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National Poetry Month Poetry Dare: Wisława Szymborska’s “Interview with a Child”

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Wisława Szymborska Interview with a Child

On the eve of adulthood, under a clouded-over midnight sky, I pushed off one foot against blacktop to pump the playground swing higher and lamented to my friend that I couldn’t go back to being four years old again. I was mostly interested in the benefits of irresponsibility that came with the ripe old age of preschool. But a few decades later I can say that such an age also afforded the luxury of refusing to accept that things are merely what they seem.

The young Master in Wisława Szymborska’s “Interview with a Child” still exercises substantial authority in this regard, flatly rejecting that sort of world:

Interview with a Child

The Master hasn’t been among us long.
That’s why he lies in wait in every corner.
Covers his eyes and peeks through the cracks.
Faces the wall, then suddenly turns around.

The Master rejects outright the ridiculous thought
that a table out of sight goes on being a table nonstop,
that a chair behind our backs stays stuck in chairlike bounds
and doesn’t even try to fly the coop.

True, it’s hard to catch the world being different.
The apple tree slips back under the window before you can blink.
Incandescent sparrows always grow dim just in time.
Little pitchers have big ears and pick up every sound.
The nighttime closet acts as dull as its daytime twin.
The drawer does its best to assure the Master
it holds only what it’s been given.
And no matter how fast you open the Brothers Grimm,
the princess always manages to take her seat again.

“They sense I’m a stranger here,” the Master sighs,
“they won’t let a new kid play their private games.”

Since how can it be that whatever exists
can only exist in one way,
an awful situation, for there’s no escaping yourself,
no pause, no transformation? In a humble from-here-to-here?
A fly caught in a fly? A mouse trapped in a mouse?
A dog never let off its latent chain?
A fire that can’t come up with anything better
than burning the Master’s trustful finger one more time?
Is this the definitive, actual world:
scattered wealth that can’t be gathered,
useless luxuries, forbidden options?

“No,” the Master cries, and stomps all the feet
he can muster—for such great despair
that beetle’s six legs wouldn’t be enough.

The Master’s persistent rejection that things are only what they seem is refreshing. It’s preposterous to him that there isn’t more to it—that chairs and tables don’t dance the night away when he’s not looking. Of course he’s never seen it, but that doesn’t mean a thing. Once they warm up to him, he thinks, when he’s no longer the “new kid,” they’ll let him play their behind-the-back games.

Of course, you know and I know that when he’s no longer the new kid, it’s not that these inanimate objects will welcome his participation. Rather, he’ll see through familiar eyes. He’ll perceive as an adult and dismiss such thoughts as childish fantasy. Grownups, most times, have any propensity to see behind the veil matured out of us.

But what if we give the Master a moment or two to be heard? What if we believe for just the next few moments that it cannot be true that things are simply as they seem? I have but two feet, not the beetle’s six. But maybe it’s worth stomping around on them now and again, in protest of a world that stops short at the edge of what we see. If we see things as the young Master does (stay with me on this), then when things are truly what they seem, perhaps they would also be nothing like what they seem at all.

 

_____________________

My reply to Szymborska’s poem:

The Definitive, Actual World (after Szymborka’s “Interview with a Child”)

Well, so what if your eyes take up most of your head?
(One could choose to find that helpful,
in the event of neck strain, for instance.)
Between feet armed with tiny suction cups
and those powerful translucent wings, you could go
anywhere in the room your little thorax desired.

But there you are, vigilant, perched
on the very tip-top of the fruit salad,
wasting those golf ball eyes
watching over your shoulder
(without turning your head)
for the pink mesh of a swatter,
hopelessly bemoaning the way
you are “a fly caught in a fly.”

I’m asking you:

You’ve a whole ovipositor to yourself
and the best you can think to do
is secrete a hundred teensy eggs
across the juicy ridge of a ripe tangerine?
If it’s really true—if there’s no escaping
yourself—I’d want to say it’s a failure
of imagination.

__________________

We’re wrapping up our National Poetry Month Poetry Dare, in which we dared one another to read a particular poet for the month of April. I read poems by Polish poet Wisława Szymborska all month, copied them out and and wrote my own poems in response. 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. Have you been reading a particular poet each day? Maybe you read an eclectic mix you’ve put together, or the daily offerings of Every Day Poems. What have you find most challenging about the daily practice or about your poet? What have you most enjoyed? Share with us in the comments. And if you wrote about the dare on your blog, leave us a link.

Read about the National Poetry Month Poetry Dare
Browse more Wisława Szymborska

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Poetry Dare: Tweetspeak Poetry

 

Photo by Fronx. Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by LW Lindquist.

 

______________________

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Your Comments

18 Comments so far

  1. I’m not beyond that age
    when stuffed animals take baths
    in the kitchen sink while dwellers
    are in the cellar gathering wine
    bottles that grow on strawberry
    and peach vines.

