Polish poetry & me

I discovered the poetry of Poland via the work of Ewa Lipska. I remember reading her poem Instruction Manual, with its insistent refrain “The nation’s dead”, when i was twenty or so. At that time i was at home with a young son, trying to keep my mind alive by reaching out to a world beyond the small commuter town in which i was trapped. Poetry more than anything was my lifeline: language distilled to perfection. Lipska’s work spoke to me despite, rather than because of, its focus on politics; I sought out more and – naturally? inevitably? – discovered her compatriots Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska. For some reason lost in the mist of time however their work didn’t stick, at least not then.

Soon afterwards i came across another Polish poet whose work did stick: Anna Swir (or Świrszczyńska). I’ve long since forgotten the name of the anthology in which i found her poems and only remember that it was a book showcasing women poets. More frustrating is the fact that i have no idea who did the translations; they (and presumably the original poems) are marvellous – deft, sensual, acerbic, poignant. Three of them i copied out and cherish to this day: A Spring, She Doesn’t Remember and Her Hand. The third of those is short enough to quote in full:

When my mother was dying
I held her hand.
When she died i burnt everything
her hand had touched.
Only my own hands
I couldn’t burn.

A few more years passed and i found myself unemployed and back in my hometown. Up on the city walls there was a little second-hand bookshop and whenever i had a bit of money i’d go up there and spend it on poetry books. Actually, i went up there whenever i got the chance, not just when i had money; but the rest of the time i had to come away empty handed. One of the books i found there was by Tadeusz Różewicz: Poezje wybrane/Selected Poems*, a bilingual selection of his work translated by Adam Czerniawski. This is dark stuff. Forever marked, it seems, by his experience of the Second World War, Różewicz makes lists; he mistrusts beauty. The typewriter-like font (green for the Polish and black for the English) and the delicate paper only emphasises the feeling of austerity. One poem in particular haunts me. It’s called Beyond Words (in Polish: Nad Wyraz) and begins:

What are you doing
emerged from darkness
Why don’t you want
to live in full light

Its final words are even more powerful:

One tear
inexpressible
beyond words

After that – a long while after that – came Zbigniew Herbert, ‘a spiritual leader of the anticommunist movement in Poland’ according to the brief biography which prefaces his Collected Poems 1956-1998**. Herbert’s work is thrilling – comic and grave – yet curiously difficult to quote from; the poems work beautifully, yet if you try to pull out lines to show to people they fall apart. I do like this stanza from I Would Like To Describe, however:

I would like to describe courage
without dragging behind me a dusty lion
and also anxiety
without shaking a glass full of water

(Translation: Alissa Valles)

I too would like to be free of that dusty lion.

Finally, we come to a poet who arrived in my life just a month ago, courtesy of yet another anthology: Anna Piwkowska. The anthology is called Six Polish Poets*** and I found it in the same second-hand bookshop where many years previously i discovered Snow and Summers by Solveig von Schoultz. There is one poem in particular, about the sudden death of young woman as she is getting out the bath, which i think is incredible. It’s called Lament Of That Summer (or in Polish: Tren Tamtego Lata):

She stepped onto the side of death.
Here, one wet foot on the floor,
hair dryer, towel around her hips,
the other foot into the water,
into death, straight from the summer bath.
She managed just once more to run
the wet hand through her tangled hair.
The tea was cooling in the room;
she planned to hang the lingerie,
the light blue nothing, woven
out of fine silk threads.
Summer. Hot quivering morning.
The day had promised joy, and haste;
behind the wall her son called out
about the puppy’s nose in milk.
The dress hurriedly thrown
across the chair, cinnabar, absorbed
the drops of sunshine. The organ
music of Johann Sebastian
flowed across the room, a woman
or some strange furry animal.
The day brought joy. She managed
nothing. Not even a single shout.
Fear or a contraction
as if before a battle or
a trip. But why with no preparing
or good-byes did she let out
this tiny drop of oxygen
like laughter? A small wooden cross
above the mirror. Brief lapse
of attention. Behind the wall
The boy was playing with the dog.

(Translation: Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese).

There you have it: the story so far, spanning two decades, of Polish poetry and me.

