MUSEUM by Wislawa Szymborska
Here are plates with no appetite.
And wedding rings, but the requited love
has been gone now for some three hundred years.
Here’s a fan–where is the maiden’s blush?
Here are swords–where is the ire?
Nor will the lute sound at the twilight hour.
Since eternity was out of stock,
ten thousand aging things have been amassed instead.
The moss-grown guard in golden slumber
props his mustache on Exhibit Number…
Eight. Metals, clay and feathers celebrate
their silent triumphs over dates.
Only some Egyptian flapper’s silly hairpin giggles.
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.
It struggles, foolish thing, so stubbornly!
Determined to keep living when I’m gone!
(Translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh)
We have been reading the poems of Avvai till now. This week we will read a poem of Wislawa Szymborska, whom I will lovingly call the Polish ‘Avvai’.
Poland has produced some outstanding poets in the 20th Century: Zbignew Herbert, considered one of Europe’s great poets, Tadeusz Różewicz, another influential poet and playwright, Adam Zagajewski, the Noble Laureate, Czeslow Milosz. Even amongst these excellent poets, Wislawa stood out with an unique voice. The 20th Century was cruel for Poland and no wonder that politics was a main ingredient in the works of the important poets. Wislawa though spoke more about the individual than about politics. Her poems are ironic, funny and they have the ability to turn well established ‘truths’ on their head. She does that wonderfully in this poem. Wislawa was awarded the Noble Prize for Literature in 1996.
Immortality of the human being as a notion is what is being turned on its head here. Most religions teach us about immortality. Mortality is what human beings are most scared of and religions try to assuage this fear by many means. The human soul is immortal, the physical body may die but the soul never dies. The good soul is released from rebirth and will merge with the infinite and become immortal, so and so forth. Wislawa on the other hand puts forth the arguments that living things are mortal and it is the non-living things that are immortal!!
“The battle with my dress still rages on.
It struggles, foolish thing, so stubbornly!
Determined to keep living when I’m gone!”
The anger, blush, appetite, love: Everything has vanished but the inanimate objects have stayed intact. They have outlasted human beings.
This can be a fairly straight reading of the poem. You can marvel at Wislawa’s sense of humor and her straightforward and accessible language. Yet the poem opens more doors for us if we read it carefully.
The poem is about the Museum, which houses relics of the past. These are objects which are ‘dead,in the sense that they are of no use to anyone now. Yet when these objects are seen by the visitor, the association of an human emotion with the object springs up. When the visitor sees the fan, he / she thinks: “where is the maiden’s blush?” and when the eye views the sword, the question, “where is the ire” gets asked. These “ten thousand aging things” brings to life an era that has vanished. Every object has some human emotion attached to it: love, anger, greed, jealousy.
It is a sort of ironic that the Museum which houses static relics happens to be the most vibrant and dynamic place as far as a perceptive visitor is concerned. The glory of the Egyptian empire, the trading posts of Mesapotamia, the well built cities of the Indus Valley and many more worlds open up to the visitors. This dull place now becomes a vibrant place filled with many worlds and making time travel an effortless exercise. In other words, the inanimate objects spring to life when people see them and they die a natural death and get back to their original state when there is no one to see them. The Museum, when open to public, becomes the purveyor of multiple universes and becomes a grave of sorts when the doors close.
More importantly I think that Wislawa is turning another well accepted notion on its head here. We generally think that only works of art will survive long after the creator has gone. No one worries about the craftsman. In other words an exquisitely sculpted piece will outlast a utilitarian tea cup. For the future will look only for the work of art. That is our notion. The poem though says the opposite. None of the relics in the museum may be ‘works of art’. They are ordinary objects. The reason why even ordinary objects become immortal is because “eternity was out of stock” and we as human beings want to stock up on eternity. It is not necessary that we get hold of the best artistic creations of the past. It is enough even if we get hold of everyday articles. It gives an idea of how our ancestors lived. It helps us imagine a different age and connect us with the past. In turn it enables us to see ourselves as a part of a long immortal chain. Maybe a thousand years from now a Ravivarma painting will have the same value as a film poster? Which brings me another point: Is Wislawa saying that her dress will outlive her or is she saying that the red dress will outlive her poetry?
There is a reason why I included Wislawa in this series. Wislawa’s poems are like Sangam poems. They have a seemingly simple exterior. Yet they give us the possibility of multiple readings. Similar to Sangam poems, the imagery is well chosen, every phrase is carefully chosen. Yet, the craft is such that this precision hides behind a simple exterior. I am sure of two things: One, the people who were responsible for the Sangam anthology would have welcomed Wislawa with open arms into the Sangam. Two, Wislawa’s poems are going to give her dress a run for their money in the immortality stakes.