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A Few Words on the Soul

by Wislawa Szymborska

translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

We have a soul at times.
No one’s got it non-stop,
for keeps.

Day after day,
year after year
may pass without it.

it will settle for awhile
only in childhood’s fears and raptures.
Sometimes only in astonishment
that we are old.

It rarely lends a hand
in uphill tasks,
like moving furniture,
or lifting luggage,
or going miles in shoes that pinch.

It usually steps out
whenever meat needs chopping
or forms have to be filled.

For every thousand conversations
it participates in one,
if even that,
since it prefers silence.

Just when our body goes from ache to pain,
it slips off-duty.

It’s picky:
it doesn’t like seeing us in crowds,
our hustling for a dubious advantage
and creaky machinations make it sick.

Joy and sorrow
aren’t two different feelings for it.
It attends us
only when the two are joined.

We can count on it
when we’re sure of nothing
and curious about everything.

Among the material objects
it favors clocks with pendulums
and mirrors, which keep on working
even when no one is looking.

It won’t say where it comes from
or when it’s taking off again,
though it’s clearly expecting such questions.

We need it
but apparently
it needs us
for some reason too.


Born in Bnin, Poland, Wislawa Szymborska won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996. Her latest book, Miracle Fair: Selected Poems of Wislawa Szymborska, was published by W. W. Norton & Co. in May, 2001. (2001)

Stanislaw Baranczak is the Alfred Jurzykowski Professor of Polish Literature, Emeritus, at Harvard University. He has translated, among others, Wislawa Szymborska (with Clare Cavanagh) and Jan Kockanowski (with Seamus Heaney) into English and has published over forty volumes of English poetry in Polish translation. (2001)

Clare Cavanagh is an associate professor of Slavic languages at Northwestern University. She has translated, or co-translated with Stanislaw Baranczak, eight books of Polish poetry, most recently Adam Zagajewski’s Selected Poems and Wislawa Szymborska’s Selected Prose. Her own second book, Poetry and Power: Russia, Poland and the West, is forthcoming from Yale University Press, and she is currently writing a biography of Czeslaw Milosz. (2001)

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