Monologue of a Dog: New Poems
By Wislawa Szymborska
Translated, from the Polish, by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak. Polish texts included.
Harcourt, 96 pp., $22
Almost as though she does not want to be mistaken for a poet, the Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska usually begins with the plainest of phrases: ''I am who I am," ''We have a soul at times," ''I dream that I'm woken by the telephone."
Beguiled by these homely beginnings, one might suppose this to be a poet who will make no difficult demands. Somewhere in every Szymborska poem, however, is a line -- perhaps the second, perhaps the 15th -- of strangeness, of hardly-possibleness, a shift so lightly handled that before we know it, we are yanked away in a conveyance that feels like a sensible sedan with airbags and a spacious trunk, but in truth is a psychic magic carpet.
Szymborska, 82, lives in Krakow and has been publishing poems since 1952, all through the age of communism. Her mild indirection permitted her to comment on the oddness and ironies of existence without eliciting official repression. As Billy Collins writes in a useful foreword to this curiously tiny collection (only 26 poems), Szymborska's first book was blocked from publication by the authorities, not because it was counterrevolutionary, but because it was deemed to be obscure.
However, the attentive reader can discern political implications, such as in the title poem, narrated by the dog of a dictator. ''Only I was permitted / to receive scratching and stroking / with my head laid in his lap," the dog says. ''Only I could feign sleep / while he bent over me to whisper something." The fate of the dumb and oblivious loyalist comes as no surprise.
Szymborska's poem ''Photograph From September 11" has nothing to say of terrorism or world affairs, focusing rather on the still image of bodies falling from the burning twin towers, seeming to be suspended in air. ''Each is still complete," she writes, ''with a particular face / and blood well hidden." In her imagination she rescues them by not describing what happens next.
She is droll. In ''A Contribution to Statistics," human traits are numbered: ''Out of a hundred people / those who always know better / -- fifty-two . . . glad to lend a hand / if it doesn't take too long / -- as high as forty-nine, / always good / because they can't be otherwise / -- four, well, maybe five."
''First Love" lightly dismisses the middle-aged person's usual sentimental memories, but ends with a line like a knife in the heart. In ''Clouds," she notes the chilly indifference of ephemeral phenomena to human affairs: ''Compared to clouds, / life rests on solid ground, / practically permanent, almost eternal. / Next to clouds / even a stone seems like a brother, / someone you can trust." That anthropomorphic pebble is classic Szymborska.
Along with her clear-eyed surveillance of life, which is not disillusioned because it seems never to have had illusions, there are flashes of warmth. In ''A Little Girl Tugs at the Tablecloth," the toddler is about to discover the law of gravitation as the glasses and dishes, ''shaking with desire," approach the edge: ''what form of motion will they take . . . / will they roam across the ceiling? / fly around the lamp?"
In ''The Courtesy of the Blind," the poet, giving a reading, realizes that his rich visual images are probably lost to the listeners: ''He'd like to skip -- although it can't be done -- / all the saints on that cathedral ceiling, / the parting wave from a train, / the microscope lens, the ring casting a glow . . . / But great is the courtesy of the blind, / great is their forbearance, their largesse. / They listen, smile, and applaud."
Several Szymborska collections are in print, including ''Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems by Wislawa Szymborska," ''View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems," and ''Poems New and Collected 1957-1997." The last has the unusually intense ''Starvation Camp Near Jaslo" (''History rounds off skeletons to zero. / A thousand and one is still only a thousand") and the eerie ''Museum," in which human artifacts triumph over their users: ''The crown has outlasted the head. / The hand has lost out to the glove. / The right shoe has defeated the foot. / As for me, I am still alive, you see. / The battle with my dress still rages on."
Szymborska's collection of short prose pieces, ''Nonrequired Reading," includes this remark, suggestive of her own outlook, about the storyteller Hans Christian Andersen: ''Andersen had the courage to write stories with unhappy endings. He didn't believe you should try to be good because it pays . . . but because evil stems from intellectual and emotional stuntedness and is the one form of poverty that should be shunned."
David Mehegan is a member of the Globe staff.