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Wislawa Szymborska was born in 1923. She is Polish and currently lives in Cracow (Krakow). In 1996 she won the Nobel Prize for Literature for her ironic and deceptively simple poetry. Her poems have been translated into English and collected into books: People On A Bridge, Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts, and her best-known work, View With A Grain Of Sand. Slightly reclusive, she avoids the limelight, preferring to lead a quiet, normal existence.

Although her poems are written in clear, direct language that is almost childlike in its simplicity, Szymborska tackles heavy subjects such as death (“Cat in an Empty Apartment”), societal demands (“Ruben’s Women”), relationships (“The Tower of Babel”), and the constancy of nature (“Water”). Many of her poems have a touch of whimsy, although they are never fluffy. For example, in “Conversation with a Stone,” Szymborska repeats the line “I knock at the stone’s front door. / It’s only me, let me come in,” then exchanges dialogue with the stone; at the end of the poem are the lines

I knock at the stone’s front door.
“It’s only me, let me come in.”

“I don’t have a door,” says the stone.

In another poem, “Writing a Resume,” Szymborska outlines with bitter irony the requirements for obtaining a job: one cannot tell about all the wonderful subjective details that make each life unique, but instead must stick to concrete, objective facts. In a resume, “landscapes are replaced by addresses…of all your loves, mention only the marriage.” Also, one must include a demi-profile “photograph with one ear showing. / What matters is its shape, not what it hears. / What is there to hear, anyway? / The clatter of paper shredders.” Although she approaches some bitter subjects, Szymborska retains a sense of grace and humor in her words.

Szymborska uses simple, basic words in her poems, and this is reflected in the translations. She also approaches weighty topics in a direct, almost childlike way. In “Cat in an Empty Apartment,” Szymborska tackles one of the biggest subjects of all: death. She does this from the point of view of a deceased person’s cat. The poem starts with the line “Die – you can’t do that to a cat,” then explores the loneliness and offended longing of the cat left to “just sleep and wait.” In the empty apartment, “nothing has been moved / but there’s more space. / And at nighttime no lamps are lit.” The poem draws to a close with the cat pouting, planning its behavior upon the person’s expected return:

Sidle toward him
as if unwilling
and ever so slow
on visibly offended paws,
and no leaps or squeals at least to start.

The lines become short at the end of the poem, slowing down the pace, then the last line rushes to its conclusion; the cat has betrayed its true feelings.