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Wislawa Szymborska’s “Slapstick”

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I try to be careful about copyright here on this site, and I only share an entire work when it’s already available on the web. That seems backwards a little bit–if it’s already available, why do I need to share it? (And it’s no guarantee that the previous poster is not breaking copyright.) But we do follow different strands of the web, so I hope that doing so will bring more people to the work I share. Here is a poem that I value–and that suits my themes–for obvious reasons. But that’s the only thing that’s obvious about the work of the wonderful Polish poet Wisława Szymborska, who died in February.


If there are angels
I doubt they read
our novels
concerning thwarted hopes.

I’m afraid, alas,
they never touch the poems
that bear our grudges against the world.

The rantings and railings
of our plays
must drive them, I suspect,
to distraction.

Off-duty, between angelic-
i.e. inhuman—occupations,
they watch instead
our slapstick
from the age of silent film.

To our dirge wailers,
garment renders,
and teeth gnashers,
they prefer, I suppose,
that poor devil
who grabs the drowning man by his toupee
or, starving, devours his own shoelaces
with gusto.

From the waist up, starch and aspirations;
below, a startled mouse
runs down his trousers.
I’m sure
that’s what they call real entertainment.

A crazy chase in circles
ends up pursuing the pursuer.
The light at the end of the tunnel
turns out to be a tiger’s eye.
A hundred disasters
mean a hundred comic somersaults
turned over a hundred abysses.

If there are angels,
they must, I hope,
find this convincing,
this merriment dangling from terror,
not even crying Save me Save me
since all of this takes place in silence.

I can even imagine
that they clap their wings
and tears run from their eyes
from laughter, if nothing else.

I believe this version was translated by Joanna Trzeciak for the volume The End and the Beginning, published in 1993 and now available as part of Szymborska’s Poems New and Collected (Harcourt, 2000).