Born 87 years ago (July 2, 1923) in Poland
and publishing, with care, about 250 poems
everyone knows poet, essayist, translator
Nobel Prize for Literature, 1996.
When they first started looking through microscopes
a cold fear blew and it is still blowing.
Life hitherto had been frantic enough
in all its shapes and dimensions.
Which is why it created small-scale creatures,
assorted tiny worms and flies,
but at least the naked human eye
could see them.
But then suddenly beneath the glass,
foreign to a fault
and so petite,
that what they occupy in space
can only charitably be called a spot.
The glass doesn't even touch them,
they double and triple unobstructed,
with room to spare, willy-nilly.
To say they're many isn't saying much.
The stronger the microscope
the more exactly, avidly they're multiplied.
They don't even have decent innards.
They don't know gender, childhood, age.
They may not even know they are — or aren't.
Still they decide our life and death.
Some freeze in momentary stasis,
although we don't know what their moment is.
Since they're so minuscule themselves,
their duration may be pulverized accordingly.
A windborne speck of dust is a meteor
from deepest space,
a fingerprint is a far-flung labyrinth,
where they may gather
for their mute parades,
their blind iliads and upanishads.
I've wanted to write about them for a long-while,
but it's a tricky subject,
always put off for later
and perhaps worthy of a better poet,
even more stunned by the world than I.
But time is short. I write.
They think for days on end,
how to kill so as to kill,
and how many killed will be many.
Apart from this they eat their meals with gusto,
pray, wash their feet, feed the birds,
make phone calls while scratching their armpits,
stanch blood when they cut a finger,
if they're women they buy sanitary napkins,
eye-shadow, flowers for vases,
they make jokes on their good days,
drink citrus juice from the fridge,
watch the moon and stars at night,
place headphones with soft music on their ears
and sleep sweetly till the crack of dawn
— unless what they're thinking needs doing at night.
So long as that woman from the Rijksmuseum
in painted quiet and concentration
keeps pouring milk day after day
from the pitcher to the bowl
the World hasn't earned
the world's end.
translated from the Polish by
Clare Cavanagh & Stanislaw Baranczak
Here (Houghton Mifflin)