Archive for the ‘ Book Reviews ’ Category

Poems New and Collected
1957 – 1997
by Wislawa Szymborska
Translated from the Polish
by Stanislaw Baranczak
and Clare Cavanagh

Reviewed by Merilyn Oniszczuk Jackson
For The Inquirer
April 19, 1998


Reading Wislawa Szymborksa’s poems is like gazing into Poland’s famed amber. What does the cracked, ancient resin refract? An insect’s eyelash, a fish’s scale? Her verse exposes the universe’s most mundane rubbish and mankind’s banal indifference to all in its grip.

When she won the 1996 Nobel prize, Szymborska titled her acceptance speech, (included in this book) “The Poet and the World.” She spoke about the respectability of being a poet and places poets in “a select group of Fortune’s darlings.” The world is their subject.

Not surprisingly, Szymborska writes about the conflicting desires in the world; how they multiply and cancel each other out with dizzying speed. Every minute, every word is a wild card waiting to be dealt. Clothes parses no less than two dozen parts of clothing; nevertheless it presents a model of terse economy. The doctor tells the patient that for now it’s not too bad, and the matter-of-fact tone belies the relief in the lines:

…to pull out of handbags, pockets, sleeves
a crumpled, dotted, flowered, checkered scarf
whose usefulness has suddenly been prolonged.

At age 75, Szymborska has published nine volumes of poetry. This welcome new English translation of Szymborska’s poetry is by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh. Baranczak, beloved as a poet and activist in Poland and respected as a poet abroad, holds the chair in Slavic literature at Harvard University. Cavanagh, is a professor in the department of Slavic languages at the University of Wisconsin. Cavanagh and Baranczak received the 1996 PEN Translation Prize for their View with a Grain of Sand. One hundred of Szymborska’s poems appeared in that 1995 volume, also published by Harcourt Brace & Co.

This latest translation is punchier, more direct, closer to Szymborska’s understated perceptions than the 1981 English translation by Robert A. Maguire and the late Magnus Jan Krynski. Some differences are worth noting because the present translation better projects Szymborska’s ironic voice.

A brief comparison between some of the older titles and the new, shows the earlier translations may be more lyrical, but wordier. What had been Two Monkeys by Breughel, becomes Breughel’s Two Monkeys. Four in the Morning is now Four A.M.
A sea change in cadence also occurs. In one of her most famous poems, A Million Laughs, A Bright Hope, it is “easy to drown in a teaspoon of ocean.” The subject in the current volume’s No End of Fun is “easily drowned in the ocean’s teaspoon.”

Szymborksa more or less repudiates a 1952 collection written in the political themes acceptable during Stalinist times, and her 1954 publication is inexplicably ignored in this translation as well as in the Krynski/Maguire edition. Both begin with the 1957 collection, Calling Out To Yeti. With the addition of 64 previously untranslated poems, including seven written in the last five years, this volume becomes the most complete English-language collection to date.

Her poems can be innocent and wise or truckling and truculent. Szymborska revels in contradictions like these. Seance ends “radiant and deceptive” and Sky in “rapture and despair.”

For Szymborska though, a word is only one consonant away from being a world, one continent away from being free. As a young adult living in the circumscribed world of post-war Poland, in the smoke-blackened, medieval town of Krakow, her writing found flight for her and her readers. She wrote a host of poems on poetry, death, and of course, war. In The End and the Beginning, she provides a formula for cleaning up after war where

Someone has to lie there
in the grass that covers up
the causes and effects
with a cornstalk in his teeth,
gawking at clouds. p.228

She takes us, her readers, with her on microscopic visits to the insectal world of “ants stitching in the grass” (No Title Required) and beetles “for such great despair/that beetle’s six legs wouldn’t be enough” (Interview With a Child.) And just as simply and swiftly she telescopes us into the universe. In Over Wine, she describes perhaps her own coquetishness at meeting a man:

And I tell him tales about
ants that die of love beneath
a dandelion’s constellation.

Along with inversions like these, Szymborska, like other great Polish writers, uses irony and self-mockery. An Opinion on the Question of Pornography, is a disquisition on the intelligentsia’s preference for “the forbidden tree of knowledge to the pink buttocks found in glossy magazines.”

Though Szymborska talks overtly about love or falling in love in at least five poems, she too, steers away from pornography. Two lines in Ruben’s Women, however, are powerful enough to make up for any lack of eroticism:

thick-whiskered Phoebus, on a sweaty steed,
riding straight into the seething bedchamber.
As intimate as her poetry can be, Szymborska is an intensely private person. She does not care for the attention she’s received since winning the prize and is said to go out even in Krakow in disguises. Fellow Nobel laureate and countryman, Czeslaw Milosz, [cq] wrote about writers in internal exile behind the Iron Curtain. In her poetry, Szymborska found internal freedom and so shared with her readers a space to breathe. May our continuing discovery of her poetry not diminish her freedom.

