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Wisława Szymborska’s
“The Silence of Plants”

Mary Ann Furno

Imponderable. Impenetrable. Not admitting of interpretation. The poem “The Silence of Plants” has the determination of a text that must be spoken rather than read. It conforms to the norms of literacy to the extent that it is written—though translated, and once removed from its language of origin. It is symbolic only in the sense that it is written. “Though the written text may appear to be saying something, it is little better than silence.”[1]

This poetic text is replete with personal/possessive pronouns: our - I – my – me – we – us. There is less writing here than speech. “The Silence of Plants” is arranged so that the poet’s voice is heard all the more, in a text suffused in monologue with a you. This text “proceeds unencumbered by symbolism. . . . [it is] direct and free from symbolism”[2] and reminiscent of Oral Tradition:

Our one-sided acquaintance
grows quite nicely.

Thus the poet arrives before us. Having made herself known, and having come to know “the silence of plants” while growing together, “the poet opens with a supposed scene. . . a dramatic opening [that] presumes a situation in which this speaker finds herself. . . as a participant.”[3] “Our one-sided acquaintance” suffers the constraints of text where one voice utters “our.” “The Silence of Plants” that culminates in the written word is a “mere image of the living ensouled speech.”[4]

Lifted off the page, “The Silence of Plants” begins to give way to the poet’s voice: memory awakened —slowly, in “a leaf, petal, ear, cone, stalk,” and during the months of “April and December.” This poet’s “I know what” about you is succeeded by “my curiosity.” To

specially stoop over some of you
and crane my neck at others

this poet effectively becomes the affective counterpart to the silence of plants. To stoop is to “bend towards the ground; to yield.”[5] Through bodily gesture, Wisława Szymborska discretely places herself in the company of plants, recalling the stature of plants: “life as hidden and unclear.”[6] And “although my curiosity is not reciprocal,” to crane—“call, cry out”[7] is to remember our acquaintance as having once been a “thing of sound rather than print.”[8]

I’ve got a list of names for you:
maple, burdock, hepatica,
mistletoe, heath, juniper, forget-me-not,
but you have none for me.

“There’s something odd about writing. . . if you ask [it] a question [it] maintains an aloof silence.”[9] Calling out has been displaced onto a “list” that effectively silences this poet’s voice. Between the poet’s “forget-me-not” and “but,” a comma now marks the place where a “piece has been cut off.”[10]

True to form, “The Silence of Plants” generates a hiatus before the poet resumes summoning the silence of plants on a “path”[11] of remembering that “from the beginning. . . the poet considers [her] song, a collaborative production; [as] not simply [hers] alone.”[12]

We’re traveling together.
But fellow passengers usually chat,
exchange remarks at least about the weather,
or about stations rushing past.

A reasonable expectation begins unraveling in a “but.” Ill-suited for registering sounds and voices of “fellow passengers,” the silence of plants returns this poet to the “travail”[13] of “traveling together.”

Intent on creating continuity and restoring the rhythmic flow of voices consistent with “traveling together,” the poet now renders what is perceived as another (empty) space between verses as more a “pause”[14] between “fellow passengers.” The poet resumes.

We wouldn’t lack for topics: we’ve got a lot in common.
The same star keeps us in its reach,
We cast shadows based on the same laws.

From the indisputable claim of nature’s laws governing shadows and stars, “I-you” is succeeded by “we.” Creating a “path”—changing direction—the poet rediscovers “we” repeating itself, making itself “heard” through text. Wisława Szymborska and the silence of plants seem to tread a “path,” reaching a not-so- demonstrable truth about movement that endures.

We try to understand things, each in our own way,
and what we don’t know brings us closer too.

The poet pauses, creating an absence of text wherein
the silence of plants becomes inescapably present. The poet now “calls upon” the silence of plants to “try” to—“search out, discover truth”[15] about “we”:

I’ll explain as best I can, just ask me:
what seeing with two eyes is like,
what my heart beats for,
and why my body isn’t rooted down.
But how to answer unasked questions,
while being furthermore a being so totally
a nobody to you.

As though the silence of plants understands, that is, hears, Wisława Szymborska identifies herself as distinctly human—as though the silence of plants knows; that is, sees and remembers. The poet seeks to make “I” superlatively clear in a voice. What and why “appear in sound and present to the human senses a world not otherwise apparent. This sound, the body of the poet’s voice. . . ”[16] is the silence of plants—in all its “stillness”—“living things in a state of rest”[17]—where life is now heard. This poet does “try”—“but how,” in the absence of voice, to know who it is that asks what and why? Unheard within the margins of text; unseen, without trace of existing; though living, our poet, for the silence of plants—is “a nobody”—effaced. Knowing; that is, remembering the sound of life, this poet, as poet, seeks to “preserve [her] voice from textualization”[18] in a pause. The contingency that is text remains; returning this poet to her “one-sided acquaintance.” Wisława Szymborska “calls out” where now life supervenes as “too much” to be able to describe or enumerate.

Undergrowth, coppices, meadows, rushes –
everything I tell you is a monologue,
and it’s not you who listens.

“To speak something so measureless. . . without any reference in it”[19] brings forth “everything”: an all-encompassing “I-you” in a single voice whose sound this poet recognizes—“knows again”[20]; remembers as truth, “unforgetting.”[21]

The poet’s final pause conclusively transitions “The Silence of Plants” to an inconclusive continuity of voice.

Talking to you is essential and impossible.
Urgent in this hurried life
and postponed to never.

The “sound of things moving along”[22] —this “hurried” life—presses this poet for “talk” that inheres; the boundlessness that cannot be “heard” or “known” with calculation.

Wisława Szymborska, Poems New and Collected, translated by S. Baranczak & C. C.Cavanagh (Faber & Faber, 1999).

1. Andrew Ford, The Origins of Criticism: Literary Culture and Poetic Theory in Classical Greece (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2002), 245.
2. J. A. Notopoulos, “Mnemosyne in Oral Literature,”
Transactions of the American Philological Association, vol. 69 (1938), 482.
3. William Race, “How Greek Poems Begin,”
Yale Classical Studies (1992), 13–14.
4. Plato, Phaedrus, translated by Robin Waterfield (Oxford Univ. Press, 2002), 276a.
5. Ernest Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, vol. 1 (Elsevier Publishers, 1967).
6. Aristotle, On Plants, Book I, 815a, 10.
7. W. W. Skeat, An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910).
8. J. A. Notopoulos, op. cit., 493.
9. Phaedrus, 275d.
10. J. T. Shipley, Dictionary of Word Origins (New York: The Philosophical Library, 1945).
11. William G. Thalmann, Convention of Form and Thought in Early Greek Poetry (Baltimore-London: Johns Hopkins Press, 1984), 124.
12. Jenny Strauss Clay, Hesiod’s Cosmos (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003), 51.
13. W.W. Skeat, op. cit.
14. Stephen G. Daitz, “On Reading Homer Aloud: To Pause or Not To Pause,” American Journal of Philology, vol. 112, no. 2 (Summer 1991).
15. J. T. Shipley, op. cit.
16. Andrew Ford, Homer – The Poetry of the Past (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1992).
17. Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, edited by C. T. Onion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964).
18. Ford, 172.
19. Ford, 190.
20. Skeat, op.cit.
21. Ford, 50.
22. Shipley, op. cit.

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The Sarmatian Review
Last updated 12/5/08