BROOKE KRESSEL Engages
“Without a Title” by Wislawa Szymborska
“For a Man Who Lost His Wife” by Sandy McIntosh
Love Lost: On Szymborska’s “Without a Title”
and McIntosh’s “For a Man Who Lost His Wife”
Though it is hard to define, most of us are certain that we have felt love and know how to love. Often, we tend to have some sort of idealistic notion when it comes to the subject of love and each have a different idea of what it means. However, many times we don’t look at the endings; we think that our love will be the one that will last, no matter how many times we’ve seen it disintegrate before. But the only thing that is certain about love is loss, whether through death, indifference or other circumstances. In Wislawa Szymborska’s “Without a Title” and Sandy McIntosh’s “For a Man Who Lost His Wife” both poets confront the realities of what happens to love when it is left to flounder and what happens to lovers after love has died.
Wislawa Szymborska’s poem “Without a Title” is about a “bourgeois” (39) couple that is no longer in love and is in the midst of separating. While her language is not simple, the meaning is easily grasped. She writes the poem in a subtle yet intricate way, using various tropes to describe the couple’s “un-love” (39). Her words are delicate and show restrained emotion.
The first stanza draws the reader into the couple’s troubles; they have fallen out of love, with no rescue in sight:
The two of them were left so long alone,
so much in un-love without a word to spare,
so much in un-love without a word to spare,
what they deserve by now is probably
a miracle – a thunderbolt, or turning into stone. (39)
Here, Szymborska references both Zeus and Medusa- the “thunderbolt” and “stone” respectively. She is suggesting that instead of ending it quickly, with a lightning strike to reignite their romance or turn into lifeless stone to finally end it, this couple is dragging out their “un-love.” What they deserve at this point is some sort of miracle like one of the Gods could provide. Either option would be painless, much like putting an animal out of its misery. Note that here Szymborska does not use the word “need” but instead uses “deserves." She is not prescribing an antidote for their flailing relationship. Rather, she seems to be sympathetic to this couple and suggesting a way to end their marriage with dignity.
In the next stanza, Szymborska further solidifies her sentiment from the previous stanza. She repeats (although using different tropes), that there is truly nothing left between these two people, but no one is doing anything about it. Neither person in the relationship is attempting to fix it, nor are they attempting to end it. They seem to be completely indifferent:
If at least someone would ring the bell, or if
something would flare and disappear again,
no matter from where and no matter when,
no matter if it’s fun, fear, joy or grief. (39)
Their passion is completely gone. She says that someone should “ring the bell.” In this case, the poet could be using the bell to portray the image of the start of a boxing match, in which each fighter attempts to bloody and bruise the other. When one person is broken enough, the fight ends and another bell rings. This, Szymbosrka could be suggesting, is preferable to a relationship where there is no passion, love or even hatred. For the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. If one is capable of hatred towards a person, one is capable of love towards them as well. But here, this couple is completely incapable of any feeling or action.
The first two stanzas are perfect examples of what Helen Vendler puts forth in her article "Unfathomable Life," about Szymborska’s poetry. She writes: “Every poem by Szymborska is a struggle against taking common ways of expression for granted, or thinking that a single phrase can cover all the possibilities” (38). By continuously repeating the various ways in which this couple’s love has turned into indifference, she is providing the reader with valuable insight that one wouldn’t have been able to gather with just a single comparison. It seems as if Szymborska wants the reader to understand that this couple is truly suffering, however numb they may be towards their relationship.
In the first three stanzas, she alludes to the fact that there isn’t any love left between the couple, with references to Medusa and Zeus as well as other phrases like “no rescue,” and “no aberration, no deviation from the well-made plot” (39). However, in the fourth stanza she allows the reader to actually see this couple for who they are when she writes “pitying one another, they both stare/into the mirror/but there’s nothing there except their sensible reflections” (39). It’s as if the reader and the couple are having the same realization at the same time. In the first real sense of emotion from the couple that the reader is able to see in the poem, she uses the word “pity.” There may have been some sort of love once, but they have left it to die and only feelings that are left are of sorrow and regret. By looking in the mirror, it seems like they are staring at the truth, that there is nothing between them. Szymborska has spelled it out for us.
Vendler writes: “she multiplies instances in order to cover all bases, certain that any one example will be humanly insufficient” (38). Szymborska is not sentimental about their suffering, rather, by consistently reiterating that there is nothing left between them and slowly building to the bare truth, she is making an observation that she feels is important, allowing the reader to organically grasp the issue at hand: “there is nothing there” (39).
