Sometimes words find us in unexpected ways, falling into our minds like light piercing through the gloom. It happened like that with this poem, which was shared with me by a dear friend. Now I am sharing it with you.
Performance without rehearsal.
Body without alterations.
Head without premeditation.
I know nothing of the role I play.
I only know it’s mine. I can’t exchange it.
I have to guess on the spot
just what this play’s all about.
Ill-prepared for the privilege of living,
I can barely keep up with the pace that the action demands.
I improvise, although I loathe improvisation.
I trip at every step over my own ignorance.
I can’t conceal my hayseed manners.
My instincts are for happy histrionics.
Stage fright makes excuses for me, which humiliate me more.
Extenuating circumstances strike me as cruel.
Words and impulses you can’t take back,
stars you’ll never get counted,
your character like a raincoat you button on the run —
the pitiful results of all this unexpectedness.
If only I could just rehearse one Wednesday in advance,
or repeat a single Thursday that has passed!
But here comes Friday with a script I haven’t seen.
Is it fair, I ask
(my voice a little hoarse,
since I couldn’t even clear my throat offstage).
You’d be wrong to think that it’s just a slapdash quiz
taken in makeshift accommodations. Oh no.
I’m standing on the set and I see how strong it is.
The props are surprisingly precise.
The machine rotating the stage has been around even longer.
The farthest galaxies have been turned on.
Oh no, there’s no question, this must be the premiere.
And whatever I do
will become forever what I’ve done.
Before these lines arrived in my life, I knew little of the poet and Nobel Laureate Wisława Szymborska. I have since peeked briefly into her world and am keen to explore it more. This poem, ‘Life While-You-Wait’, has been translated from the original Polish by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Barańczak. If you enjoyed it, you may wish to listen to Amanda Palmer reading it on Brainpickings.org.
For me, the poem offers an interesting mix of warning and reassurance. “Ill-prepared” as the speaker may be, there is an acknowledgement here of living as a privilege. The role to be played, although unknown, is owned, and guessing “on the spot / just what this play’s all about” is what each of us must do in our own ungainly way. We go along, improvising unwillingly and tripping over our own ignorance, much as we do when writing a first draft. The difference is that these “Words and impulses” can not be edited or taken back, and “the pitiful results of all this unexpectedness” become the stuff of which our lives consist.
Fair or not, we can neither rehearse nor repeat a single day. With the set so strong, the props so precise and even the “farthest galaxies” alight, there can be “no question”, as the poet insists, that “this must be the premiere”. Life is indeed what happens while we wait, hoping and holding out for the ‘right’ moment and a sense of readiness that will never come.
We do not get to see the script for Friday ahead of time, but we can choose either to fear or to embrace that fact. If we cannot exchange the role we play, then we must simply act it as best we can. Although doubtless riddled with “happy histrionics” and “hayseed manners”, my own performance is made up of what I have managed to scratch together. Like you, “whatever I do / will become forever what I’ve done.”
These final lines linger in the mind, but whether they are encouraging or devastating, reprimand or reminder, it is up to you to decide.
What are your thoughts about this poem? Which images or lines reach you most deeply? What poems have you felt compelled to share?