March 29, 2012

Death and the Beetle: A Poem by Wislawa Szymborska

Wislawa Szymborska, by Janet Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images

We make such a big deal about death. We can’t seem to talk about it easily and openly with people we love, and we often can’t even bring ourselves to prepare for it – our own deaths… or the passing of loved ones. It holds such power over us.

I recently found a poem I really liked on NPR’s website, in an appreciation piece by Robert Krulwich on the death of Polish poet and Nobel Prize winner Wislawa Szymborska. Here’s the poem, "Seen from Above" from Poems New and Collected: 1957-1997 by WisÅ‚awa Szymborska. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company):

A dead beetle lies on the path through the field.
Three pairs of legs folded neatly on its belly.
Instead of death's confusion, tidiness and order.
The horror of this sight is moderate,
its scope is strictly local, from the wheat grass to the mint.
The grief is quarantined.
The sky is blue.

To preserve our peace of mind, animals die
more shallowly: they aren't deceased, they're dead.
They leave behind, we'd like to think, less feeling and less world,
departing, we suppose, from a stage less tragic.
Their meek souls never haunt us in the dark,
they know their place,
they show respect.

And so the dead beetle on the path
lies unmourned and shining in the sun.
One glance at it will do for meditation —
clearly nothing much has happened to it.
Important matters are reserved for us,
for our life and our death, a death
that always claims the right of way.

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