Saturday, August 29, 2015

Praise and Lament, Part 5: Indirect Lament in Wislawa Szymborska’s “Cat in an Empty Apartment”

In this blog I'd like to talk about what I would call “indirect lament,” or a kind of mourning for loss that is not obvious. As an example, I'm going to discuss a poem by Wislawa Szymborska. 

Szymborska was a Polish poet who lived from 1923 to 2012 and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996. Her life spans the years of Stalinist communism in Poland and the rise of the Solidarity movement that resulted in her country breaking away from the Soviet bloc. She is known for plainspoken language that expresses a surprising complexity of emotion and thought, her wry humor, and the depth she can encapsulate in just a page and a half of free verse.

Wislawa Szymborska
In the context of this blog on indirect lament, I’d like to talk about her poem “Cat in an Empty Apartment.” You can read the poem here in the translation of Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh.

It’s very clear right from the first line that this is a poem about death. But the seriousness of this opening is lightened by the figure of the cat, which doesn’t understand its human roommate’s disappearance. There is something slightly different in the cat’s world, but it’s not a major upheaval yet to the cat.

Finally the cat does get angry at the owner—the cat has moved from the first stage of grief, denial, to the second stage, anger. But the cat never quite gets beyond denial—it is not capable of moving beyond that stage. Maybe that is part of what makes Szymborska’s poem so poignant. Even at the end, the cat is still hoping that its human companion will return, and that the cat will be able to show its anger and then forgive the owner's extended absence. But death has made that reconciliation impossible.


Szymborska’s version of lament is gentle, whimsical, even funny. But in some ways, this heightens the sense of loss. The grief doesn’t hit you like an avalanche. The grief in the poem sneaks up on you and leaves a chord in a minor key resonating at the end, like a great jazz ballad. I think it could be argued that indirect lament can be as effective as its more direct sister. It’s significant that Szymborska wrote “Cat in an Empty Apartment” not long after the death of her husband.

Praise and Lament, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 6Part 7, Part 8Part 9

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer

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