Wislawa Szymborska, “Example”

for Monika

Example (from The Drugstore Notebook)
Wislawa Szymborska (tr. Clare Cavanagh & Stanislaw Baranczak)

A gale
stripped all the leaves from the trees last night
except for one leaf
left
to sway solo on a naked branch.

With this example
Violence demonstrates
that yes of course –
it likes its little joke from time to time.

Comment:

– Ridiculous! How uncharmingly oversentimental. I fail to shudder at the gale which left one leaf swinging solo on a branch. What kind of person finds herself transfixed by a lonely leaf? –

It’s my loss if I fail to shudder. Overstatement weaves together with understatement all throughout the poem, but especially in the first stanza, the stanza introducing the gale. Szymborska explicitly states the wind’s destruction of the trees, as it “stripped all the leaves from the trees last night / except for one leaf.” She leaves the rest to our imagination. We’re forced to ask what the gale did to the rest of the landscape, what it did to the speaker’s own house, whether it horrified her, giving her a restless, sleepless night. The state of the “one leaf” provides the answer. “Left to sway solo on a naked branch,” it stands for the speaker herself, alone, tormented by violence, and the difficulty of communicating the effects of that violence.

That difficulty lies in the seeming. One’s pain can always seem ridiculous and trivial to others, no matter how deeply it cuts. The second stanza elaborates this, again with a mixture of overstatement and understatement. First, the overstatement: the gale wrecking the trees is no less than an “example,” perhaps the example of a godlike Violence. He uses leaves and people and whatever else to chuckle to himself. Violence is alone, too, and this nearly marks him a superior being, as he stands immune to his own power.

The overstatement undoes itself. Violence, depicted as a cruel, laughing god who uses the world to demonstrate his power, might breed in some a cynical attitude toward the speaker. How dare she take her private, quiet pains and compare them with the savagery of natural disasters or war? Ah, but the moment one asks that question, the speaker’s point is proved. Hiding in our repulsion at the carnage of battle or thousands left homeless after a storm can be a bit of a nasty sentiment. Pains matter more if they concern us, as we overvalue the public perception of pain. That public perception has embedded itself deeply in our expectations, our more informed opinions, our traditions.

Which brings us to why this poem was written at all. To recap: alone, despairing, justifiably scared, she identifies with a lonely leaf on a branch after a storm. It seems ridiculous to us to dwell on being torn apart by some random action of the universe. After all, bravery depends on the reasonable expectation that one can continue as oneself for some time. The poem does not deny any of this. It quietly asserts that it is at least as ridiculous to fail to see how many lives are neglected, cast aside, isolated, as if Violence was the only government.