“Psalm” by Wisława Szymborska

Mural of Brotherhood (US-Mexico border)
A collaboratively painted “Mural de la Hermandad” (Mural of Brotherhood), initiated by Mexican artist Enrique Chiu, spans a mile of Mexico’s border frontage in Tijuana. Photo courtesy of Enrique Chiu.

Oh, the leaky boundaries of man-made states!
How many clouds float past them with impunity;
how much desert sand shifts from one land to another;
how many mountain pebbles tumble onto foreign soil
in provocative hops!

Need I mention every single bird that flies in the face of frontiers
or alights on the roadblock at the border?
A humble robin—still, its tail resides abroad
while its beak stays home. If that weren’t enough, it won’t stop bobbing!

Among innumerable insects, I’ll single out only the ant
between the border guard’s left and right boots
blithely ignoring the questions “Where from?” and “Where to?”

Oh, to register in detail, at a glance, the chaos
prevailing on every continent!
Isn’t that a privet on the far bank
smuggling its hundred-thousandth leaf across the river?
And who but the octopus, with impudent long arms,
would disrupt the sacred bounds of territorial waters?

And how can we talk of order overall
when the very placement of the stars
leaves us doubting just what shines for whom?

Not to speak of the fog’s reprehensible drifting!
And dust blowing all over the steppes
as if they hadn’t been partitioned!
And the voices coasting on obliging airwaves,
that conspiratorial squeaking, those indecipherable mutters!

Only what is human can truly be foreign.
The rest is mixed vegetation, subversive moles, and wind.

This poem was originally published in Polish in Wisława Szymborska’s 1976 collection Wielka liczba (A Large Number). It appears in English translation by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Barańczak, as here, in Map: Collected and Last Poems by Wisława Szymborska (Houghton Mifflin, 2015).

3 thoughts on ““Psalm” by Wisława Szymborska

  1. Re: “Psalm” by Wislawa Szymborska…
    This is a perfect poem expressing the arbitrary fleeting, human-centric, and ultimate meaninglessness of political borders and boundaries. Lovely.

    It seems history teaches that humans cannot coexist without defined borders, even between my house and yours, but as “Psalm” illuminates, we really do need to understand just how much or how little they are good for.

    Like

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