Never mind the old wives tales about lions and lambs. March is ice under the bridge now. It’s April.
When I finish writing this today, I will go outside to spread ice melt on my driveway where the snow and ice from the blizzard that raged through late last night and early this morning thawed in the near-30-degree temperatures we enjoyed today. When it freezes over again, I’ll have my own personal skating rink. Did I mention it’s April?
I’m reading poems by Polish poet Wisława Szymborska every day in April as part of our National Poetry Month Poetry Dare. I’ve read little, if any, of her work before, and that’s really the point of the dare: to spend time with a poet that is unfamiliar, and see what happens. A blurb on the front cover of her Poems: New and Collected calls her work “dark, complex, and profoundly intelligent.” I find most good poetry complex and profoundly intelligent, all in its own way. But it’s the “dark” reference I’m interested in. Her poems do have a dark edge to them, if one can have dark with a nearly imperceptible wink. The poems are not dark in a depressing or hopeless way, but in the way of a hopeful cynic, like polished jade. I see it in “An Effort,” in the way she talks back to the song (and the impossible expectations) that haunt her:
Alack and woe, oh song: you’re mocking me;
try as I may, I’ll never be your red, red rose.
A rose is a rose is a rose. And you know it.
I worked to sprout leaves. I tried to take root.
I held my breath to speed things up, and waited
for the petals to enclose me.
Merciless song, you leave me with my lone,
nonconvertible, unmetamorphic body:
I’m one-time-only to the marrow of my bones.
Back to the weather in April in South Dakota. Or in Poland, during whichever month is colder than April. It’s been a particularly unfriendly winter in the Dakotas. We’ve had less than our usual share of snow (it seemed to be drawn away to uninitiated parts of the South), but temperatures have plunged well below zero more often than I’d care to repeat anytime soon. Nevertheless, we’re proud of our winters. We might complain privately to our neighbors and store clerks, but we like folks who aren’t from around here to know how hardy we are: That we don’t bat an eye at driving a snowmobile 22 miles to the office because the roads are closed, that every one of us has a personal story about frostbite that would make your fingers fall off, or that Long Johns are something you wear under your clothes, not order from the bakery counter.
Under the circumstances, Szymborska’s “Vocabulary” made me laugh aloud to the cold walls in my empty office. Perhaps she’d written it after waiting for a herd of walrus to cross, while sled dogs transported her to her writing studio.
“La Pologne? La Pologne? Isn’t it terribly cold there?” she asked,
and then sighed with relief. So many countries have been turning
up lately that the safest thing to talk about is climate.
“Madame,” I want to reply, “my people’s poets do all their
writing in mittens. I don’t mean to imply that they never remove
them; they do, indeed, if the moon is warm enough. In stanzas
composed of raucous whooping, for only such can drown out the
windstorms’ constant roar, they glorify the simple lives of our
walrus herders. Our Classicists engrave their odes with inky icicles
on trampled snowdrifts. The rest, our Decadents, bewail their fate
with snowflakes instead of tears. He who wishes to drown himself
must have an ax at hand to cut the ice. Oh, madame, dearest
That’s what I meant to say. But I’ve forgotten the word for
walrus in French. And I’m not sure of icicle and ax.
“La Pologne? La Pologne? Isn’t it terribly cold there?”
“Pas du tout,” I answer icily.
I am copying poems out as I read them. It’s allowing me to listen to the words in a different way, keeping me with them longer as my hand moves slower than my eyes. I wrote “Vocabulary” out in my notebook (it was on a warmer day, when mittens were not required). As I did, my response to the poet formed, and I wrote it out next.
After reading Szymborska’s “Vocabulary”
While I wait for warmer days, tell us how your Poetry Dare is going. Are you reading a particular poet each day, an eclectic mix you’ve put together, or the daily offerings of Every Day Poems? What do you find challenging about the daily practice or about your poet? What are you most enjoying? Share with us in the comments. And if you wrote about the dare on your blog, leave us a link.
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“Delicate, suggestive, clever.” —Carl Sharpe, editor of VerseWrights