Wisława Szymborska’s “Could Have”
It is difficult to explain good fortune.
I inspected a garage fire last week. I could tell you that I went further into the wreckage than I should have to get a better look at his tool chests. I could tell you that my cell phone rang while I stood under charred rafters that were buckling and broken beneath the weight of the roof. I could tell you that I stepped out of the garage to take the call just in time to hear the roof collapse behind me, onto the very spot where I had been standing just seconds before.
Of course, I could tell you all that and I would be lying, because it only took a couple of could-have-beens for me very early on in my career as an adjuster to decide that for some things, a zoom lens gets me close enough. So, no, the roof didn’t collapse on me. The roof didn’t even collapse. (Though it could have.)
If it had collapsed, we’d be talking about that fortuitous phone call: who it was from, why I broke my own rule about taking calls while on inspection, how it came to be that the person called at just that moment. We’d be talking about what would have happened if the call hadn’t come, if I’d have hit Ignore, if the homeowner had been standing in there with me at the same time.
We’d be trying to explain my good fortune, and I why I was spared being crushed under a roof when the homeowner wasn’t spared the conflagration of his garage. We’d be trying to explain his good fortune that the fire was confined to his garage and didn’t reach his home. And of course, that would take us back to trying to explain why his garage was up for grabs in the first place in this mad game of fates.
It’s difficult to explain good fortune, though that didn’t stop Wisława Szymborska from trying in her poem “Could Have.”
It could have happened.
It had to happen.
It happened earlier. Later.
Nearer. Farther off.
It happened, but not to you.
You were saved because you were the first.
You were saved because you were the last.
Alone. With others.
On the right. The left.
Because it was raining. Because of the shade.
Because the day was sunny.
You were in luck—there was a forest.
You were in luck—there were no trees.
You were in luck—a rake, a hook, a beam, a brake,
a jamb, a turn, a quarter inch, an instant.
You were in luck—just then a straw went floating by.
As a result, because, although, despite.
What would have happened if a hand, a foot,
within an inch, a hairsbreadth from
an unfortunate coincidence.
So you’re here? Still dizzy from another dodge, close shave, reprieve?
One hole in the net and you slipped through?
I couldn’t be more shocked or speechless.
how your heart pounds inside me.
Szymborska has a way with repetition. Her use of cataloguing and contrasting images allows her to articulate the absurdity (just then a straw went floating by) of trying to give a reasonable explanation for something that is not readily explainable, without having to say straight out that there’s no reasonable explanation.
She sets it up in the first stanza with a clipped pace, and by the time I read the first two lines of the second stanza—You were saved because you were the first. / You were saved because you were the last—I’m sold. I can try to explain how I was saved from some impending disaster, but in the very next instance, it’ll be the opposite, and won’t I look ridiculous then: Because it was raining, because of the shade, there was a forest, there were no trees.
By the end, I can’t tell if she was literally moved by a dramatic escape or taking a playful jab at the one who’s made it through one more close shave, slipped through the one hole in the net. I’d like to think she could have gone either way.
And because I think these are things we can’t know, my response to the poem:
What You Couldn’t Have Known
If you’d made the flight,
you’d have argued
with the flight attendant
for two whole minutes
before she sighed
your oversized bag
back to the front
with carry-ons stowed
securely in the overhead bins.
Two minutes is short
beside a six-hour flight—
just enough time
so the bird
been long gone.
I’m reading poems by Polish poet Wisława Szymborska every day in April as part of our National Poetry Month Poetry Dare, and writing 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. Are you reading a particular poet each day? Maybe you are reading 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.