Destination Unknown

One of the reasons that I love lush forests is the desert. Contrast is a door to mindful discovery. Our minds look intently at that which is different from our own familiar. In the desert the destination of the road is obscured by distance, in the forest the road may be only a few feet ahead and behind. In either situation my heart cracks open and I see with those eyes, heart-eyes. I love it all in the moment.

On the other hand, I love to peruse maps for the opposite reason; rather than living in the moment, I live in anticipation of discovery, even if it is not accurate in any way. The maps of early explorers were like this. They were full of foreshortened coastlines and names that implied precious metals and gems. Not to mention monsters and a frightening unknown.

The Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska (1923 – 2012) writes a nice bit on maps and their perfidy. She was the 1996 Nobel Prize winner for Literature. (But let us NOT overlook her translator Clare Cavanagh who made them seem to be written in english, just for us. Otherwise I might never have seen her work and been so moved.)

Wisława Szymborska

Flat as the table
it’s placed on.
Nothing moves beneath it
and it seeks no outlet.
Above—my human breath
creates no stirring air
and leaves its total surface

Its plains, valleys are always green,
uplands, mountains are yellow and brown,
while seas, oceans remain a kindly blue
beside the tattered shores.

Everything here is small, near, accessible.
I can press volcanoes with my fingertip,
stroke the poles without thick mittens,
I can with a single glance
encompass every desert
with the river lying just beside it.

A few trees stand for ancient forests,
you couldn’t lose your way among them.

In the east and west,
above and below the equator—
quiet like pins dropping,
and in every black pinprick
people keep on living.
Mass graves and sudden ruins
are out of the picture.

Nations’ borders are barely visible
as if they wavered—to be or not.

I like maps, because they lie.
Because they give no access to the vicious truth.
Because great-heartedly, good-naturedly
they spread before me a world
not of this world.


Translated, from the Polish, by Clare Cavanagh

3 thoughts on “Destination Unknown

  1. I’m a map-lover and this poem is wonderful – such a distinctive take on maps she has. I agree about the translator – it’s so important, and will make or break a poem for readers in languages other than the poet’s own. I’m curious about the photos in your blog – did you take them? Very nice! And thanks for the follow, I appreciate it.


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