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)

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Magical houses

The other week i went with some friends on the candlelit tour of Dennis Severs’ House . I’m guessing a lot of people won’t have heard of this place – I hadn’t until M told me about it – so let me try and describe it: it’s like a cross between a time capsule, a three-dimensional still life, a junk shop, a museum and the story of a fictional Huguenot family who (we are meant to imagine) lived in the house in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. In other words, it is a lot of things – or tries to be a lot of things – all at once. And therein lies the problem: it tries too hard.

Walking around the house we were struck by the fact that, as impressive as the spectacle often was visually, it rarely succeeded in being immersive. You couldn’t fully enter into the illusion of the Huguenots’ ghostly presence, for example, because the composition of the rooms as ‘artworks’ belied any idea of them being actually inhabited by ‘ordinary folk’. Art is self-conscious in a way everyday life is not. The sounds and odours, which i’d imagined would be so effective in creating an atmosphere, just couldn’t overcome this self-consciousness. Even worse were the little notes on display in most of the rooms, which alternated between warning you not to touch (as though visitors were anticipated to be in the throes of dementia, incapable of remembering this rule from room to room) and asking you if you’d “got” it yet. What we got was irritated. It was as though the guardians of the house (a glum-faced lot it has to be said), despite all their assertions to the contrary, lacked conviction that the house itself would be enough. And so they kept on intruding, reminding you of the magic you were supposed to be experiencing.

You can already sense this if you read the blurb on the website. The tone is one of breathless admiration – ostensibly for Dennis Severs and his creation but in reality for the experience they are offering you. Quite an odd idea – like the actor writing his own review. Responsibility for enjoyment is transferred to the visitor: there is no possibility of the house being less than its custodians claim; only of you being less than you might wish. Apart from being patronising this is also a cop out. As it happens there are lots of reasons why the experience might not take. Some of them i’ve described above but there are others: your mood on the day plays a part for example. Then there’s the number of other people present. I’d imagined there would be just our party and perhaps one other small group. Had this been the case then i think the experience would have been far more atmospheric: ‘ghosts’ need silence and space. As it was, i was as conscious of the other visitors as i was of the house. Only when i finally got free of them, in the attic, could i really appreciate the power the house had.

This isn’t to say i didn’t enjoy the evening. Some of the rooms, especially upstairs, are beautiful. I loved the lady’s bedroom which reminded me of a set from a period drama. The decoration on the wall – i don’t know what you call it but it’s a sort of arrangement of china ledges – was gorgeous; and the moment when i glanced through the four poster bed and spotted a brass monkey clinging to the bell cord was thrilling. Likewise, the arrangement of jellied fruits (petit fours?) on one of the landings. I stood and gazed at it for maybe ten minutes; the colours and the candlelight were magical. Then there was the attic which i’ve mentioned above. All you hear as you stand within it is the relentless tolling of a cannon somewhere in the city. The king is dead. I believed it.

Still, i can’t help remembering another “imagined house” that i visited some years ago which affected me far more deeply. It was the Sherlock Holmes Museum – a ‘recreation’ of the house at which Holmes and Watson lived at 221b Baker Street. I went there on a whim after reading a collection of Conan Doyle’s short stories and wasn’t really expecting anything special. As it was i was captivated. Despite knowing that Holmes was a fictional character i found myself looking at the rooms and wondering how he had found them. ‘They’re much smaller than i expected. Didn’t he find them claustrophobic?’ I looked at the needles and syringes in a box and imagined Holmes using them to inject opium. I looked at the violin and imagined Holmes playing it. I looked at the bed upstairs and imagined Holmes sleeping in it. ‘God, it’s narrow.’

Precisely because it never asked me to believe in it the house allowed me to do so. Its lack of self-consciousness made it seem authentic and so did its sometimes chaotic nature (I wondered how Holmes had ever found anything!). That’s not to say that it felt like Holmes had just walked out of the room. It felt instead as if in gathering up so many of his ‘possessions’ and returning them ‘home’ the curators had summoned up his presence from ‘the dead’. A spooky feeling! Even the tacky souvenir shop on the ground floor couldn’t break the spell. Would the house have the same effect a second time? I don’t know and i’ve never cared to find out. As i’ve said above, there are so many factors that can affect how you experience a place. The Sherlock Holmes Museum may have been all the things i describe but still – in another mood for instance – it might not have come alive for me.

