On Szymborska’s “Travel Elegy”

By William Olsen

Wisława Szymborska has the practical self-regard I imagine an anthropologist might have, all that much more functional for being a little off to the side. She does not deal in ironies as cosmic betrayals, as Milosz does, but in ironies as human fictions. Her poems are often written in a mood I’d describe as defense- less yet deliberate. They may maintain comic perspective on mood, but they do undergo their emotions. They can wince and smile at once, if doing so makes things clearer.

It was “Travel Elegy,” an early poem of hers, that made her work ac- cessible to me. It is neither a neo-romantic poem about the excruciating exile from nature or culture nor a postmodern poem about the easeful if disjointed idyll of uprootedness. Instead, it serves up the remnants of Western history, a history ransacked, perhaps, by too much intellectual possessiveness; it counters this overbearing possessiveness with native curiosity:

Everything’s mine but just on loan,
nothing for the memory to hold,
though mine as long as I look.

This poem advocates being right here, in a sustained responsiveness, where memory—let alone history—can’t hold but where the senses, and the will be- hind them, still operate. Though cohesiveness seems to evade this poem of disconnected stanzas, each as dismal yet charming as the next, until the poem closes:

I won’t retain one blade of grass
as it’s truly seen.

Salutation and farewell
in a single glance.

For surplus and absence alike,
a single motion of the neck.

That penultimate stanza gets perfectly at the Janus-like perspective of the senses once the senses meet middle age. And on that last line of the poem, unpack whatever riches from it you will, rest all philosophical questionings. “Grain of sand, drop of water / —landscapes,” Szymborska says in the same poem. Her landscapes are especially alive because they elicit the speaker’s understanding of her own nature.


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