Regular SiaB-readers will know that I rarely read poetry. Indeed, few of the bloggers I peruse seem to mention poetry much – or perhaps, if they do, I skim over those posts owing to lack of interest. I’m aware that the failing is with me, rather than the form – but I very rarely manage to engage with poetry. Perhaps because I naturally read quite fast, and poetry has to be read slowly (or preferably, I find, aloud) to be appreciated? I don’t know. But at the bloggers’ meet-up book-swap we held months and months ago, Peter (aka Dark Puss aka Morgana’s Cat) gave me People on a Bridge by Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, translated by Adam Czerniawski. I entertained myself for ages saying ‘Szymborska’ over and over to myself – it is a very satisfying word – and then put it to one side, intending to read it later. Later eventually came, and I was rather surprised to find that I loved the collection.
Before I say why, I thought I’d type out the title poem of the collection. It think it is about the cover image, ‘Squall at Ohashi’ by Hiroshige, but I can’t find any definite confirmation of this – he is mentioned in the poem:
People on a Bridge
A strange planet with its strange people.
The yield to time but don’t recognise it.
They have ways of expressing their protest.
They make pictures, like this one for instance:
At first glance, nothing special.
You see water.
You see a shore.
You see a boat sailing laboriously upstream.
You see a bridge over the water and people on the bridge.
The people are visibly quickening their step,
because a downpour has just started
lashing sharply from a dark cloud.
The point is that nothing happens next.
The cloud doesn’t change its colour or shape.
The rain neither intensifies nor stops.
The boat sails on motionless.
The people on the bridge
run just where they were a moment ago.
It’s difficult to avoid remarking here:
this isn’t by any means an innocent picture.
Here time has been stopped.
Its laws have been ignored.
It’s been denied influence on developing events.
It’s been insulted and spurned.
Thanks to a rebel,
a certain Hiroshige Utagawa
(a being which as it happens
has long since and quite properly passed away)
time stumbled and fell.
Maybe this was just a whim of no significance,
a freak covering just a pair of galaxies,
but we should perhaps add the following:
Here it’s considered proper
to regard this little picture highly,
admire it and thrill to it from age to age.
For some this isn’t enough.
They even hear the pouring rain,
they feel the cool drops on necks and shoulders,
they look at the bridge and the people
as if they saw themselves there
in the self-same never-finished run
along an endless road eternally to be travelled
and believe in their impudence
that things are really thus.
I am so used to writing about novels that I don’t quite know how to discuss poetry. But what I loved about this collection is what I love about my favourite novels. Szymborska doesn’t use overly-fancy or ‘poetic’ words (or, at least, her translator does not). There is a sense of the familiar and domestic running through the collection, with quiet, subtle emotions held up for close (but not voyeuristic) examination. Although the poem I’ve typed out is about a painting, it is still about people. Many of the poems are about little incidents – someone dialing the wrong number; waiting at a train station. One of my favourites, ‘The terroist, he watches’ tells the more extraordinary tale of a terroist watching a bar in which he has planted a bomb. Some poems touch upon philosophy and even ontology, but always with a personal touch that makes the writing absolutely accessible and engaging.
Of course, I am reading in English. Quite a different translation of ‘People on a Bridge’ can be found here, if you scroll down – reminding me how much of a translated work is in the hands of the translator. Well, I thank Adam Czerniawski (and Peter, of course) for enabling Szymborska’s work to get into my hands – and reminding me to widen occasionally my reading horizons.