One of life’s little questions

Why do i love The Sound of Music so much?

Could it be the cracking songs? Well, i’m sure they’re part of the reason but the fact is i’m not generally a fan of musicals or that type of music: too contrived and controlled for me. Could it be the beauty of the landscapes? Stunning indeed – and not just in their beauty but in their scale; but in these post-BBC nature documentary days there are plenty of other opportunities to see panoramas as lovely as the those in the film. What about the romance between the Captain and Fräulein Maria? Definitely a factor. Christopher Plummer and Julie Andrews are magical together; it’s a great shame they haven’t been reunited more frequently.

All these things contribute to my enjoyment – as do the moments of humour and the flight from the Nazis at the end – but, on reflection, i realise they aren’t critical to it. No, for me it’s the joy and genuine sense of family that the kids, especially the younger ones, bring to the film which raises my spirits. They shine out from the television, obliterating the wintery greyness outside. That same joy also renders me oblivious to the movie’s obvious sentimentality. Even their mistakes are joyful: in the “My Favourite Things” scene for instance the little girl playing Marta is mouthing the words to a song she isn’t supposed to know. She’s can’t help herself.

Bottle that joy and you could make millions. And of course that’s exactly what the film makers, if not the children, did. As for me, joy is something i’m sadly short of in January.

It is getting lighter!

Christmas is over and a new year is almost upon us. Traditionally this is a time for reflections and resolutions but for me this is time out. I’ll reflect and resolve as best i can in January. It’ll help take my mind off the cold and dreary darkness. Did you enjoy your Christmas? I enjoyed mine, but then i almost always do. Some part of me returns to childhood at Christmas, and while i don’t regress as far as actually believing in Father Christmas, i do get that same thrill of anticipation. It feels as is anything could happen.

This year i stayed at home in London, instead of trekking up to North Wales as i usually do. On Christmas Eve, with all the food bought and my presents arranged round the Tree –  a real tree this year! – i settled down to watch (and of course listen to) carol services from Cambridge and Llangollen; and later watched Midnight Mass from Westminster Cathedral. Carol services make Christmas for me, but i can’t sing so i prefer to observe them from afar where there is no danger of being “invited” to participate. Afterwards, i took myself off to bed, glancing sadly at the Christmas Tree on my way. Every year the same thought: if only it were possible to have both the magic of the gifts round the Tree AND the gifts themselves. Never mind, at least i’ve got gifts.

In the morning it was time to unwrap and marvel at all the things i’d received, especially the books. There were over twenty of those ranging from a bilingual selection of poems by the Bangladeshi poet Shamsur Rahman to a biography of the actor Claude Rains and Joe Sacco’s graphic novel Palestine. My favourite however was a book of facts and photographs about the place where i grew up. It was written by a local historian and my mum went to a great deal of trouble both to source the book and then to get it signed for me by the author. About half way through the book i found a photo of my old headmaster, he of the beige everything.

I also got a CD containing a reading in the original Anglo-Saxon of the poem Beowulf. I am very excited about this but am waiting for the companion present to arrive which is the bilingual Anglo-Saxon/Modern English edition of Seamus Heaney’s translation of the poem. I want to be able to follow the text as it’s being read. And i got jigsaws: three in all. Equally pleasing, the presents i bought for friends and family all seemed to go down well. Panic over.

Later in the day i walked over to a friend’s for tea and chat. Christmas Day is a wonderful day to go walking as hardly anyone seems to leave their house. The snow had all melted. Only on the way back, walking along the river, did we encounter ice. After that it was two days full of a cold and feeling sorry for myself; but once that passed i was able to go out walking again and journeyed across London to spend a very pleasant day with friends. It was just a shame that making that trip meant i had to meet commuters who were working through the Christmas period. It rather spoilt the magical feeling that time had been suspended. Again, never mind. Good friends are a treasure – and, anyway, there’s a limit to the number of times that even i can sit watching The Sound of Music.

