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)

At the exhibition: Henry Moore

A missing nose.
A sad nose.
A questioning nose.

These observations about noses are from the notes i made at the Tate Britain’s Henry Moore exhibition. It wasn’t all just noses – sad, missing or otherwise – though. In fact, one of the reasons why i put off writing up my notes for so long* is that they go on for pages and pages. Everything was interesting, everything was noteworthy – especially in the first couple of rooms, because you could see Moore’s style evolving in front of your eyes. Frantically, i wrote and wrote, trying to preserve the images in my mind, but of course most soon faded. Already i have forgotten the three sculptures with remarkable noses. Some i do recall however:

The first non-stone sculpture I’ve seen here: carved from walnut. Golden-red-brown. Geometric. Large holes through the wood. It’s maddening that we’re not allowed to touch.

That first walnut wood sculpture, coming after two rooms of stone, was an amazing experience. As for the last sentence, i’ve written before about my frustration at this. Henry Moore so obviously made his sculptures to be touched. You can tell as much from the use of texture:

From the front these statues are both smooth, but from the behind one is rough. It has waves carved into it.

Front and behind – that’s the other thing i love about sculpture: its three dimensionality. As you move around the spaces rearrange themselves, expressions seem to change, meanings seem to alter:

This one seen first from behind looks squat and menacing. She appears to be clenching her left fist. Seen from the front the effect is completely different. She is gazing out in curious concern at us, right hand absent-mindedly placed in her belly.

Halfway through the rooms i came across my favourite sculpture, the Mother and Child which the Tate Britain owns:

Green Hornton stone. 1938. Recumbent Figure. The space below the breasts is part of the beauty. And the blind eyes. It’s beautiful from all angles and different from all angles. That’s what’s so wonderful. And the scale is perfect. And still feels almost as though it could be a natural formation. The curves seem the rock’s own curves.

A bit gushing but that’s awe for you! I’ve seen that sculpture more times than i can remember and yet each time i encounter it the impact has the force of a first encounter. In the next room i really did have a first encounter; i had never seen the drawings Moore did as an official war artist in WWII.

These war drawings are spooky, haunting things. The building in the process of collapse. The figures huddled in a shelter (uncoloured in they remind me of Egyptian mummies). The dark indistinct figures in groups on a street.
And these. Apart from the figures in the foreground the rest are like pale-outlined ghosts.
And now these sleepers – terrifying! Like wraiths. Especially the ones who have no faces. The white lines they are made from are like bandages.

In the final rooms Moore’s style became more monumental and industrial:

Atom Piece. It’s terrifying. Like a vision of another world. A world with no home for us. That great smooth domed ‘head’. What kind of ‘mind’ would inhabit it? Close up the surface of the back reminds me of leather.

Yet, paradoxically, it also drew closer to nature:

Upright internal/external form. Plaster. 1852-3. Like the inside of a dead tree. Hopeless. Moving.

And then in the final room a truly poignant sight: a room full of huge Elmwood sculptures:

Ghosts of a British landscape before Dutch Elm Disease. They’re huge and seem less dense than the sculptures made from stone.

By this point i was flagging, however, and the museum was becoming far too busy for my comfort so my notes contain no details about the individual pieces. I do not do crowds.

Was the exhibition worth a visit? I hope my notes make it clear that indeed it was! As for my notes themselves, were they worth the ordeal involved in taking them – i had a stiff back and aching fingers by the end of the three hours. Well, yes they were. They may not be enough to call to mind each specific sculpture that i wrote about, but they certainly bring back the intensity of the morning. A wonderful experience.

* I went on Saturday 6 March.

We were a family of cagoules

“We were a family of umbrellas…”

The first line from a poem called Opened by Mario Petrucci, from his wonderful collection Flowers of Sulphur*. The poem is about a funeral but for some reason this sent my mind off in a completely different direction: to days out at the seaside – Rhyl or Prestatyn – as a child. Whatever the weather when we left home, whatever the weather when we arrived at the coast, you could almost guarantee that at some point during the day it would turn, and we would have to seek refuge from the inevitable wind and rain.