Phoenix Poetry Series 2013


{9} The Gallery

1229 Grand Ave.

Friday, September 27th 7-9pm

Merilyn Jackson


Eric Wertheimer

 Merilyn Jackson regularly writes about dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism.  She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance.  Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself – although she also writes poetry.  Additionally, her poems can be found in Exquisite Corpse, The Rusty Nail, Broad Street Review, PrimeGlib, and several are forthcoming in Alternating Current. 

Eric Wertheimer is Professor of English and American Studies at Arizona State University and currently an Associate Vice Provost for Graduate Programs.  He is the author of Underwriting: The Poetics of Insurance in America (Stanford University Press, 2006) and Imagined Empires: Incas, Aztecs, and the New World of American Literature, 1771-1876 (Cambridge University Press, 1998).  He has published his poems in a variety of journals over the past ten years; Mylar is his first book of poetry.  His other ongoing book projects include:  Pretexts: War and Writing in the Early Republic, and Within Trauma: Biopolitics, Poetics, Praxis (forthcoming from NYU Press).

Spammer Alert!

Note to Spammers: I am a professional writer with more than 20 years experience. I write every single word that I upload onto my blog and use the blog as a repository for my published work. I would have no need to hire any writers especially at .01 cents per word. What sort of person would write for such peanuts? But you can hire me for $1.00 per word. Merilyn

Posted on Sun, Oct. 23, 2011

Reviewed by Merilyn Jackson

For The Inquirer


Actress, Empress, Whore
A Novel

By Stella Duffy

Penguin. 352 pp. $15 (paperback)

She rose from actress to empress, from prostitute to political powerhouse, as tough an infighter as any man in the labyrinthine Byzantine Empire.

New Zealand native Stella Duffy, who now lives in London, tells the story in Theodora, an evocative historical novel released last year in the United Kingdom and now available in paperback in the United States.

Born about 500, Theodora was the daughter of a bear trainer. Duffy, writing at a quick, cinematic pace, tracks her odyssey from the bowels of the Hippodrome to the imperial palace, where she became the paramour and then the wife of Emperor Justinian I, who by all accounts relied on her judgment.

Some of Duffy’s most vividly imagined passages cover Theodora’s desert conversion to Monophysitism (the belief that Jesus had only one nature, divine, rather than two, human and divine). It was a significant decision in a world where theology and politics walked hand-in-hand and the majority held the two-nature view of Jesus.

In Duffy’s account, Theodora’s conversion takes place during a three-year journey back to Constantinople from Appolonia (in present-day Libya), where a pre-Justinian lover has banished her. She endures the symbolic 40 days and nights alone in a cave. She has visions and delirium and then “she lay in a pool of her own thin blood, the pool spreading rapidly, out and away from her, liquid life pouring away.”

For all the drama of Theodora’s life and all the double-dealing and steamy scenes, Duffy leaves the reader eager for the full story of the rule of the Augusti, the royal couple, but her novel ends with their marriage and coronation. Duffy promises a sequel that will no doubt deal with Theodora’s key role in the brutal suppression of an uprising against her husband in 532, along with the intrigues, earthquakes, plagues, wars, the rebuilding of the great church, Hagia Sophia, and its costs and Theodora’s death in 548.

As Duffy presents her, Theodora combines warring characteristics that alloy into a mettle greater than that of any man of the era. She was ambitious, unscrupulous, wily, but also loyal and compassionate.

Justinian, known as a ravenously intellectual student and lawmaker, is remembered for issuing the Corpus Juris Civilis, the Body of Civil Law. In Duffy’s portrayal, he is a tireless scholar king and Theodora’s ardent and loyal lover.

Duffy cites more than a dozen sources on Theodora from the last several decades. If ever there was a woman whose power, reputation, and stature in history demand the same fascination as Cleopatra, it’s Theodora. Duffy leans most heavily on the elegantly written biograpohy Theodora: Empress of Byzantium (2004), by Paolo Cesaretti, and on the historian Procopius’ Wars of Justinian and his savage Secret History, which reveals his distaste, if not his hatred, for Theodora, his contemporary.

Lately, Duffy has taken some Internet heat for her use of profanity. When it comes from the mouths of former brothel acquaintances, or even Theodora’s own, it rings with authenticity. But the author repeatedly drops the F-bomb as a kind of shorthand for making love. In the passages on Theodora’s pre-Justinian life, it sounds merely lazy. This becomes more grating when she writes about the imperial couple making love. Accounts of their union show it to have been loving and respectful. One of Justinian’s laws proclaimed, “Marriage does not consist in sexual relations, but in conjugal affection.”

Duffy succeeds best with the dialogues she creates between Justinian and Theodora. They are simple, but intimate and caring. After the death of his uncle, the Emperor Justin, Justinian feels orphaned. He asks Theodora, “It is just me now, isn’t it?” She responds, “In the purple?” And he says, “With you beside me.”

Perhaps in the sequel, Duffy will reimagine and eroticize their lovemaking. As a historical narrative, her book is racy and informative, but her unmelodious and dry style is unbefitting a ruler so juicy.

Merilyn Jackson writes on dance, books, and food for the Inquirer and other publications. Her blog is

Read more:


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers: