Two Poems About Primates by Wislawa Szymborska

As a tribute to the passing of the 1996 Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska last February 1, Time Travelling offers our readers two of Szymborska’s poems about tarsiers and monkeys. Animals, especially primates, figure in many of her poems as a way of commenting on humanity’s relationship with each other and with the natural world.


I am a tarsier and a tarsier’s son,
the grandson and great-grandson of tarsiers,
a tiny creature, made up of two pupils
and whatever simply could not be left out;
miraculously saved from further alterations—
since I’m no one’s idea of a treat,
my coat’s too small for a fur collar,
my glands provide no bliss,
and concerts go on without my gut—
I, a tarsier,
sit living on a human fingertip.

Good morning, lord and master,
what will you give me
for not taking anything from me?
How will you reward me for your own magnanimity?
What price will you set on my priceless head
for the poses I strike to make you smile?

My good lord is gracious,
my good lord is kind.
Who else could bear such witness if there were
no creatures unworthy of death?
You yourselves, perhaps?
But what you’ve come to know about yourselves
will serve for a sleepless night from star to star.

And only we few who remain unstripped of fur,
untorn from bone, unplucked of soaring feathers,
esteemed in all our quills, scales, tusks, and horns,
and in whatever else that ingenious protein
has seen fit to clothe us with,
we, my lord, are your dream,
which finds you innocent for now.

I am a tarsier—the father and grandfather of tarsiers
a tiny creature, nearly half of something,
yet nonetheless a whole no less than others,
so light that twigs spring up beneath my weight
and might have lifted me to heaven long ago
if I hadn’t had to fall
time and again
like a stone lifted from hearts
grown oh so sentimental:
I, a tarsier,
know well how essential it is to be a tarsier.

The Monkey

Evicted from the Garden long before
the humans: he had such infectious eyes
that just one glance around old Paradise
made even angels’ hearts feel sad and sore,
emotions hitherto unknown to them.
Without a chance to say “I disagree,”
he had to launch his earthly pedigree.
Today, still nimble, he retains his charme
with a primeval “e” after the “m.”

Worshipped in Egypt, pleiades of fleas
spangling his sacred and silvery mane,
he’d sit and listen in archsilent peace:
What do you want? A life that never ends?
He’d turn his ruddy rump as if to say
such life he neither bans or recommends.

In Europe they deprived him of his soul
but they forgot to take his hands away;
there was a painter-monk who dared portray
a saint with palms so thin, they could be simian.
The holy woman prayed for heaven’s favor
as if she wanted for a nut to fall.

Warm as a newborn, with an old man’s tremor,
imported to king’s courts across the seas,
he whined while swinging on his golden chain,
dressed in the garish coat of a marquis.
Prophet of doom. The court is laughing? Please.

Considered edible in China, he makes boiled
or roasted faces when laid upon a salver.
Ironic as a gem set in sham gold.
His brain is famous for its subtle flavor,
though it’s no good for tricky endeavors,
for instance, thinking up gunpowder.

In fables, lonely, not sure what to do,
he fills up his mirrors with his indiscreet
self-mockery (a lesson for us, too):
the poor relation, who knows all about us,
though we don’t greet each other when we meet.


From Poems New and Collected by Wislawa Szymborska


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