Words of WonderA Few Words On The Soul - Wislawa Szymborska

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.


by Wisława Szymborska
translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh


I was struck by this poem by the Polish Nobel prize winner Wislawa Szymborska, who has been describer as a “Mozart of Poetry”. My mum has a bundel of her poems translated in Dutch, and I remember even as a teenager noticing her simple but powerful images and metaphors which she introduces so matter of factly. I was interested to read that her reputation rests on a relatively small body of work, fewer than 350 poems. When asked why she had published so few poems, she said: “I have a trash can in my home”…

This particular one feels poignant to me, and filled with her usual depth under what may seem a simple surface. For instance, why does she mention ‘chopping meat and filling forms’ as moments our soul steps out? From the way I know her, nothing is accidental or could just as well be replaced by, shall we say, ‘washing up and writing a letter’. So worth pondering on the details, I feel.

I don’t exactly know where I stand on the question of what is a soul, and do we even have one. But I sense what she means by her description, especially the bit where she says our soul attends us when we’re ‘sure of nothing and curious about everything’, and those particular and special moments when joy and sorrow are joined. And I like the idea that our soul is waiting to join us, waiting for us to stumble on those moments where that is possible. And who knows, with practice it might just be possible to have more of those moments…


Photo by Elena Kloppenburg on Unsplash