Now i am home again and waiting for the New Year. Unlike Christmas this depresses rather than excites me. I think i am always aware of how little i have accomplished. But it’s also because once New Year’s Day is over time starts flowing again. The spell is broken. By Monday i’ll be back at work and hoping that, for once, January – that interminable month – will fly by. I comfort myself with the fact that we have now passed the darkest point in the year. It is getting lighter! Remember that.

Alpha Centauri, here i come!

What is it about space travel that is so alluring? Even a ‘short’ journey in space takes a long, long time. It’s cold up there, dangerous up there and, what’s worse, for long stretches there’s nothing up there. Alpha Centauri is the star system nearest to our own and even that is over four light years away – or to put it another way 25.6 trillion miles; and yet, when you get there, most of the universe is going to look much the same as it does from Earth, because as vast as the distance from here to there sounds, in relation to the size of the Universe it’s trivial.

And yet…

Ever since i can remember i have longed to make that voyage. Alpha Centauri is my love, my other. It is all that is unattainable – the 99.999999% of the Universe which not only will i never visit, but to which a visit would be impossible.

For me but not for my descendants? Because it is conceivable that one day we – as in human beings – could make such a journey; whereas for most of the Universe no such possibility exists. We would have to become something other than human – and would therefore no longer be ‘us’ – to endure the centuries, millennia even, that even the fastest spacecraft would require for the trip to other galaxies.

Even measured in light years the distances to these can run into the billions; and at such a distance, there is no way of knowing if the galaxies are still there. After all if the picture we’re seeing is billions of years old, who knows what’s happened since? And their size! In what way is it meaningful to visit a galaxy? We live in a galaxy, but if we were to climb into a spaceship at birth and visit a planet – or even a star a day – we wouldn’t see them all before we died. 100 to 400 billion: that is how many stars our galaxy contains.

By contrast, a visit to another star system sounds positively manageable. And what an experience! Imagine seeing the Sun as a yellow pinprick in the darkness. For just as Alpha Centauri is visible from Earth, so the Sun would be visible from a planet orbiting either of the two stars* in that system. Just as astronauts, when they saw the Earth from the Moon, gained for the first time a sense of the Earth as an object separate from themselves; so from Alpha Centauri we would gain something like the same perspective on our Solar System.

Might Alpha Centauri contain an alternative Earth? Unlikely, given its twin suns, but it doesn’t stop people dreaming, especially those of us who have never felt fully at home on this Earth. The important thing is that it remains unknown and thus is the perfect playground for dreams and nightmares, much as was true of Mars or Venus before spacecraft revealed the more prosaic truth: that Mars is an empty red desert and Venus** an inferno. We may still wonder sometimes about the possibility of life on Mars, but for the most part our Martian fantasies are now not about what we might find there but what we might create there: terraforming. There’s another parallel too: just as Mars and (occasionally) Venus have been conceived as mirrors or twins to the Earth, so Alpha Centauri performs this function for the Solar System as a whole.

I think, having considered it, that all these factors play their part for me: the longing to attain the unattainable; the need to reduce the universe to something more intelligible; the desire to see the reality i live within from without; and an adult version of my childhood dreams of a passage to other worlds.

* Actually, there are three but the third, Proxima, is much smaller and dimmer.
** An atlas we had when i was a child included an ‘artist’s depiction of what Venus might look like’. It showed a lush, vaguely prehistoric looking jungle.

Under Autumn light

さまたげず
さまたげられず
秋灯下

Samatagezu
Samatagerarezu
Shuutooka

Neither hindering
Nor being hindered
Under Autumn light

(Mitsu Suzuki*)

Yes, it’s official. Today i finally surrendered and accepted the obvious: it is Autumn. Don’t expect me jump for joy however.

Friends always try to persuade me of the season’s glories. “Look at the red and gold leaves!” they say, pointing at the bits of dead tree on the ground. “Aren’t they beautiful?” Or they draw my attention to the squirrels busily burying acorns, forgetting that those lucky creatures will sleep through the rest of the wrong end of the year.

I look at the birds, flying in formation away to the south, and wish i was with them. But failing that i hope for light. The shorter the days grow the more i treasure each sunny hour, each cloudless sky. Even Autumn light is better than no light.

* See the Underwater page for a bit more information about her.