View with a Grain of Sand, by Wisława Szymborska

WS

I’ve had this edition of Szymborska’s Selected Poems for some time but hadn’t gotten around to reading it. Luckily, my poetry discussion group chose her to be the poet we read this month. Unlike a book club where people read the book ahead of time, we meet and read the poems together and discuss. Here, though, I took advantage of the opportunity to read this collection by this Polish poet who won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature.

I’m so glad I did! I love Szymborska’s understated wit skewering our preoccupations and assumptions. For example, in “Seen from Above”, she confronts a dead beetle in the road, unlamented because:

What’s important is valid supposedly for us.
For just our life, for just our death,
a death that enjoys an extorted primacy.

I love her ability to focus intently on the small things, the brief moments of life and celebrate them—something that poetry is especially appropriate for. Here is “Vermeer”, quoted in its entirety:

As long as the woman from Rijksmuseum
in painted silence and concentration
day after day pours milk
from the jug to the bowl,
the World does not deserve
the end of the world.

I love her humor. She writes of wildly inventive dreams or uses the images of clouds floating across the sky and ants trudging through a checkpoint to make fun of our human preoccupation with borders. She even creates neologisms worthy of e. e. cummings, as in “Allegro Ma Non Troppo” which begins:

Life, you’re beautiful (I say)
you just couldn’t get more fecund,
more befrogged or nightingaley,
more anthillful or sproutsprouting.

I love the way she is able to write about the horrors of war in ways that do not accuse but rather appeal to our common humanity, or sometimes to our place in the natural world. In “The End and the Beginning”, she drily points out what perhaps only a woman might notice:

After every war
someone has to clean up.
Things won’t
straighten themselves up, after all.

But she also notes that by cleaning everything up, we run the danger of the next generation forgetting what’s happened; sparing them the horror could lead them blithely into the next war.

Those who knew
what was going on here
must make way for
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.

In concentrating on themes and overall approaches, I haven’t mentioned her amazingly effective word choice, her use of repetition to add power, her sly allusions to a range of cultural artifacts from popular songs to the Bible. She often uses irony, something for which I have a bit of tin ear, so I’m grateful for others in the group pointing out possible ironic interpretations of some of the poems.

She also finds ways to celebrate life, as in “Miracle Fair”, where she applauds a variety of commonplace miracles, such as “cows will be cows” or “that the sun rose today and three fourteen a.m. / and will set tonight at one past eight”. As one member of the group exclaimed near the end of our discussion, I love this woman!

Have you read any of Szymborska’s poetry? Do you have a favorite among her poems?

The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss

History

I’ve learned to be wary of books whose covers are emblazoned with their bestseller status and whose initial pages are filled with glowing blurbs. Already cautious, I came close to abandoning this book in the course of the first long chapter. I call it a chapter, but the book’s structure is not so ordinary. The first chunk of print would be a better description.

Here we sink into the consciousness of Leo Gursky, an elderly Jewish man living in a cluttered New York City walkup, who is afraid of dying on a day when nobody sees him. A retired locksmith, he has taken up writing again, a vocation he abandoned sixty years earlier when he fled his village in Poland, just as the Germans rolled in and began gathering up the Jews.

Leo is a sad man, pathetic even, as he deals with physical infirmities and loneliness; his only friend is the peculiar Bruno who lives upstairs. The story Leo starts writing is about the girl named Alma whom he loved back in Poland. The two planned a life together, to start as soon as Leo joined her in New York. However, delayed by the war, by the time he arrives she has given up on him and married someone else.

While the writing is evocative and in places quite lovely, this story and this character did not interest me. Hence, my struggle to keep reading.

But then we branch off into a much more entertaining story about a girl also named Alma, whose ambition is to be able to survive in the wild, as she believes her late father was able to do. She would also like to find someone for her still-grieving mother to love and to persuade her little brother that he is not a lamed vovnik, one of the thirty-six holy men in a given generation, one of whom has the potential to be the Messiah. She tells her story in witty and touching numbered sections, ranging in length from a sentence to a few pages.

Despite Leo’s attempts at writing about his village in Poland in the first section, this seems to be the book that Leo eventually began writing. The two stories weave together, and are joined by a third that is apparently that book Leo wrote back in Poland which he thought had been lost, and then by extracts from a couple of other books.

This complicated structure works like a kaleidoscope, the reader’s understanding shifting with each turn. I was impressed with Krauss’s ability first to imagine such a thing and then to hold it together. I enjoyed puzzling out how all the pieces she was juggling might eventually come together.

Although I admired the structure and the writing, I never felt engaged with the story. Leo as a character didn’t interest me. The girl Alma and her brother were more intriguing, but as—I assumed—figments of Leo’s imagination, they seemed too far removed for me to care what happened to them. Also, questions about the reliability of Leo as a narrator held me back from connecting with the story.

I love the way Kraus uses small, sometimes contradictory, but always memorable and true-to-life details to build her characters. Often she’ll follow a high-flown statement with comic deflation. For example, here is Leo, late for a funeral, trying to catch a bus:

I like to think the world wasn’t ready for me, by maybe the truth is that I wasn’t ready for the world. I’ve always arrived too late for my life. I ran to the bus stop. Or rather, hobbled, hiked up trouser legs, did a little skip-scamper-stop-and-pant, hiked up trouser legs, stepped, dragged, stepped, dragged, etcetera.

I’m glad I finished this book. I enjoyed the surprises and the kaleidoscope of reversals. I’d hesitate to recommend it, though, except to those who are willing to forego a story for a dazzling display of writerly prowess.

Do blurbs—the short quotations from other writers or reviewers on a book’s cover or first few pages praising the book—help you select a book to read?