Birthday, by Wislawa Szymborska – if one were to describe it in one word, it is simply a most exquisite poem, so full of exuberance, so full of the gifts of God’s bounty, so full of happy gaiety, so full of marvel, that it is natural for the poem to be a hearty outburst in its lyrical note and the alliterative use of language. One picture after another comes gushing forth in a stream of unrestrained thoughts. The birthday is not of one individual but the series of collective births that take place on the earth – “so much world all at once!” – as if like blurting out in exclamation, “What a tremendously hectic schedule it must bring!”
How are we, she asks, as recipients, to keep count, to categorize, to line them all up? Can we? Do we? We don’t. Why? We are insensitive probably, that’s why … she seems to be saying, to all births except our own that we know as celebration. All others simply escape our attention. So here she attempts to expand our horizons, our capacities to appreciate. Szymborska segregates the categories thus, by beginning with the immediate appeal of the alliterative words to focus our attention:
“Moraines and morays and morasses and mussels
The flame, the flamingo, the flounder, the feather”
The above lines work up a fantastic picture and each word is so meaningfully sequential: The feathers of reddish-orange colored flamingoes flying uncontrollably against the breezy winds as they feed themselves on sea organisms while walking on shallow soggy grounds, surrounded by a horde of sharp-toothed voracious eels. The “rustles and bustles” represent the hectic activities of an elaborate feast for the flamingoes and the eels celebrating the arrival of a new mass of earth with rocks and debris brought by the distant glaciers that dissolve and die out in the waters of the summer sun exhausted by the effort, and leaving behind in its wake, the birthing of a tiny island in the high seas.
The process does not stop; on this piece of newly-formed land, simultaneously, there is also the tangled growth of bushes giving birth to leaping chirping insects, creepers, creeks of rivulet streams, and with it comes in sequence the native beech trees of the temperate regions, on the glossy leaves of which the blood-sucking leeches love to cling. It just takes weeks for “so much world” to come. Continuing further, there come the bushy-tailed rodents, gorillas, and the medicinal tropical vines – the sarsaparillas.
Excited as she is with the onslaught of myriad births, and that many more are in the offing all at once, she can take no more; she can hardly keep count of this unending process, so she says, “Thanks so much, … but this excess of kindness” can be killing for me. There is a well-intended injection of witty light-hearted humor after a serious toil of studying, and on that note she asks –
“Where is the jar for this burgeoning burdock, brooks’ babble rooks’ squabble, snakes’ squiggle, abundance, and trouble?”
For the sake of categorization Wislawa uses ‘jar’, in its sense of containing, the varieties of multiplying prickly-leaved wild burdock plants, the sounds of sweet babbling of the flowing rivers, the cawing of rooks, the hissing of wriggling snakes etc. With abundance, comes also troubles, the poet seems to be brooding, and wonders how do I put a brake, probably so that they can be admired, the gold mine of wonders confusing her mind. The variety is endless – the wild cats, the songbirds, the tentacled-insects and even bacteria. Why not give dioxide to stall the flow for a while?
The trouble of abundance and her inability to cope with these, is brought out beautifully in the following lines:
I could look into pieces, but don’t have the nerve
These are products I just can’t afford, don’t deserve
Isn’t sunset a little too much for two eyes
That, who knows, may not open to see the sun rise?
Life, from the time of birth to death, is but just a five-minute stop. How can one, in the short time granted him, figure out the mysteries, his inner void’s quest? It is impossible, so the poet advises us through her own example, to draw fulfillment from whatever appears before our eyes; every single work of nature has the capacity to fill us with the wonder and awe of it all. When she passes by the poppies and the pansies, she wonders how perfect the work of creation is in the color it gives to a flower, the female reproductive part of that plant, and its fragrance.
The last lines leave us elevated with the thought: Such detail in perfection even in the smallest of work of divinity and hardly bothered whether anyone will notice or not, is the “loss” in wonderment. Nature’s mystical powers keep the cycle of births ongoing with flawless perfection, unbothered with concerns of appreciation by us humans, and that is why, a sort of “aloofly preciseness”, contented in its creation of fragility … of flowers, that is but allowed only one bloom in the morning to pale by evening.
It is a lesson in perfection that mankind, as a whole, should learn from.