The last poem I loved was “Nothing Twice” by the well-known Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska. I loved all of her poems that followed, but “Nothing Twice” was the first Szymborska poem I ever read. Last week, I was on my way to the train station in Amsterdam, when I found a large bookstore. As most avid readers, I couldn’t just walk past. So I decided to spend an hour there, and I stumbled upon Szymborska’s collected poems.
Some poets call you from under their covers. It can be hard to describe, but to me it was a calling. The cover of The End and the Beginning has flowers all over it, and you could literally – but not literally – hear the birds approaching. Some sort of hummingbird, I think. That’s how I would describe it, being an admirer of fowlers. I opened the book and the first sentence I read was from the poem “Nothing Twice”:
Nothing can ever happen twice.
As comforting as poems go, I couldn’t have thought of a better way to start the book. So I
bought it, along with some work from James Joyce and T.S. Eliot – whose work I didn’t know – and I read the poem in the train. While this is not the best setting to read a poem, the train being crowded and noisy and all that, I can assure you that it was a must. I had been to Amsterdam to interview the French/Moroccan film director Ismaël Ferroukhi, about Les Hommes Libres, a wonderful small film about freedom. The interview went well, but I wasn’t sure the article was going to be ok. I always search for this poetic vision in people’s lives – that Ferroukhi has, no doubts about that – but I didn’t know how to write it down. And doesn’t all fear of failures bring you back to the long (but unwritten) history of failed writing? So I was dreary, darkly in demi-monde, when I entered the bookstore, and there I saw the Polish poem with its first sentence lift the streets out of its melancholy gloom. It was a wonderful sight.
One day, perhaps some idle tongue
mentions your name by accident:
I feel as if a rose were flung
into the room, all hue and scent.
Doesn’t all beauty eventually find its way back to flowers through a metaphor? Szymborska is cautious not to step on too many clichés, but approaches the subject delicately. The repetition of the question that followed I wish I could have thought of: ‘A rose? A rose?’ Subtal, small in words, but large in meaning. As a poet myself, some lines can bring me down. I often wish I had thought of the metaphors, the repetition, the sounds, and the vibes. However, when an excellent poet (and Szymborska is, really) does think of these subjects in a most original and extraordinary way, I can’t but share a sigh of bliss.
Why do we treat the fleeting day
with so much needless fear and sorrow?
She asks further down the poem, when she’d already assured me and everyone reading, that ‘No day copies yesterday’, so all feelings of fear and sorrow are, in a way, unnecessary, although unneeded seems more appropriate.
It’s in its nature not to say
Today is always gone tomorrow
As I was reading this, the meadows I passed by seemed changeable too. Even though it’s all grass, water and a cow or two, the landscape never looks the same to me. And as I browsed the pages of Szymborska’s 300-something’s wonderful book, I found her acceptance speech for the 1996 Nobel Price of Literature, beautifully titled ‘The poet and the world’. And I believe these two are, as the last lines of Nothing Twice say, ‘different (we concur) / just as two drops of water’.