* Poezje wybrane/Selected Poems: ISBN 83-08-01777-0;  Tadeusz Różewicz; trans. Adam Czerniawski; pub. Wydawnictwo Literackie (1991)
** Collected Poems 1956-1998: ISBN 978-1-84354-833-6; Zbigniew Herbert; trans. Alissa Valles; pub. Atlantic Books (2008)
*** Six Polish Poets: ISBN 978-1-904614-50-0; ed. Jacek Dehnel; pub. Arc Publications (2008)

Your mother’s face

We never really look at those we know and love, yet will gaze at other passengers on a train noticing all their little details. Take this carriage and the people sitting facing me. One woman has black-painted nails gnawed down to the quick. The man next to her – pink shirt, tiny cut on his throat where he presumably nicked himself while shaving – is beginning to lose his hair. It’s fine and blond, and a bit tousled. Perhaps he overslept? Had to get ready in a hurry? That would explain the cut too.

And so it goes on. I notice their clothes, their lips, the length and shape of their fingers (as they fidget, write a text, turn the pages of their book). I wonder where they’re going. All but two of the people are blue-eyed. The exceptions are both girls: they’re sitting together but I don’t think they know one another. The one nearest me has brown eyes – in fact they’re almost black – while her neighbour’s are green (i think). She has turned her face away and is staring into space.

‘What is she thinking about?’ I wonder.

You may have millions of stars and planets: Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1942): Bengali polymath and Nobel laureate. He has been one of my literary heroes ever since i was introduced to his work as an undergraduate student studying – supposedly – Bangla (Bengali). I remember the first time i encountered his writing. It was a letter, which he wrote home while travelling from India to Britain. I no longer remember the exact contents, only that in it he mentioned the Suez Canal. What i do recall is being awestruck, even with my very limited command of Bangla, by the beauty of his writing.

Reading him in English is, by contrast, a much more frustrating experience. The songs and poems fare especially poorly. Translators seem obsessed with rendering the most minute details of Bengali life to the exclusion of the real essence of the poetry. Do we really need to know the name of every musical instrument, flower or season? Tagore’s is the poetry of transcendence, of the way in which the particular points towards the universal; footnoting and exotic vocabulary can only get in the way. Nevertheless, i enjoy the translations by Brother James, especially of the song lyrics. They communicate the rapture, the devotion which is at the poems’ heart:

“…

You may have millions of stars and planets,
but you don’t have me.

You won’t be able to tolerate that,
You’ll have to draw me to Your side,
for You are alone
if i am alone.”

(Gitali 77, excerpt)

Tagore also wrote novels, short stories and plays. He painted, he founded a school – in fact the breadth of his accomplishments is astonishing. I feel almost as if i’m trivialising him then when i say that of all his works it’s what Wikipedia describes as his “autobiographies” which are my great loves. Two books in particular, “Glimpses of Bengal” and “My Reminiscences”, go everywhere with me: I carry them round with me on my iPhone to turn to when i feel drained by life’s pressures. Tagore had a magical memory. I don’t just mean that his memory was good, but that he remembered what mattered, the things that could make a scene live again for a reader – even one who’d never seen his world or anything remotely like it.

I’ll conclude by giving two very different examples, one from each of the titles I’ve just mentioned. Not exactly favourite passages, but ones i’ve alighted on tonight as i’ve been flicking through the books. The first i find touching – although others will perhaps consider it a bit mawkish:

“I saw a dead bird floating down the current today. The history of its death may easily be divined. It had a nest in some mango tree at the edge of a village. It returned home in the evening, nestling there against soft-feathered companions, and resting a wearied little body in sleep. All of a sudden, in the night, the mighty Padma tossed slightly in her bed, and the earth was swept away from the roots of the mango tree…”

(“Glimpses of Bengal”)

The second is just funny, but to understand it you need to know that the arrival they are awaiting is that of their dreaded English language tutor:

“It is evening. The rain is pouring in lance-like showers. Our lane is under knee-deep water. The tank has overflown into the garden, and the bushy tops of the Bael trees are seen standing out over the waters. Our whole being, on this delightful rainy evening is radiating rapture like the Kadamba flower its fragrant spikes. The time for the arrival of our tutor is over by just a few minutes. Yet there is no certainty…! We are sitting on the verandah overlooking the lane watching and watching with a piteous gaze. All of a sudden, with a great big thump, our hearts seem to fall into a swoon. The familiar black umbrella has turned the corner undefeated by such weather! Could it not be somebody else? It certainly could not! In the wide world there might be found another, his equal in pertinacity, but never in this little lane of ours.”

(“My Reminiscences”)

So there you have it: my plea for Tagore. Do not be put off by translations which seem designed to convince you he is unreadable, or by the idea that his work is all esoteric and mystical. It isn’t. If at least one person who reads this post falls under Tagore’s spell then my work here will be done!