The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 420

“Born of Woman” is a poem in free verse, containing forty-five lines divided into sixteen stanzas of varying length. The ending on the Polish word of the original title, “Urodzony,” makes it clear at the outset that the subject is a man; the poem represents the musings of his wife or lover, who has just caught her first glimpse of his mother. Her words are directed inward; she is talking to herself.

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The first stanza begins abruptly, as if the speaker were somewhat surprised or bemused: “So that is his mother.” What follows is barely a description, for the only physical details offered are that she is gray-eyed and small. Small she may be, but she is the cause, the “perpetrator” of the man’s existence. From “perpetrator” Wisawa Szymborska moves into one of her controlling metaphors. The mother is the boat in which he floated to shore and out of which he struggled into this temporary world. The fourth stanza finally defines the relationship between the speaker and the man—between the “I” and the “he” of the poem—but does so in the barest of terms. The mother is “the bearer of the man/ with whom I walk through fire.”

The next four stanzas focus on the mother, who, unlike the wife, did not choose him but rather created him. She seems to be complete in herself, the ultimate beginning, the “alpha” who molded him into the form and shape that the wife now sees. She gave him the gray eyes that in turn looked at the woman who would be his wife. This section ends with a question that might be plaintive, annoyed, or simply rhetorical: “Why did he show her to me.”

The next section shifts the focus to “him” and to the speaker’s discovery that he is like everyone else and most of all like the speaker herself. He was born and must die. Here Szymborska returns to her metaphor of the journey and describes the man as a newcomer to this world, a traveler on his way to his omega, his end. As a newcomer he is confused by the world and moves through it dodging, bobbing, and weaving, hoping to avoid the inevitable. While he may not yet understand the inevitable, the speaker does. She knows that he has passed the halfway mark on the road to omega. Returning to the beginning, she reminds the reader and herself that he himself never said so. All he said was, “This is my mother.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 448

The poem’s short, sometimes incomplete sentences, short lines, and short stanzas create the impression of a woman talking to herself, trying to cope with what seems to be an unpleasant surprise. However, the tone is more reflective, wry, and controlled than it is overtly emotional, and the thought process does not seem fragmented or disjointed. Szymborska uses both repetition and metaphor to connect the thoughts, moving the poem coherently from beginning to end.

Stanzas often begin with parallel constructions. “So that is . . .” introduces three stanzas describing the mother and is used one last time midstanza when the speaker comes to the crux of the problem: “So he too was born.” The same construction may link the opening lines of two successive stanzas; for example, stanza 13 begins with “And his head,” and stanza 14 begins with “And his movements.” Although there is no rhyme or fixed meter, there is rhythm.

Single words, too, are repeated, most strikingly in Szymborska’s use of pronouns—or more accurately, in her repeated avoidance of specific nouns. The speaker names no one; the poem is dominated by “his,” “she,” “her,” “I,” “my.” (This effect is even more exaggerated in the English translation, because Polish verbs indicate gender in the past tense. So “he floated” in Polish can leave out the actual “he,” with the verb ending making it clear whether the subject of the verb is male or female.) The nouns used to refer to the personages are among the most basic, such as man, woman, mother, son, or parts of the body, such as eyes, skin, bones. The rest is metaphor.

The overarching metaphor of the poem is of life as a journey. The mother is the boat that has carried the man to this shore, “from body’s depths.” He begins by struggling out of that boat, and ever afterward the journey is a difficult one. A newcomer to this world, he walks, wanders, dodges, and bangs his head against a metaphorical wall. Regardless of whether he accepts or understands the fact, he is already more than halfway down the road. On a more abstract level, his mother is “his alpha”—the beginning not of life but of “non-eternity,” and if there is a beginning, then there must be an end. He is “a wanderer to omega” whether he likes it or not.

The speaker certainly does not like it, and Szymborska brings in a smaller metaphor (smaller in the sense that it is less developed), that of a trial. The first noun used to describe the mother is “perpetrator.” Toward the end of the poem it is not the mother but the son to whom an inevitable “universal verdict” applies.

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Themes