You would find us crouched beneath the sea wall, invisible beneath our cagoules. My dad would be pouring milky coffee from his flask (nobody was allowed to handle the thermos except him) and my mum would be doling out butties – cheese or jam or fish paste. These would quickly acquire a coating of fine sand but that didn’t stop us eating them. In fact, the quicker you ate them the better as Sally would have them off you in a second if you put them down. She would also have your Penguin biscuit**, although you’d get in trouble if she did because dogs and chocolate don’t go. Still we’d hesitate when it came to take it, trying to decide which colour wrapper to select. This was despite the fact that we knew full well that the biscuits inside were all exactly the same. Nevertheless: Red? Blue? Green?

Sally, being a dog, was the only one of us who didn’t have a cagoule, so my dad used to open up his and wrap it around both of them. For the rest of the family this was an impossibility as we had those old-style cagoules*** you have to put on over your head like a smock. No breathable linings in those days: you got wet from the rain or wet from your sweat. Your choice.

This is how I always picture us on those family days out: a tribe of blue and red plastic ghosts. This is the image i somehow associated with the line from Mario Petrucci’s poem (have i mentioned how good it is?). The sunshine – when we had any, the sea and the sand are much more vaguely remembered. But this is not, I think, down to negativity on my part. No, I cherish that image of us huddled together in our cagoules. It is the very essence of family.

Of course, it was also the performance of family – because we were in public after all, even if there were only seagulls to view us; and so in some ways it was as much about the family we wanted to be as the family we were. But perhaps that’s also part of what a family is in any case? Aspirations and memories and food and shelter.

* ISBN: 978-1904634379, published by Enitharmon Press. See here for a review.
** Ignore the photo. It shows the modern day wrapper. Google couldn’t locate any pictures of the coloured tin-foil packaging the biscuits came in during the 70s. You will have to use your imagination/consult your memory.
***See the section on the roll-up-able cagoule on Wikipedia’s page about cagoules. I don’t remember ours being roll-up-able though.

A little bit of butter: A.A. Milne

I’ve had this poem by A. A. Milne (creator of Winnie the Pooh) going round my head for days now, so you may as well share in the fun:

The King’s Breakfast

The King asked
The Queen, and
The Queen asked
The Dairymaid:
“Could we have some butter for
The Royal slice of bread?”

The Queen asked the Dairymaid,
The Dairymaid
Said, “Certainly,
I’ll go and tell the cow
Now
Before she goes to bed.”

The Dairymaid
She curtsied,
And went and told the Alderney:
“Don’t forget the butter for
The Royal slice of bread.”

The Alderney said sleepily:
“You’d better tell
His Majesty
That many people nowadays
Like marmalade
Instead.”

The Dairymaid
Said “Fancy!”
And went to
Her Majesty.
She curtsied to the Queen
and
She turned a little red:
“Excuse me,
Your Majesty,
For taking of
The liberty,
But marmalade is tasty, if
It’s very
Thickly
Spread.”

The Queen said
“Oh!”
And went to his Majesty:
“Talking of the butter for
The royal slice of bread,
Many people
Think that
Marmalade
Is nicer.
Would you like to try a little
Marmalade
Instead?”

The King said,
“Bother!”
And then he said,
“Oh, deary me!”
The King sobbed, “Oh, deary me!”
And went back to bed.
“Nobody,”
He whimpered,
“Could call me
A fussy man;
I only want
A little bit
Of butter for
My bread!”

The Queen said,
“There, there!”
And went to
The Dairymaid.
The Dairymaid
Said, “There, there!”
And went to the shed.
The cow said,
“There, there!
I didn’t really
Mean it;
Here’s milk for his porringer
And butter for his bread.”

The queen took the butter
And brought it to
His Majesty.
The King said
“Butter, eh?”
And bounced out of bed.
“Nobody,” he said,
As he kissed her
Tenderly,
“Nobody,” he said,
As he slid down
The banisters,
“Nobody,
My darling,
Could call me
A fussy man –
BUT
I do like a little bit of butter to my bread!

