” is comprised of such hints, and their juxtaposition with each other as well as the order in which they are presented are equally important – not just in understanding the importance of one stanza to the next, but as in understanding the thought process as a whole…to understand the answer that is the poem as well as the question from whence the poem was born.

Where “Miracle mart” confronts readers with riddles, “Instant Living” narrates a more fluent string of metaphors.

Instant Living
Instant living.
Unrehearsed performance.
Untried-on body.
A thoughtless head.

I am ignorant of the role I perform.
All I know is it’s mine, can’t be exchanged.

What the play is about
I must guess promptly on stage.

Poorly prepared for the honor of living
I find the imposed speed of action hard to bear.
I improvise thought though I loathe improvising.
At each step I trip over my ignorance.
My way of life smacks of the provincial.
My Instincts are amateurish.
The stage-fright that is my excuse only humiliates me more.
Mitigating circumstances strike me as cruel.

Words and gestures that cannot be retracted,
stars not counted to the end,
my character like a coat I button up running –
this is the sorry outcome of such haste.

If only one could practice ahead at least one Wednesday,
repeat a Thursday!
But now Friday’s already approaching with a script I don’t know.

Is this right? – I ask
(in a rasping voice,
since they didn’t even let me clear my throat in the wings).

You’re deluded if you think it’s only a simple exam
set in a makeshift office. No.
I stand among the stage-sets and see they’re solid.
I am struck by the precision of all the props.
The revolving stage’s been turning for quite some time.
Even the furthest nebulae are switched on.
Oh, I have no doubt this is the opening night.
And whatever I’ll do
will turn for ever into what I’ve done.

What starts out as an exercise in extending Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage” metaphor flawlessly and seamlessly turns existentialist. It manages this by introducing reader to character and the character’s setting/situation, and then letting the character speak. Nothing else is needed, as it flows like a story but without all the gratuitous blather that is prose.

Although this book is currently out of print, used copies can be bought from the link above or possibly at your local used book store. Also, select poems from this volume appear in “Poems New and Collected” (via


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