By Jennifer Clarvoe
I go back again and again to one of the first poems of Szymborska’s that caught my attention, “Autotomy.” In it, she incorporates a Latin phrase, from Horace’s Ode III.30, “Non omnis moriar,” which means (the notes tell us helpfully), “I shall not wholly die.” The slightly disorienting pleasure of finding a Latin phrase in a Polish poem stands in part, for me, for the continuously disorienting pleasure of reading any poetry in translation—at least as much pleasure in what carries over as in wondering what is lost. The “I” in “I shall not wholly die” seems to me to be the phrase itself speaking, the poem speaking from the page, even more than it speaks for the poet, either Horace or Szymborska. In my facing-page text (in Krynski and Maguire’s translation), the Latin remains untranslated, identical, on both pages—the part I don’t entirely get in the English version, and the part I recognize with relief amid the Polish.
For that matter, the first several times I read this poem, I misread its title as “Autonomy,” which didn’t seem so inapt for this fable’s focus on division:
When in danger the sea-cucumber divides itself in two.
One self it surrenders for devouring by the world,
with the second it makes good its escape.
It splits violently into perdition and salvation,
into fine and reward, into what was and what will be.
In the middle of its body there opens up a chasm
with two shores that are immediately alien.
On one shore death, on the other life.
Here despair, there hope.
If a scale exists, the balance does not tip.
If there is justice, here it is.
To die as much as necessary, without going too far.
To grow back as much as needed, from the remnant that survives.
This makes sense to me, as a vision of difficultly-won autonomy—I will take control of my fate by splitting off from what holds me back. I will retain my autonomy by dividing myself from my crisis-divided self.
Except that it’s not “autonomy,” it’s “autotomy,” a biological term meaning “reflex separation of a part from the body, division of the body into two or more pieces.” Lizards, lobsters, and starfish can perform autotomy; –tomy meaning a cutting off or removal, as in dichotomy, lobotomy, ovariotomy.
Imagine an organism as simple as Szymborska’s sea-cucumber, so that the autotomy applies to the whole self. And yet, isn’t the creature already, in a Marianne Moore-ish way, self-split by that defining hyphen, “sea-cucumber”? Doesn’t it belong, for example, in the jumbled undersea world of Moore’s “Fish,” in which “stars, // pink / rice-grains, ink- / bespattered jelly-fish, crabs like green / lilies, and submarine / toadstools, slide each on the other”? Or perhaps the sea-cucumber grows in the green light of Andrew Marvell’s charmed “Garden”—weren’t there land- and sea-unicorns there? Surely Marvell’s mind is not unlike Szymborska’s:
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find,
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas,
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.
Szymborska’s poem transfers autotomy from the sea-cucumber to that ambivalent creature, the human being:
We know how to divide ourselves, how true, we too.
But only into a body and an interrupted whisper.
Into body and poetry.
On one side the throat, laughter on the other,
that’s light and quickly dying.
Here a heavy heart, there non omnis moriar,
just three little words like three feathers in ascent.
The chasm does not cut us in two.
The chasm surrounds us.
This time, “non omnis moriar” resists me. I can weigh “a heavy heart” against “three feathers in ascent.” It makes me picture Vermeer’s Woman with a Balance, who seems to be weighing, in her empty scales, nothing against nothing, or light with light. But how do I weigh those three little words, “non omnis moriar”?
I reach for my copy of David Ferry’s translation of the Odes:
Some part of me will live and not be given
Over into the hands of the death goddess.
And then I pull down from the shelf, Horace in English, to find William Oldsworth:
This shall remain, whilst Time glides nimbly by;
And the swift Years in measur’d Stages fly,
For I’ll not perish, not entirely die.
Or, in Ezra Pound’s translation:
This monument will outlast metal and I made it
More durable than the king’s seat, higher than pyramids.
Gnaw of wind and rain?
The flow of years to break it, however many.
Bits of me, many bits will dodge all funeral,
O Libitina-Persephone and, after that,
Sprout new praise.
Yes, yes, those bits of me that will live on, like the sea-cucumber. When I see Horace’s phrase, preserved in Szymborska’s poem, draw to my desk these different books and versions (surrounded by Moore and more, Marvell and marvel), I think of the biological process Szymborska describes in a prose review of a book on mollusks:
A certain snail brought from Algeria spent four years as a
dead exhibit in a London museum. When some water was
splashed on it by mistake, it came back to life on the spot and
began consuming the cardboard on which it had been placed.
Szymborska’s poem is dedicated to the memory of Halina Poswiatowska, “the talented author of several volumes of poetry, who died young (1935-1967)”: her name too, waits on the page to come back to life.
Szymborska’s sea-cucumber keeps on splitting itself into “body and poetry”—and that poetry itself is “an interrupted whisper.” If poetry is what’s lost in translation, what lasts? Horace hoped, in his poem, not only for his own work to last, but to be remembered as “the first to bring Aeolian measures to Latin” (Ferry’s translation). That is, it’s a hybrid work, carrying over something of the Greek meters of Sappho and Alcaeus—as Szymborska’s poem carries over, differently, something of Horace, and something, too, of Poswiatowska. The poems themselves both testify to and embody the continuity of poetry, past death, and in translation.
Originally appeared in NOR 5