Books Life Poetry

Wislawa Szymborska

I was sad to learn that Wislawa Szymborska, one of my favourite poets, died yesterday in Krakow, aged 88.

Her total output was small – when she was awarded the Nobel prize she had published barely 200 poems, and in her lifetime published something less than 400 poems – but, like their author, the poems have a quiet authority and always brought a new way of seeing.

Take Cat in an Empty Apartment for example, a wonderful poem about the death of a friend – from the point of view of the cat:

Die — You can’t do that to a cat.

Since what can a cat do

in an empty apartment?

Climb the walls?

Rub up against the furniture?

Nothing seems different here,

but nothing is the same.

Nothing has been moved,

but there’s more space.

And at nighttime no lamps are lit.

Footsteps on the staircase,

but they’re new ones.

The hand that puts fish on the saucer

has changed, too.

Something doesn’t start

at its usual time.

Something doesn’t happen

as it should.

Someone was always, always here,

then suddenly disappeared

and stubbornly stays disappeared.

Every closet has been examined.

Every shelf has been explored.

Excavations under the carpet turned up nothing.

A commandment was even broken,

papers scattered everywhere.

What remains to be done.

Just sleep and wait.

Just wait till he turns up,

just let hims show his face.

Will he ever get a lesson

on what not to do to a cat.

Sidle towards him

as if unwilling

and ever so slow

on visibly offended paws,

and no leaps or squeals at least to start.

[Translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh]

Posted also in memoriam of Barney, faithful family dog who you can see at the coast at Kimmeridge in the masthead above, and who in his own way was quite fond of cats, who also died yesterday.

Life Poetry Uncategorized


There’s an argument, and a good one, that we are becoming swamped by anniversaries. But we are still living with this defining moment of the first decade of the new millenium, and it looks like we’ll be living with it for a long while yet.
What’s left to say about it? I have chosen a poem, by Wislawa Szymborska which, although
although the event described varies in the particular, brilliantly succeeds in evoking the chilling aspect of

There’s an argument, and a persuasive one, that we are becoming swamped by anniversaries. But we are still living with the aftermath of this defining moment of the first decade of the new millenium, with no clear end in sight.

I’m writing this at the same time as, eight years ago, I had stopped work, transfixed by the pictures unfolding on the TV; that day when out of the same clear sky everything was suddenly different.

What’s left to say? What needs to be said. For which I have chosen a poem by Wislawa Szymborska. Although the action it describes is tellingly different in one key aspect, I know of no other piece of writing that more brilliantly captures the chilling randomness inherent in acts of terror, and cuts through to the humanity of its victims. Read The Terrorist, He’s Watching.