Nothing Twice - Wislawa Szymborska


Nothing can ever happen twice.

In consequence, the sorry fact is

that we arrive here improvised

and leave without the chance to practice.


Even if there is no one dumber,

if you're the planet's biggest dunce,

you can't repeat the class in summer:

this course is only offered once.


No day copies yesterday,

no two nights will teach what bliss is

in precisely the same way,

with precisely the same kisses.


One day, perhaps some idle tongue

mentions your name by accident:

I feel as if a rose were flung

into the room, all hue and scent.


The next day, though you're here with me,

I can't help looking at the clock:

A rose? A rose? What could that be?

Is it a flower or a rock?


Why do we treat the fleeting day

with so much needless fear and sorrow?

It's in its nature not to stay:

Today is always gone tomorrow.


With smiles and kisses, we prefer

to seek accord beneath our star,

although we're different (we concur)

just as two drops of water are.


----Wislawa Szymborska

Translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak


I first encountered this poem in graduate school when I was studying Eastern European poets, specifically Polish poets. Wislawa Szymborska stood out among her male counterparts. Her talent was unmistakable, but the hopefulness and playfulness in her language was what differentiated her from other poets from Eastern Europe. Nothing Twice is a sterling example of Szymborska's spirit as translated by the equally talented Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak. We know that there is no magic pause button when it comes to life; we can't rewind the good moments and fast forward through the tragedies and atrocities. We live and life is unforgiving, for better or worse. But in its exactness, life has the unique partner of memory. We remember what we did in the past when we encountered a similar situation and hopefully we adjust our behavior and expectations accordingly. Still, memory can be useless, for example when we step outside of our comfort zones to experience new things. There is an exhilaration that comes with the sense of fear you feel when experiencing something new, mostly because you are letting go. Not in control, you rely on the world around you and are open to all it has to offer. In Nothing Twice, Szymborska is urging us onward to days of meaning and worth, rather than days that end leaving us wondering where they went.


"Nothing can ever happen twice." The poem begins with this statement, a statement so strong that we can do little more accept it as fact. Deja vu aside, Szymborska is spot on with her initial point and she follows it with this related analysis: "In consequence, the sorry fact is / that we arrive here improvised / and leave without the chance to practice." The tone, at this point, is matter-of-fact and a little disappointed by the merciless nature of life. I'm reminded of a line I've referenced a few times in this blog, even once earlier this month: If only I knew now what I knew back then…It is a great philosophical dilemma—are we meant to only possess essential knowledge after the moment it could have been most useful to us? Who knows, and more importantly is that even the question we should be asking? Without a lively and adventurous spirit we'll lack those experiences anyways, which is why Szymborska takes a different, more humorous approach to drive home the same point as before in the second stanza. "Even if there is no one dumber, / if you're the planet's biggest dunce, / you can't repeat the class in summer: / this course is only offered once." I love how seamless the rhyme scheme and tone weave together to infuse humor into the poem. You can't help but laugh when you read those lines and picture yourself wearing the dunce cap.


The poem begins a shift from the conceptual to the concrete in the third stanza with the mention of specific kisses. Sure, "No day copies yesterday" is a valid and valuable line, but for the line and idea behind it to have the greatest impact an individualized emotion connection needs to be established. By inserting the word "precisely" in front of kisses, Szymborska dares you to flip through your catalogue of kisses and pull out some of those fun, sensual, surprising, and even embarrassing ones. These are the moments that have made you who you are today, because no two were "precisely" alike you begin to see the parallel that she is attempting to convey about days. If the kiss isn't enough, Szymborska presents the example of an "idle tongue" that "mentions your name by accident." Invoking a lost love, the poet is further casting out her nets to yank in the readers by their hearts. The mere accidental mention of her love's name fills her with the beauty of a rose, "all hue and scent." Even when the love is present with her in the next stanza, the poet moves from the wondrous rose to the tireless, painful ticking of the clock. It's a jarring shift, but highly effective in reminding us that time is unrelenting and carries on with the same "precision" that we earlier saw attached to the far more attractive feature of kisses.


In the final two stanzas Szymborska returns to the style and tone that made the beginning of the poem so strong. She supplies a rhetorical question about fear of time, which fits nicely on the heels of the shift of the previous stanza. Szymborska also provides a quasi rhetorical answer: "It's in its nature not to stay: / Today is always gone tomorrow." Yes, that is true, but a large part of me feels I knew that already, in fact I feel like Szymborska told me that already. At this point in the poem, I need a stronger ending; thank goodness there is one stanza left! Up to this point most of the poem has focused on the nature of time and our reaction to it, showing how no two days are the same so we must live them fully. This is a great message, but to reiterate this again would steer the poem into a predictable zone that the poem wouldn't be able to recover from. Instead of cruising, Szymborska opts for the bumpy path and this change-of-direction works like a charm. We are the ones on display in the final stanza, our nature is examined and the ultimate similarity is revealed: just as each day, each moment is different than the next, we, too, possess this same level of uniqueness. I am unlike any other human being who has ever existed, who currently exists, and who will ever exist. When you take this individuality and combine it with the same individuality of days in our lives then you see the pristine opportunities we have before us in pretty much every moment we are alive. It's a shame we waste so many of these moments with the stupid fallacy of operating under what others think of us.