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The New YorkerWislawa Szymborska, the Polish poet who won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature, has lived in Kraków since 1931. In the late sixties, she began to write about books that had caught her eye, books like "The Enigmatic Lemming," "Accidents in the Home," and "The Historical Development of Clothing." These short pieces, collected in Nonrequired Reading translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh, skitter over Szymborskan topics like bodybuilding, archeology, and the lottery of existence while referring, usually obliquely, to oppression and deprivation. Writing about a book called "Wallpapering Your Home," she observes, "Hobbies in their Polish variant are pastimes taken up not voluntarily, but by necessity," and then chronicles the setbacks and delays that thwart do-it-yourself projects under totalitarian regimes. Szymborska's deadpan sketches are whimsical and menacing; like her poems, they remind us that we spend our lives "a hairsbreadth from / an unfortunate coincidence."
If political conditions in Eastern Europe during the late sixties were bad for home improvement, they were good for literature. A scholarly study by Bozena Shallcross, a professor of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Chicago, examines the effect of Communist restrictions on travel on three other poets: Adam Zagajewski, Zbigniew Herbert, and Joseph Brodsky. Through the Poet's Eye looks at the prose produced by the poets' epiphanic encounters with Western art. In front of Vermeer's "Girl Interrupted at Her Music," which hangs at the Frick, Zagajewski pulls up short. "All of a sudden," he writes, "I felt how reality stopped for an instant and froze in harmonious motionlessness. (Dana Goodyear)