Home > Poetry > A Few Words on the Soul
Translated from the Polish by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh
Published: Mon Oct 15 2001
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Convertiendse en Characoteles / Sorcerers Changing into Their Animal Forms (detail), 2013, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
A Few Words on the Soul

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.

See what's inside AGNI 54

Wisława Szymborska (1923–2012), born in Bnin, Poland, was the author of over fifteen books of poetry and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996. Her Miracle Fair: Selected Poems of Wisława Szymborska was published by W. W. Norton & Co in 2001. She died in February 2012 in Krakow.

Szymborska’s A Large Number was reviewed in AGNI 52 (fall 2000) by Adam Zagajewski.

Stanisław Barańczak (1946–2014) was a Polish poet, literary critic, editor, and translator, as well as, for nearly twenty years until his retirement, a lecturer at Harvard University. He translated, among others, Wislawa Szymborska (with Clare Cavanagh) and Jan Kochanowski (with Seamus Heaney) into English and published more than forty volumes of English poetry in Polish translation.
Clare Cavanagh is a specialist in modern Russian and Polish poetry. She has won numerous awards for her translation of Polish poetry and is currently working on a biography of the poet Czesław Miłosz. (updated 6/2010)
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