They say I looked back out of curiosity.
But I could have had other reasons.
I looked back mourning my silver bowl.
Carelessly, while tying my sandal strap.
So I wouldn’t have to keep staring at the righteous nape
of my husband Lot’s neck.
From the sudden conviction that if I dropped dead
he wouldn’t so much as hesitate.
From the disobedience of the meek.
Checking for pursuers.
Struck by the silence, hoping God had changed his mind.
Our two daughters were already vanishing over the hilltop.
I felt age within me. Distance.
The futility of wandering. Torpor.
I looked back setting my bundle down.
I looked back not knowing where to set my foot.
Serpents appeared on my path,
spiders, field mice, baby vultures.
They were neither good nor evil now–every living thing
was simply creeping or hopping along in the mass panic.
I looked back in desolation.
In shame because we had stolen away.
Wanting to cry out, to go home.
Or only when a sudden gust of wind
unbound my hair and lifted up my robe.
It seemed to me that they were watching from the walls of Sodom
and bursting into thunderous laughter again and again.
I looked back in anger.
To savor their terrible fate.
I looked back for all the reasons given above.
I looked back involuntarily.
It was only a rock that turned underfoot, growling at me.
It was a sudden crack that stopped me in my tracks.
A hamster on its hind paws tottered on the edge.
It was then we both glanced back.
No, no. I ran on,
I crept, I flew upward
until darkness fell from the heavens
and with it scorching gravel and dead birds.
I couldn’t breathe and spun around and around.
Anyone who saw me must have thought I was dancing.
It’s not inconceivable that my eyes were open.
It’s possible I fell facing the city.
That “they say” from the first line is so pivotal, coming from a speaker who gives voice to the nameless, silent woman known only as “Lot’s wife” in the traditional biblical story. “They say” she looked back out of curiosity, and it is this curiosity as a reason for her disobedience that “they” reduced her story over the centuries to a simple and tragic moral tale. Read disobedience = destruction.
Szymborska systematically unravels the “they say” of the first line with a flurry of potential alternatives. “I could have had other reasons,” the still unnamed speaker adds, establishing an air of the speculative within the remaining lines, and the force of the single “I” effective in establishing an identity, a viable perspective.
What follows in the remaining lines is a list of possibilities: it could have been carelessness, remorse, an accident, exhaustion, anger or shame that motivated her action. It was “all the reasons given,” but wait it was none of them, “No, no. I ran on.”
And, when the mystical transformation that would have been her punishment began, it only seemed she might have been dancing. Was she? Perhaps her eyes were open, “it’s not inconceivable.” She may have even fallen facing the city, “it’s possible,” she says.
In addition to creating a voice for this silent woman in a religious text, Szymborska systematically undoes the damage inflicted upon her nameless character by carefully and cautiously undermining the smug certainty of moralization in response to the human story, “they were neither good nor evil now” the speaker points out regarding the vermin she encounters on her way out of the city.
The uncertainty surrounding the speaker’s motives for looking back toward the city from which she fled endows her character with a humanity that resists judgment and the temptation to frame a simple, cautionary tale.
Szymborska gives voice to a silent and nameless woman in this religious text. She insists there be mystery; she insists on complexity; she demands of readers that the woman be permitted her humanity.
When I first encountered Szymborska in a college poetry course, I was surprised by her insistence. She seemed so old, so frail, but her poetry was so insistent. I look to her and learn.