Lot’s Wife – Wislawa Szymborska
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.
The biblical Lot’s wife is a focal point of this poem by Szymborska. As we know from the Book of Genesis, God sent his angels to destroy the town of Sodom to punish its sinful citizens. The only family found to be virtuous was the Lot’s family and the two angels asked him to flee the city to escape the God’s wrath. Lot, his wife and the daughters were instructed not to look back. However, Lot’s wife, never given the name to be remembered by, looked behind and turned into a pillar of salt. From the biblical point of view she is known as a symbol of a disobedient and fatally curious woman.
However, in Szymborska’s poem Lot’s wife receives a much better treatment than her biblical counterpart. She finally gains her voice, and rightfully so, now her audience can hear the story from her perspective. As usual, the poetess doesn’t offer one definite reason as to what had really happened; instead she entertains many possible scenarios. Lot’s wife comes to life in this powerful narrative. She sounds like a three-dimensional person who might have had numerous reasons to look back, other than curiosity. It could be that she was upset to have left behind her silver bowl, which can be seen as an allegory of her old life. Perhaps it was difficult for her to leave behind everything she had known. She could have also felt lonely and not loved by her own husband who would not stop for her, “if I dropped dead he wouldn’t so much as hesitate.” She might have been angry, lonely, tired or sleepy. She felt her age suddenly in relation to her two young daughters. She might have been seen dancing and fell with her face looking towards her own demise. Lot’s wife is as mysterious as sphinx and we will never know what transpired. This probably doesn’t matter anymore except for a point that Szymborska is trying to make, that human is a complex, often irrational being, driven by unseen forces. This woman cannot be comprehended with little we know about her fate. Yet, it is inspiring to see how we can transform an old myth and give it a makeover. Szymborska’s heroine seems so much more interesting than a flat biblical character, a woman with no name.