May We Always Be Amateurs

by Mark Chmiel

Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces
Wislawa Szymborska
Translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh

Herein are a few score short pieces by the Nobel laureate (Literature, 1996), usually no more than a page or two, although I think of them more as her writing practices, as she uses the book at hand to provoke wide-ranging exploration.  Her reading has breadth — statistics, Polish history, birds, El Cid, Vermeer, the history of clothing, the persecution of witches, handyman guides, Napoleon, deer, the Polish nobles, Ella Fitzgerald, yoga for everyone, divas, wallpapering your home, all the Cleopatras, gladiators, Catherine the Great, Hammurabi’s Code, the Three Tenors, Fermat’s Theorem — but my favorite pieces were those about other writers, like Jung, Milosz and Montaigne.  She admits, “Basically I am and wish to remain a reader, an amateur, and a fan, unburdened by the weight of ceaseless evaluation. Sometimes the book itself is my main subject; at other times it’s just a pretext for spinning out various loose associations. Anyone who calls these pieces sketches will be correct. Anyone insisting on ‘reviews’ will incur my displeasure.”

Many of these books were published in Poland, and I have no desire to read them (my “To Read List” is already impossibly long). However, she inspires me to go to Left Bank Books to browse in sections I’ve never been to before, if only to whet my curiosity as to what’s out there.

I can see how some of these pieces relate to her own poems. For example, “Chips Will Fly” is a prose riff on her poem, “The Terrorist, He’s Watching.”  Also, the following quotation reminds me of her magnificent “Miracle Fair”:  “The reader may think that I’m a thick-skulled rationalist who can’t even entertain the idea that anything strange, mysterious, and amoral could still happen on our ordinary earth. It’s just the opposite–for me there is no such thing as an ‘ordinary’ earth. The more we find out about it, the more mysterious it is, and the life it holds is a bizarre cosmic anomaly.”

Last, Szymbroska’s description of the common reader will ring true for several people I know: “I’m old-fashioned and think that reading books is the most glorious pastime that humankind has yet devised…. Homo Ludens with a book is free. At least as free as he is capable of being. He himself makes up the rules of the game, which are subject only to his own curiosity. He’s permitted to read intelligent books, from which he will benefit, as well as stupid ones, from which he may also learning something.”

This month I’ve been reading and rereading all of Szymborska’s books available in English translation; she’s been reminding of poetry’s power to wake us up and see more clearly  I have compiled a list of 17 of her poems that are worth rereading over the next decade.

We can follow her example of bibliophilia in Nonrequired Reading and take some time to let our friends know what we’ve been reading, how it has touched us, and why we’re glad to  have found a kindred spirit, teacher, journeyer, or disturber of the peace at just this moment.

 

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