Unlike the indifference that the couple in Szymborska’s poem shows towards one another, the couple in Sandy McIntosh’s “For a Man Who Lost His Wife,” has angrily fallen out of love, but still won’t leave one another. It is more of a conversational poem in comparison to “Without a Title.” Here, McIntosh seems to take on more of a storyteller role, as if the reader is talking to him first hand. In the first stanza the speaker lays out the dynamics of the couple’s relationship:
Living under the same roof
with a wife you no longer loved,
you kept to separate spaces, a locked door in between. (51)
Already, the reader sees this as a different type of love from that which is described in Szymborska’s poem. This couple has taken the drastic step of living in separate spaces in a house that they have shared for years, yet they won’t leave one another completely. Here, a locked door could convey that the life they used to share together is over. They are spatially and emotionally barred from entering the other’s domain. The reader must keep in mind however, that although the couple has separated and cordoned off their daily lives from one another, they haven't yet physically separated themselves from the relationship.
McIntosh writes that the husband has chosen to let his wife have the larger half of the house because “it’s what she’s always wanted anyway” (51). On first glance, this passage makes the husband sound fairly cold and uncaring. But, perhaps allowing her to have the larger half of the house is giving spatially where he can’t emotionally. If this is true, the line makes it readily apparent that love is not completely gone from this marriage; it may just be taking on an unfamiliar form.
In the next stanza the reader learns that his wife has died, but still the man continues to live on his side of the house. He says “‘My things would be here and there/ Nothing would be in its familiar place’”(51). Without his wife, nothing is familiar to him. In this sense she completes not only his home, but also his being. While considering this stanza, it seems like familiarity is part of the love that this couple shared. Although they have not cared for and nurtured their relationship in a conventional sense and most likely hated one another, there is still a part of him that feels connected to his wife. The part of him that loves her is still there, though somewhat hidden. The man seems to be longing for his wife in a way, as if he didn’t know what he had until he lost her.
If one is blinded by the idea of love, one may look at this arrangement and wonder how these two people, who didn’t live their lives together, could have possibly loved each other. But, love need not be a fairy tale; it often hurts and cuts deep. It is a very individual experience and each couple handles it differently. McIntosh brings this idea forth when, in the last stanza, he switches narratives and tells the reader of an experience he had while watching two horses pull a carriage:
When I protested the cruel confinement
of creatures obviously at war with one another,
the driver laughed and later showed me how,
released into pasture and free to run wherever they wished,
the horses stayed together, biting and kicking the while,
the harness never the real binding,
circumstance never the actual whip. (51)
Critic Steve Fellner writes that McIntosh “balances verbal inventiveness with significant personal inquiries.” With this stanza, McIntosh does just that. He uses the horses as tropes for the husband and wife and writes that even given the choice for the horses to separate, they won’t. There is nothing physically holding them together, but their love and dependence on one another keep them united. Although they hurt each other, they don’t want to be with anyone else. This is the definition of their love.
Though the couple that McIntosh writes of left their love to sit on a shelf and wither away, there is still some remnant of it there. This is the very opposite of how the couple in Szymborska's poem handles their relationship. In the poem, there is absolutely nothing left for each partner to love or to hate. Even the title "Without a Title," tells us of indifference the couple feels towards one another. Is their “un-love” (Szymborska 39) so unimportant that it does not even deserve a name? From reading the title, the reader understands that this couple has no fight left within them. It makes one question whether or not there was any spark in the first place.
Conversely, McIntosh’s title “For a Man Who Lost His Wife” conveys a sense of sadness. In order to lose something, one has to have had it in the first place. The reader is to understand that the husband had someone that he loved dearly, however long ago, who is now gone. We then go on to read that this man has lost someone who was able to complete him, but they haven’t acted like lovers in quite some time.
From an outside perspective both “Without a Title” and “For a Man Who Lost His Wife” appear as though they are portraying the same type of couples, couples that have had the air let out of them. However, the key difference between these lovers is the type of love that they shared and their subsequent endings. While both Szymborska and McIntosh are able to capture a state of emptiness after the loss of love, they are writing about endings that have come about in different ways- one through indifference and lack of trying and the other through death but not for a lack of love. While love will always end one way or another, the manner in which it ends makes all the difference.
Fellner, Steve. “Forty-Nine Guaranteed Ways to Escape Death by Sandy McIntosh.” Rattle. 20 Mar. 2009. Web. 3 Nov. 2013.
McIntosh, Sandy. Cemetery Chess. East Rockaway: Marsh Hawk Press, 2012. Print.
Szymborska, Wislawa. “Without a Title.” Poems New and Collected 1957-1997. Trans. Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh. New York: Hartcourt, 1998. 39. Print.
Vendler, Helen. "Unfathomable Life." New Republic 214.1 (1996): 36-39. Academic Search Complete. Web. 3 Nov. 2013
Brooke Kressel lives in Forest Hills, NY. This is her first publication.