The December 22 issue of The New York Review of Books has a review by Charles Simic of post-war Polish poets. A passage from Wislawa Szymborska’s “Starvation Camp Near Jaslo” caught our attention and we tracked down the whole poem. (Szymborska was awarded the Nobel prize in literature in 1996).
The translation is by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh from Szymborska’s Poems New and Collected, 1957-1997.
Starvation Camp Near Jaslo
Write it down. Write it. With ordinary ink
on ordinary paper; they weren't given food,
they all died of hunger. All. How many?
It's a large meadow. How much grass
per head? Write down: I don't know.
History rounds off skeletons to zero.
A thousand and one is still only a thousand.
That one seems never to have existed:
a fictitious fetus, an empty cradle,
a primer opened for no one,
air that laughs, cries, and grows,
stairs for a void bounding out to the garden,
no one's spot in the ranks.
It became flesh right here, on this meadow.
But the meadow's silent, like a witness who's been bought.
Sunny. Green. A forest close at hand,
with wood to chew on, drops beneath the bark to drink--
a view served round the clock,
until you go blind. Above, a bird
whose shadow flicked its nourishing wings
across their lips. Jaws dropped,
At night a sickle glistened in the sky
and reaped the dark for dreamed-of loaves.
Hands came flying from blackened icons,
each holding an empty chalice.
A man swayed
on a grill of barbed wire.
Some sang, with dirt in their mouths. That lovely song
about war hitting you straight in the heart.
Write how quiet it is.