If there is one theme that has carried through my entries since I began blogging, it’s this: my dad is way cooler than I am. Well, also that I have a fairly dysfunctional relationship with Diet Coke and am obsessed with bad reality television to a degree that is possibly not healthy. Those two themes aside, though, it’s definitely that my dad is way cooler than I am. He’s the person who’s responsible for the good part of my taste in music: he raised me on Bob Dylan and the Beatles, taught me to appreciate Graeme Edge’s poetry on Moody Blues albums as well as the Moody Blues albums themselves, and introduced me to musical artists I wasn’t cool enough to have heard of yet, like Laura Veirs and Laura Marling. He’s the one who told me I had to listen to Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games,” the one who explained the “Paul is dead” phenomenon to me, the one who first introduced me to Leonard Cohen. He’s also the person most responsible not only for the fact that I’m a writer but for the way that I write. On our weekendly trips to the library, he put the poetry of T.S. Eliot and e.e. cummings in my hands. He’s the one who told me that I absolutely had to read Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and Dostoyevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov, and he’s the one who taught me how to pronounce “Dostoyevsky” and “Karamazov.” In one word: my dad? Awesome.
However, as my dad is way cooler than me, I have, from time to time, not appreciated the Awesome of his suggestions until later. Such was the case with Alice Munro — he gave me a collection of her short stories for Christmas one year, and I was bored to tears by them. I picked up the book again years later, and it also ended with tears — but the tears were because the stories were so very good, so expertly crafted and beautifully rendered, so subtle and yet so deeply moving.
The same thing happened, I hate to admit, with Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska. My dad started reading Szymborska a long time ago — probably around 1996, when she won the Nobel Prize — which really should have been a sign to the teenage Emma that she needed to read her book and immediately, but, as she so often did, the teenage Emma did not listen. The teenage Emma was too into blood and guts and glory splattered all over the page, and so she didn’t appreciate the subtle poems her father said she should read.
Cut to ten years later, when I came across this Szymborska poem. I’m not going to post it on the Blog or even talk about it all that much, because it makes me cry every time I read it, and not just because I’m a cat person. It’s a perfect poem: the perspective, the subtle shifts of language, the way she views grief through a cat’s eyes and in this way shows all of us what grief really it — I should have listened to my dad. As always, he knew best.
Szymborska died yesterday, at 88. In his beautiful article on NPR, David Orr writes that for Szymborska, “the little things — onions, cats, monkeys, and yes, sea cucumbers — turned out to be very big indeed.” That, more than anything, is what I took away from her verse, and in more ways than just appear in her verse: when it comes to a father and a daughter, it’s the little things — loving the same song, memorizing the same cheesy poem about “bursting, blasting, billowing forth with the power of ten thousand butterfly sneezes,” being heartbroken by the same image of a cat for whom “Something does not happen quite as it should” — that turn out to be very big indeed.
In honor of Szymborska, and of my father, I’m posting the excerpt from her poem “Birthday” that he sent me last night.
I am just passing through, it’s a five minute stopI won’t catch what is distant; what’s too close, I’ll mix up.While trying to plumb what the void’s inner sense is,I’m bound to pass by all these poppies and pansies.What a loss when you think how much effort was spentperfecting this petal, this pistil, this scentfor the one-time appearance, which is all they’re allowed,so aloofly precise and so fragilely proud.