( A. A. Milne)

Wonderfully rhythmic! The last line is the killer, although i always remember it as: “I do like a little bit of butter on my bread”. Say it out loud and hear the percussiveness:

“I do like uh litt-uhl bit-uhf butt-uh to my bread.”

You have a rhythm created through the shwa vowel sound (uh) and another created through the repetition of the consonant ‘b’. The doubling of  short “i” in “little bit of” causes you to instinctively read that part more quickly creating an internal half-rhyme; and then finally you have the contrast between those two short “i” sounds and the wider, heavier vowel sounds that remain.

The magic of Children’s verse! Actually, it’s even better with pictures – something all Children’s literature should have in my opinion. There’s a page with what look like they could be the original illustrations here, although it’s been too long since i saw them for me to be sure. To be honest, i’d forgotten the poem itself till i ran out of soya milk:

I do like a little drop of soya milk on my muesli.

No. Doesn’t really work, does it.

That song about a youth hostel

Ah, the wonders of shuffle mode on an iPod. Today, for instance, the song “Y.M.C.A.” by the Village People popped up. This has the distinction for me of being the first song i ever bought – or rather the first i ever got my mum to buy for me. I was ten years old and we were holding a concert at school, or maybe it was a talent contest; i can’t remember now. At any rate, everyone was being encouraged to join in, so i got together with another kid, C, and we decided to do a dance routine. “Y.M.C.A.” was our soundtrack. What a dance routine it was: all high kicks, claps and those other ‘groovy’ moves: drop to the floor, turn around, make a funny little circle gesture with your arms*. We thought were it!

The song itself, i didn’t really understand. I vaguely imagined the “Y.M.C.A.” was some sort of American version of a youth hostel. Not that i’d been to a youth hostel, but there was one on the main road that led to my Nan’s, so i knew they were big old houses that hikers stayed at. Who knew why anyone would write a song about one and quite honestly who cared? The main thing was that it was catchy as hell and one of the guys in the group wore a “Red Indian” costume. How i loved that costume.

Gay references? What did ‘gay’ mean? Mind you, to be fair, i didn’t know what ‘straight’ meant either. I quite naively believed that sex – which i was aware of in an anatomically incorrect sort of a way – was something married people did. Nor do i remember anyone worrying about the political correctness of spoofing a Native American (or whatever the current term is). It was all about fun and energy. AIDS was just round the corner, about to bring with it a different, darker image of homosexuality – at least in the short term; but also an increased openness. So that these days most school kids know what it is to be gay – or at least think they do, which is much the same thing when you’re ten.

Anyway, back to that concert (or talent show, whichever it was). Only as an adult could i appreciate how painful it must have been for the assembled parents to watch us. Or rather mothers, because back then it wasn’t yet the done thing for men to take time out for their kids, at least not in Britain. Children are so innocently self-centred that the idea that their audience might not be enjoying watching them as much as they’re enjoying being watched doesn’t really occur to them. And if it does, it doesn’t cause them much guilt. Yet it must have been torture: dance routines (ours wasn’t the only one, oh no), songs, magic tricks, ‘comedy’… even juggling i think. Everyone had to have their spot in the limelight. ‘That’s what you get for not using birth control,’ i thought to myself smugly when i looked back at the scene.

And yet… when my own son went to school and entered upon his own round of nativity plays and concerts i made an interesting discovery. Other people’s children are indeed tiresome, but your own are wonderful. Bona fide talents no less. His Jimi Hendrix routine was marvellous (no cheesy disco for him!), his leading role in the anti-smoking polemic which prefaced it no less so. And as for his interpretation of Shepherd #1 (or possibly #2 or #3, i’m not entirely sure) paying homage to the infant Jesus in the school nativity play… well, words fail me. Unfortunately, the camera failed me too, so i have no pictures of that one.

So, maybe my mum did enjoy the imaginatively choreographed dance that C and I performed to the song “Y.M.C.A.”. Or maybe she too was wondering why someone had written a song about a hostel.

*A bit like demonstrating how a wheel works while wearing a muff**
**As in ‘handwarmer’!