All poets, according to Wislawa Szymborska, are in a perpetual dialogue with the phrase I don't know
. "Each poem," she writes in her 1996 Nobel Lecture, "marks an effort to answer this statement, but as soon as the final period hits the page, the poet begins to hesitate, starts to realize that this particular answer was pure makeshift, absolutely inadequate." As a self-portrait, at least, this is fairly accurate. From the beginning, Szymborska has indeed wrestled with the demon of epistemology. Yet even in her earliest poems, such as "Atlantis," she delivered her speculations with a human--which is to say, a gently ironic--face:
They were or they weren't.
On an island or not.
An ocean or not an ocean
Swallowed them up or it didn't.
Fifteen years later, when her 1972 collection, Could Have, appeared, Szymborska seemed to have made some major inroads into her notorious ignorance. Now she confessed to at least a shred of comprehension, stressing, however, that such knowledge has come at a terrible price: "We read the letters of the dead like helpless gods, / but gods, nonetheless, since we know the dates that follow. / We know which debts will never be repaid. / Which widows will remarry with the corpse still warm." And even in her most recent work, the poet continues to gravitate toward the admirable emptiness of, say, the clouds: "Unburdened by memory of any kind, / they float easily over the facts." Ultimately, though, the joke is on Szymborska, whose poems have grown more witty, more humane, and more tender--in other words, more knowing--with each passing year. View with a Grain of Sand remains an excellent point of entry to Szymborska's oeuvre, but Poems New and Collected is the place to go for a wide-angle view of this superlative and sardonic writer.