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Portrait of a Woman: According to a Pole

Wisława Szymborska, who was born in 1923, was a Pole, a reformed socialist, and an extraordinary poet who (very deservedly) won the 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature.  The citation read, in part, that she composed “poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality.”

I suppose I feel a connection to her in a few different ways:

First, she was Polish.  I married into a proud and patriotic Polish-American family (Zbozny).

On my mother’s side, I have much affection for the story of Auntie Betty, who fell in love with a WWII Polish RAF flyer who’d been led to believe that his wife had died in a concentration camp.

Everyone expected Betty and Stefan to marry after the war.  However, after the war, his wife was found to be a terribly damaged survivor in her camp.  She and Stefan emigrated to Canada, and Betty never heard from him again.  Betty never married.

Her story taught me, among much else, of the almost superhuman contributions of many Poles to the British war effort.

And of the lifelong fidelity of a woman’s heart.

When my stepdaughter married (Halloween 1999, which may explain the subsequent fallout from the event), the program for her wedding included a Szymborska poem, Portrait of a Woman.

I’m as fond of a joke as the next person, even (usually) one that’s told at my expense, and I thought that the re-tweet by the WaPo reporter of the “Every woman is ‘bi.’ You just have to figure out if it’s polar or sexual” joke was pretty funny.  The middle-school meltdown which followed it was also funny, but in a completely different way, in much the same way the fact that a confirmed Supreme Court Justice doesn’t have the guts, the gumption, or, apparently the brains, to describe what actually makes a woman who and what she is, is also quite hilarious.

Wisława Szymborska had no such qualms.  Here’s her poem:

Portrait of a Woman

She must be a variety.

Change so that nothing will change.
It’s easy, impossible, tough going, worth a shot.
Her eyes are, as required, deep, blue, gray,

Dark merry, full of pointless tears.
She sleeps with him as if she’s first in line or the only one on earth.
She’ll bear him four children, no children, one.

Naive, but gives the best advice.
Weak, but takes on anything.
A screw loose and tough as nails.
Curls up with Jasper or Ladies’Home Journal.

Can’t figure out this bolt and builds a bridge.
Young, young as ever, still looking young.
Holds in her hand a baby sparrow with a broken wing,

Her own money for some trip far away,
a meat cleaver, a compress, a glass of vodka.
Where’s she running, isn’t she exhausted.

Not a bit, a little, to death, it doesn’t matter.
She must love him, or she’s just plain stubborn.
For better, for worse, for heaven’s sake.

Wisława Szymborska died in 2012, at the age of 88, of lung cancer.

PS:  The photo of the broken bird at the top of this post is that of the “Phoebster,” a baby bird somewhat smaller than my thumb who one of my dogs discovered in the weeds many years ago.  She’d fallen out of her nest, and I couldn’t even find her nest.  So I brought her in, fed and watered her, and kept her for a few weeks.  She thrived.  On my first attempt to release her back into the wild, she refused to go.  The second time, she flew off.  And then, for a few years, an adult female Phoebe would come knocking at my window every Spring. Woman to woman.. Saying ‘thank you,’ I expect.

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