    I’m not beyond that age
    when fairies, invisible by night,
    pull and tug the lips and whiskers
    of my dogs until bare teeth clack
    and hairy legs dance unruly
    while toenails scratch.

    I’m not beyond that age
    when sock thieves up the ante
    and steal (oh! you thought I’d say “panties”)
    my secrets & my chocolates in broad daylight
    never giving thought to making merry
    with my stash.

    • LW Lindquist says:

      Oh, thanks for this gift, Darlene. Very fun. :)

      I was reading an essay last night by Mary Ruefle on secrets, in one part quoting Louise Glück in saying that “the secrets we choose to betray lose power over us,” but then later considering the opposite effect, in that in sharing some secrets, we give up a necessary power they give us. Ruefle says, “in relinquishing a secret, we may lose a very important power indeed, one that nourishes, protects, and defines us. We may lose our life. We may lose what little or great personal power we possess, or lose our sense of self, lose the energy that drives our soul.”

      So it’s very interesting to me how it works both ways — how secrets can imprison us or nourish us. All depends. :)

      Last quote, from Ruefle: “Our first experience of the world is a secret, that is, it neither hides itself nor reveals itself.

      • It’s interesting how we connect the dots, aye? The giving and the keeping of your comment reminds me of Claire’s recent piece about L.L.’s newest book and the “subtle power of incognito.”

        And to think, all of this came about because of my secret hiding place for chocolate — in my skivvy drawer! :-)

      • Donna says:

        Lyla, that is so interesting about the secrets… yep. Indeed, it all depends. I’ve thought a lot about secrets and memories and reasons for both. Somewhere in that journey Ruefle’s words are at home.

        What a wonderful post. I adore how much respect and space, validity(?), she defers to the Master. And the whole fly within a fly, etc…., thing… Blew me away. I am awestruck at they way Symborska puts all these common words together in ways that create something so uncommon. I loved your poem, too… how you set yourself down into that poem, seemingly effortlessly.

        • LW Lindquist says:

          She never says he’s being ridiculous, does she? :) I like to think that we are the ones who are ridiculous, when we refuse to imagine things could be another way, when we insist that “whatever exists
          can only exist in one way.”

          :)

          • Donna says:

            No, she doesn’t. I think she even kind of loves his six beetle legs all stomping on the ground.

            Ridiculous? Yep. Exactly. Like insisting only Wednesday will work for an outing in NYC, let’s say? MmmmHmmm,

            Luckily it’s not an irreparable ridiculosity.

    • Donna says:

      Darlene this is so much fun and your description of fairies and dogs? Oh well now that settles a few things! I always wondered where they were off to in their dreams- next time I’ll look for signs of a burly fairy. :)

  2. So pleased you’ve read Szymborska.

    Closing out with this poem is a perfect conclusion to your series this month. We should all “escape” more often.

    Delightful, Darlene.

    • LW Lindquist says:

      Thanks, Maureen. This poem would be one of my top favorites from the collection, though I think there were too many to really have favorites.

      Reading Szymborska at times had me feeling (as I have in the past) a bit resentful (toward no one in particular) that the poets have had these words out there which put voice to so many things for me, and somehow I missed them for so long. :)

  3. I needed to play with the words today.
    ——–

    Being different from the twin Brothers Grimm. . .

    he lies
    the dog won’t

    the cracks
    long out of sight
    blink nonstop

    the table turns
    and slips
    on big ears

    to pick up
    incandescent sound
    no matter

    the chair rejects
    the one seat
    it’s been given

    and backs the wall
    in a corner
    for being out of bounds

    the window holds fast
    that finger stuck
    in the drawer

    can’t open it
    and the mouse, as always,
    won’t even try

    suddenly
    there is a pause
    and fire in the eyes

    legs muster feet
    to play under
    the apple tree

    and that awful little kid
    escaping our world
    manages to fly

  4. Linda says:

    I have loved this dare. My notebook is filled withNaomi Shihab Nye’s poem’s, and I don’t want to stop. I think I need to find another poet and fill my spiral notebook right up.
    I confess, I didn’t understand all of those lovely poems, but there was something special about writing them out.
    Thank you!

    • LW Lindquist says:

      It felt daunting to me at first, Linda. But once I got going I found it a really wonderful practice. I will keep going as well. I’m so glad you found something worth continuing.

      (And I love Naomi Shihab Nye’s work. :)

    • Linda,

      I’m so glad you like Nye. She’s a favorite of mine. I especially like her collections ‘Transfer’ (2011) and ‘Red Suitcase’ (1994). Her ’19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East’ also is wonderful.


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  1. Two (more) After Wisława Szymborska - July 26, 2014

    […] National Poetry Month Poetry Dare: Wisława Szymborska’s “Interview with a Child” - this might be my favorite (I’m not sure) on the way a child’s mind persists in seeing things as more than what they seem […]

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