‘Hard Life with Memory’, by Wisława Szymborska

I’m a poor audience for my memory.
She wants me to attend her voice nonstop,
but I fidget, fuss,
listen and don’t,
step out, come back, then leave again.

She wants all my time and attention.
She’s got no problem when I sleep.
The day’s a different matter, which upsets her.

She thrusts old letters, snapshots at me eagerly,
stirs up events both important and un-,
turns my eyes to overlooked views,
peoples them with my dead.

In her stories I’m always younger.
Which is nice, but why always the same story.
Every mirror holds different news for me.

She gets angry when I shrug my shoulders.
And takes revenge by hauling out old errors,
weighty, but easily forgotten.
Looks into my eyes, checks my reaction.
Then comforts me, it could be worse.

She wants me to live only for her and with her.
Ideally in a dark, locked room,
but my plans still feature today’s sun,
clouds in progress, ongoing roads.

At times I get fed up with her.
I suggest a separation. From now to eternity.
Then she smiles at me with pity,
since she knows it would be the end of me too.

[Source: The New York Review of Books; translated from Polish by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak]


  1. Gosh.

    I have to turn to my mentor, Leunig:


    Is there in this life a nook
    Not described in some damned book?
    Or in the heart a little bird
    Not yet captured by a word?
    Or in the soul a tiny breath
    Which hasn’t been described to death?
    Something lovelier and lighter
    Than the craft of some damned writer?



  2. Great poem…and brilliant picture too. The translation is very well done; it’s always interesting to wonder how much the translators make a ‘new’ poem when they’re translating, and how much is in the original. The only line that doesn’t seem to work well, rhythmically, is “She thrusts old letters, snapshots at me eagerly” where the last word seems to hang over the edge somehow; it’s a relevant word, but just a bit uncomfortable where it stands, I feel…!


  3. Thanks for the recommendation of “The Trout Opera”. I’ll look for it. However, I do already have a ‘list’ and I always give priority to poetry.
    The next book on my list is one my daughter gave me for Christmas – “The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes which I believe you’ve read.


  4. @Pam: Ah, A Sense of an Ending – a wonderful book. Enjoyed it immensely, and hope that you do too. Your daughter, it seems, has good taste. Frank Rees wrote a great little reflection on the book recently. If you’ve not already read it, you can read it here.


  5. Yea, ….and a much harder life without her, for sure.
    Thanks for sharing the poem, Jason. And for the trick-photo – I like it a lot.


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