Tears from laughter

“This merriment dangling from terror…”: Harold Lloyd in Safety Last

The death has been announced of the Polish poet and Nobel prizewinner Wisława Szymborska. Her best-known connection with film is her poem ‘Love at First Sight’, which is believed to have been the inspiration for Krysztof Kieslowski’s film Three Colours: Red. However, in the same 1993 collection, The End and the Beginning, there is another Szymborska poem, ‘Slapstick’, which wryly considers silent film comedy as a metaphor for the human condition. We have reproduced this poem on the Bioscope before now, but it’s such a favourite of mine that I’m taking the liberty of posting it here once again on this sad occasion.

If there are angels,
I doubt they read
our novels
concerning thwarted hopes.

I’m afraid, alas,
they never touch the poems
that bear our grudges against the world.

The rantings and railings
of our plays
must drive them, I suspect,
to distraction.

Off-duty, between angelic –
i.e. inhuman – occupations,
they watch instead
our slapstick
from the age of silent film.

To our dirge wailers,
garment renders,
and teeth gnashers,
they prefer, I suppose,
that poor devil
who grabs the drowning man by his toupee
or, starving, devours his own shoelaces
with gusto.

From the waist up, starch and aspirations;
below, a startled mouse
runs down his trousers.
I’m sure
that’s what they call real entertainment.

A crazy chase in circles
ends up pursuing the pursuer.
The light at the end of the tunnel
turns out to be a tiger’s eye.
A hundred disasters
mean a hundred cosmic somersaults
turned over a hundred abysses.

If there are angels,
they must, I hope,
find this convincing,
this merriment dangling from terror,
not even crying Save me Save me
since all of this takes place in silence.

I can even imagine
that they clap their wings
and tears run from their eyes
from laughter, if nothing else.

I can warmly recommend Szymborska’s poetry in general – gentle, witty, accessible and wise. Her New and Collected Poems are published by Roundhouse, and there’s a fine Selected Poems published by Faber.

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