What if a tortoise had a man’s face? Or if a woman’s body was given the head of a dog? Whereas poetry can only express astonishment and talk about all these ‘what ifs’, Wisława Szymborska’s collages actually show what reality could have looked like.
A pair of lips with a stem and two leaves for the nose and eyes. The collage used on the cover of Wisława Szymborska’s 2004 Wiersze wybrane [Selected Poems] shows some characteristics of her work in general: minimalism (there are only two elements, sparsely drawn, as if almost not there; a lot is left for our imagination), a light touch, a blurring of boundaries between various spheres or worlds (in this case, between plants and people), and the ever present ‘What if?’ question (after all, the pieces of the puzzle could be arranged in many ways, and our world and the creatures in it could look differently). The collage and Szymborska’s poem “Astonishment” are companion pieces:
Why after all this one and not the rest?
Why this specific self, not in a nest,
but a house? Sewn up not in scales, but skin?
Not topped off by a leaf, but by a face?
Why on earth now, on Tuesday of all days,
and why on earth, pinned down by this star’s pin?
In spite of years of my not being here?
In spite of seas of all these dates and fates,
these cells, celestials, and coelenterates?
What is it really that made me appear
neither an inch nor half a globe too far,
neither a minute nor aeons too early?
What made me fill myself with me so squarely?
Why am I staring now into the dark
and muttering this unending monologue
just like the growling thing we call a dog?
– Wisława Szymborska i