Five years ago on a tiny island in the Aegean, I cried for Kurt Vonnegut as I sat in the tub, holding in one hand the long, low-pressure shower hose and in the other, a coffee mug full of red wine. I cried because I was young and literary and drunk, and Vonnegut’s tumble down the stairs and into death made me think about how, despite being young, I was old enough to say that as a teenager, Vonnegut was a great favorite of mine.
We had been making dinner, some friends and I. In my memories now, it seems like we ate the same things every night: salads and spanikopita with the first magnum and pasta with spinach and olives with the second. We had spent the day reading and writing, and so it seemed natural that we would spend the evening drinking and talking about writing. Sarah said that she’d read in the news that afternoon of Vonnegut’s fall, his death. Between bites, we shared our memories of reading Slaughterhouse Five, or Cat’s Cradle or whichever other bit of writing we had attached ourselves to in the preceding twenty years.
And with dinner finished and the dishes done, I remember walking back to my rooms in The Hotel Jimmy and feeling the buoyancy of the evening fade as I thought about a younger me, alone in my childhood bedroom reading about the horrors and realities of war, the possibilities of fiction, and Kilgore Trout shouting at the voice of God the Narrator, “Make me young, make me young, make me young!” When I got to my own little apartment, there was nothing else to do but sit in the tub, drinking and crying and remembering.
In grieving for a writer I’d never met but loved anyhow, I was able to grieve for myself—the boy who called mirrors leaks and claimed to be a Bokononist. I was allowed a chance to think about writers and words and books and the profound impact they have had on my growing up. Also, I could wear my grief like a badge—a member of Those Affected Deeply By Great Works—simply by relating the episode in the tub with the tears and mug of cheap wine. My grief then was real, but shallow. I was a writer then, and so I had to grieve for the writers before me. I had feeling, but also the pressure and expectation to have feeling.
A difference between myselves now and then is now, when I call myself a writer, I believe it. In Greece and before, when I said I was a writer, I felt like a little kid buying shoes a size too big with the hopes I’d grow into them before school started. With the news of Wislawa Szymborska’s death this week, I smiled thinking of her poems that I have loved over the last decade. The changes in how I view myself have changed the way I interact with the worlds of writers that I have never known but long loved.
As with Vonnegut, I heard from a friend a casual mention that Szymborska had died from lung cancer. I flashed immediately to my first memories of her work—something from Views With A Grain of Sand—read aloud by another friend, which caused me to pick up the book soon after. I remembered the first time I heard her name pronounced correctly and the retroactive embarrassment I felt for the dozens of times I’d said it wrong before. I remembered reading “Photograph from September 11” and feeling worlds collide as this aging Polish woman gave words to my feelings for an American sadness. But I did not cry.
I’m a schoolteacher now, and on Thursday morning I stood at the photocopier in the faculty lounge, running off copies of some of my favorite poems. A colleague teaching a writing course noted my expression and asked what was wrong as I approached her. I said nothing was wrong; that I came with happy thoughts. That I came with poetry, and wouldn’t she share it with her class this morning?
I do not want to cry for Szymborska as I did for Kurt Vonnegut. At twenty, travelling through Europe, I felt alone with my grief. I was just then beginning to shrug off the teenaged idea that no one felt the things I felt, that no one had the passion or attachment to art or literature that I had. Kurt Vonnegut was a part of my growing up and so his death was a blow to a world I could no longer protect. Wislawa Szymborska survived my childhood and so it is with an adult grief that I mourn and celebrate her. I don’t wish to claim her for myself—to make her death personal and private and devastating. Instead, I want to share her work with as many people as I can. I want her turns of phrase to speak for her. It is, as Wislawa Szymborska herself says:
I can do only two things for them—
describe this flight
and not add a last line.