On Death, Without Exaggeration

On Death, Without Exaggeration

by Wislawa Szymborska
It can’t take a joke,
find a star, make a bridge.
It knows nothing about weaving, mining, farming,
building ships, or baking cakes.
In our planning for tomorrow
it has the final word,
which is always beside the point.
It can’t even get the things done
that are part of its trade:
dig a grave,
make a coffin,
clean up after itself.
Preoccupied with killing
it does the job awkwardly,
without system or skill.
As though each of us were its very first kill.
Oh, it has its triumphs,
but look at its countless defeats,
missed blows,
and repeat attempts!
Sometimes it isn’t strong enough
to swat a fly from the air
Many are the caterpillars
that have outcrawled it.
All those bulbs, pods,
tentacles, fins, tracheae,
nuptial plumage, and winter furs
show that it has fallen behind
with its halfhearted work.
Ill will won’t help
and even our lending a hand with wars and coups d’etat
is not so far enough.
Hearts beat inside eggs.
Babies’ skeletons grow.
Seeds, hard at work, sprout their first tiny pair of leaves
and sometimes even tall trees fall away.
Whoever claims that it’s omnipotent
is himself living proof
that it’s not.
There’s no life that couldn’t be immortal
if only for a moment.
Death
always arrives by that very moment too late.
In vain it tugs at the knob
of the invisible door.
As far as you’ve come
can’t be undone.
Translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

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