Often poets don't look at the world straight on. They gaze down in order to glimpse something clearly. Or they peer in so they can see out. Such is the case with two new books by major women writers: Monologue of a Dog by Wislawa Szymborska and After by Jane Hirshfield. Both women take readers on fascinating intellectual journeys, yet they follow very different paths.
"Monologue of a Dog" will delight readers with its even quality. The poems work the way her earlier ones have, often beginning with a fact or an image that gets transformed into something grander.
Szymborska easily moves from small to large and back, always taking the long view. This ability is one reason the Polish poet has earned a large international following. Clear yet complex writing is another. Even a cliched subject becomes compelling in the hands of this Nobel Prize winner. In "Clouds" she writes:
Their trademark: they don't repeat a single shape, shade, pose, arrangement. Unburdened by memory of any kind, they float easily over the facts. What on earth could they bear witness to? They scatter whenever something happens. Compared to clouds, life rests on solid ground, practically permanent, almost eternal.
Perhaps the depth of Szymborska's poems allows her to maintain a consistent approach. Rather than change her style, as many poets do over time, she explores different perspectives. In "Monologue" she writes from a dog's point of view, and then from that of a woman who is dreaming. She even explores the nature of the soul, claiming it's something of a gypsy:
No one's got it nonstop, for keeps. Day after day, year after year may pass without it. Sometimes it will settle for a while only in childhood's fears and raptures.
"Monologue" is a slim volume, yet the poems are so rich that readers will feel they've traversed a great landscape.
Jane Hirshfield takes readers on a long journey as well, but where Szymborska's work makes great imaginative leaps, Hirshfield's is more analytical. She uses imagery as a springboard to explore a mental landscape. …