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
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.
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Dare yourself to read a poem, every day, starting today.
Read a poem a day, become a better poet. In April, we’re exploring the theme Cheese.