The Poetry in Questions


I am not a fan of invasive photography and film. You know. People, for instance, who record a burial in a cemetery. Such images, to my mind, belong to the photography of memory, a holier place where they can shift and adjust over time according to the mood and age of the person recalling it.

Don’t get me wrong. My wife and I have albums upon albums of photography, mostly generated by our children’s upbringing. We look at them somewhere between seldom and never, and they elbow out space for books on the bookshelves. What’s more, our children, now grown, have little interest or room for such truck.

So speak, Memory, I want to say. Heck with photos and film. The past is lovely when seen through a memory darkly.

I thought of all of this while reading the poetry of Wislawa Szymborska (and how I love that name!) yesterday. I came upon her “Portrait from Memory,” and it was all questions. The poetry of questions, if you will. But the shifting images in these questions were rich with possibility—much richer than the strict limits of an actual photograph would have been.

So here’s to our suspect memories, and the (what else?) artful way Szymborska plays with them. An album of photographs would take its ball and go home right away. With its cold logic, it would have little patience for word play. More’s the pity. More’s the reason Szymborska developed images with the aperture of her poet’s eye instead.


Portrait from Memory
Wislawa Szymborska (translation: Clare Cavanagh & Stanislaw Baranczak)

Everything seems to agree.
The head’s shape, the features, the silhouette, the height.
But there’s no resemblance.
Maybe not in that position?
A different color scheme?
Maybe more in profile,
as if looking at something?
What about something in his hands?
His own book? Someone else’s?
A map? Binoculars? A fishing reel?
And shouldn’t he be wearing something different?
A soldier’s uniform in ’39? Camp stripes?
A windbreaker from that closet?
Or—as if passing to the other shore—
up to his ankles, his knees, his waist, his neck,
deluged? Naked?
And maybe a backdrop should be added?
For example, a meadow still uncut?
Rushes? Birches? A lovely cloudy day?
Maybe someone should be next to him?
Arguing with him? Joking?
Drinking? Playing cards?
A relative? A chum?
Several women? One?
Maybe standing in a window?
Going out the door?
With a stray dog at his feet?
In a friendly crowd?
No, no, all wrong.
He should be alone,
that suits some best.
And not so familiar, so close up?
Farther? Even farther?
In the furthermost depths of the image?
His voice couldn’t carry
even if he called?
And what in the foreground?
Oh, anything.
As long as it’s a bird
just flying by.