Pardon me, hounded hope, for laughing from time to time.
Pardon me, deserts, that I don’t rush to you bearing a spoonful of water.
— Wislawa Szymborska
This is, by far, my most favorite lines from the late 1996 Nobel Prize winning Polish poet. It’s also from my favorite Szymborska poem, “Under One Small Star.”I first encountered it roughly like 14 years ago, when I was studying for my masters of fine arts in creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. I had this phase where I read nothing but Slavic verse translated into English. The poem itself is a lengthy list of apologies; some of them sounded a bit silly, and others were quite profound. I didn’t know at the time that these set of lines would follow me through life.
This poem served me well the first time I angrily walked away American higher education and piecing together part-time teaching jobs. It was for a retail job at Walmart; the pay was about the same – only you could get health care insurance at Walmart. You couldn’t while part timing for American colleges. (This was before the age of Obama’s Affordable Care Act.) Of course, I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I spent years at a superstore in Freehold, New Jersey filled with petty scheming and constant moaning. Practically everybody else’s negativity was around me, and Szymborska’s poem hung in the back of my mind. I had a distinct pattern to my sarcastic retorts to people’s more sillier complaints. It went like this, “On behalf of the Walton Family, I do apologize for your hundreds of price changes and faulty telxon printer.” Some of my coworkers found this quite irritating.
Of course over the years, I angrily walked away from Walmart, twice. In the end, I went back to teaching freshman college writing. I got extremely frustrated with that, again, and I left for China and Changzhou. Since then, I must say my life has gone to a much happier place. I’m extremely grateful for that. Over the two years I lived here, Szymborska’s list of apologies receded a little in my memory and almost disappeared altogether. Something kept it from vanishing, however.
It’s funny how circumstances can change your appreciation of something, no matter if it’s a movie, a poem, or a memory. I found Szymborska again in Changzhou, as I did poets like Seamus Heaney, Pablo Neruda, and T.S Eliot. Not mention gloriously awesome novelists like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. No, it wasn’t through an expat book club. It wasn’t through witty banter with fellow foreigners. Let’s face it: I have been quite antisocial for a long time. It was through a specific place, and passing it always made me smile.
The downtown Injoy Mall used to have a whole wall dedicated to Nobel winning writers. It was a timeline depicting the history of the award. Some of the entries had black and white headshots, and others didn’t. Except for the writer’s names, all of it was in Chinese. A few times, I used to get coffee at the nearby Starbucks and visit this display on Injoy’s second floor. Only, I didn’t do it enough.
It’s gone now, and now I know I took this small intellectual comfort for granted. The wallpaper with the Nobel Laureates has been peeled off. It’s been replaced with a bookstore. That should sound appropriate, but the books are in Chinese. While I am trying to learn the language, I am still functionally illiterate. Those books bring no comfort to me, and they essentially mean nothing so long as I can’t read them.
A truth: you don’t fully appreciate something until it’s unavailable and gone. I now sorely miss this one celebration of international culture. So, in that regard, let me summon and channel the ghost of Wislawa Szymborska and her great, great poem. Let me apologize:
Pardon me, Nobel Laureates; I should have spent more time absorbing your words.