Column: Gathering under one small star


For the Valley News

Published: 12-11-2021 10:10 PM

This is what I know: On a cold, sunny morning a few weeks ago when I had returned from my walk, I brewed coffee and brought breakfast to my writing table, as I do nearly every morning. I had been immersed for several weeks in the collection 100 Poems to Break Your Heart, by Edward Hirsch. Opening the book to the next selection, Wislawa Szymborska’s Under One Small Star, I began reading.

The Polish poet isn’t new to me. For several years toward the end of my teaching career, I offered a class on literature of the Holocaust, and she was an important part of the reading list. But that was a long time ago, so I was glad to see that Hirsch had included her in his anthology.

Under One Small Star is a long poem in which Szymborska apologizes — poetically — for her egregious errors, which occur simply because she is human:

My apologies to chance for calling it necessity,

My apologies to necessity if I’m mistaken, after all.

Please, don’t be angry, happiness, that I take you as my due …

Don’t bear me ill will, speech, that I borrow weighty words,

Then labor heavily so that they may seem light.

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The lament here of her inability to appreciate more deeply other people, objects of nature, ideas or, indeed, anything at all, struck a chord. Her poem invited me into a relationship for the hour I sat with it. I read it several more times, questioned it, wrote about it.

Not long after that, I opened an email from a dear college classmate who lives in Canaan, N.Y. Julia and I haven’t visited each other in a number of years. She and her husband, both academics, have often spent parts of the year in France. With distance as a factor, we learned to be happy keeping in touch remotely — though no less closely.

Her note began, “Albert and I have come to love the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1996. Every poem is a gem.”

Elated by the coincidence of our shared recent reading, I photographed my marked-up page of Under One Small Star and sent it to Julia. Our correspondence continued, and by its conclusion, we had again affirmed our long and valued connection.

A few days later, I received a welcome handwritten note from my granddaughter, now again in residence at her Midwestern college. As I opened it, two pressed ginkgo leaves fluttered gently from the envelop. I picked them up, placed them into a small aqua-colored bottle, and set them on the windowsill just above my writing table. Their unassuming presence has a quiet grace.

In attractive cursive script, my granddaughter elaborated at length on her intense geology classes and on her involvement with campus activities. She concluded with comments on her reading, a passion we share: “I’ve just discovered Wislawa Szymborska, a Polish writer you might already know. Right now I am reading some pieces from Nonrequired Readings. I love it and can’t wait to talk about it.”

Elated again, I sent her my marked-up page of Under One Small Star, my affirmative response to her invitation.

This is what I surmise: First, that poets and their creations can become newly relevant as time goes on. Second, that readers sometimes perceive a kind of magic in the experience of poetry. Finally, that this latent magic is affirmed in a coincidence like my reading Wislawa Szymborska one morning in early winter and learning that two other readers in my life were engaged with her too, for no discernable reason at all.

In Under One Small Star, Szymborska writes, “Bear with me, O mystery of existence, as I pluck the occasional thread from your train.”

Mary K. Otto, formerly of Norwich, lives in Shelburne, Vt. Email her at