The Poem

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The story of the death of Lot’s wife in the biblical book of Genesis has both intrigued and disturbed many readers. Angels command Lot to take his family and flee the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, telling them not to look back. For disobeying this warning, Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt.

“Lot’s Wife” features forty-three unrhymed lines of varied lengths. Its unnamed title character apparently is speaking to the reader after her death. The paradox implied by having her do this is compounded by other unusual circumstances as the poem unfolds. Although the speaker discusses her possible reasons for turning back toward Sodom and therefore perishing, she seems either unable or unwilling to reveal her true reasons for doing so. She begins noncommittally, “They say I looked back from curiosity./ But I could have had reasons other than curiosity.” Nowhere does she state exactly what did happen; rather, she presents a variety of possibilities. She suggests reasons such as longing for a silver bowl she left behind, distraction while adjusting her sandal, and even weariness of looking at the back of her husband’s neck. Mentioning that Lot would not have stopped even had she died, she adds that she may have looked back in resentment of him.

The wife also alleges fearing that someone was following them and hoping that God had decided not to destroy the cities. She states that she may have felt fatigued, lonely, or frightened at going into the wilderness. After mentioning these feelings, she suggests glancing back while setting down her bundle, or turning away in revulsion at the vermin she saw on her path. At yet another point, she claims that the crackling of the flames made her think the Sodomites were laughing at her for running, causing her to look around in anger.

After describing possible mental states, the speaker goes on to blame the difficult mountain path for her turning, claiming first that she slipped while stepping on a loose stone, then that she drew back from a chasm in her way, and finally that she slipped off a cliff and saw the burning city as she rolled down. She not only fails to state what prompted her to look back but also pictures increasingly severe events, as if repeating a bad dream that keeps getting more threatening, until the story has unraveled in absurd and contradictory claims.

Forms and Devices

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Although no translation can fully communicate the sounds of the original, translators Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire captured much of Wisawa Szymborska’s technique. The lines are similar in length and, as far as grammar permits, usually display the same phrasing and word order as the Polish, although minor exceptions occur. For example, where the original sixth line reads “mòa mojego, Lota,” the translation has “of Lot my husband,” putting Lot’s name before his relationship to the speaker. The translation stresses the rhythmic nature of the line, with the stressed syllable “Lot” between the unstressed “of” and “my,” allowing the line to be read more fluidly than “of my husband, Lot,” its literal rendering. This subtle change preserves Szymborska’s original rhythm.

“Lot’s Wife” uses conversational language, which, combined with the uneven lines and lack of rhyme, gives a strong impression of everyday communication. However, the apparent simplicity is deceptive. The language itself is carefully chosen. For instance, seven of the lines in English, or almost one-sixth of the poem, begin repetitively with “I looked back.” (There is an eighth in the Polish.) Almost half the poem’s repetition is lost in translation generally—as in lines...

(This entire section contains 632 words.)

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which in Polish, but not English, begin with the same preposition. Still, the translation has rhythm and repetition enough to create a pattern in which the woman who died because she looked back at Sodom returns to her death again and again. Adding to this perception of recurrence are echoes of sound between words, as in the statement that wild animals “crept and leapt” to escape destruction. The language also suggests a confused or out-of-breath quality on the part of the narrator. For instance, some “sentences” are single words, such as “Remoteness.” Such isolated words help emphasize the meaning expressed with great economy of language; they also make it seem as if Lot’s wife is trying to recollect jumbled or confusing memories.

Besides the patterns of language, the images suggest imprecise thought, being organized by association of ideas. After stating that she looked back “from fear” of the animals on the path, the wife reflects that “By now it was neither the righteous nor the wicked” who fled, but “simply all living creatures/in common panic.” Immediately after this, she wonders if she looked back from loneliness, as if the “living creatures” which shared nothing but fear made her realize her isolation. Many ideas contradict previous ones; the speaker’s shame at “stealing away” from Sodom as if betraying it is followed immediately by her anger at the illusory Sodomites jeering at her from the walls. This stream of possible motives gives an impression of complex mental processes, helping make the speaker of the poem more than a two-dimensional icon while also rendering her puzzling.

The narrative confusion is amplified when the speaker asserts that she did not turn back by choice, as previously suggested, but rather because of a physical mishap. Moreover, she abruptly contradicts one accident story—that she slipped—with another, that she continued running and fell off the cliff. Further reminding the reader of how hard interpreting events can be, she adds that anyone watching her tumble would have thought she was dancing. Finally, underlining the absolute lack of certainty in her story, she states, “It is not ruled out that my eyes were open” as she fell, and “It could be that I fell, my face turned toward the city.” The reader wonders which reconstructions, if any, are accurate and which are fantasies or falsehoods. Lot’s wife may have looked back while rolling down a cliff, while fixing her sandal, or while dropping her burden to the ground, but she could not have done all three simultaneously. The monologue therefore becomes a paradox.