Friday, December 7, 2018

Anna Swir / A Conversation Through the Door




A Conversation Through the Door
by Anna Swir
Translated by Czeslaw Milosz & Leonard Nathan


At five in the morning
I knock on his door.
I say through the door:
in the hospital at Sliska Street
your son, a soldier, is dying.

He half-opens the door,
does not remove the chain.
Behind him his wife
shakes.

I say: your son asks his mother
to come.
He says: the mother won't come.
Behind him the wife
shakes.

I say: the doctor allowed us
to give him wine.
He says: please wait.

He hands me a bottle through the door,
locks the door,
locks the door with a second key.

Behind the door the wife
begins to scream as if she were in labor.




       

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Anna Swir / To shoot into the eyes of a man


Young members of the Polish resistance


TO SHOOT INTO THE EYES OF A MAN

by Anna Swir

He was fifteen,
the best student of Polish.
He ran at the enemy
with a pistol.

Then he saw the eyes of a man,
and should’ve fired into those eyes.
He hesitated.
He’s lying on the pavement.

They didn’t teach him
in Polish class
to shoot into the eyes of a man.


Saturday, November 10, 2018

Anna Swir / The Poetics of Embodiment





Anna Swir & the Poetics of Embodiment
by Angela Alaimo O'Donnell
Introduction

o
nna Swir (born Anna Świrszczyńska) was one of the most accomplished poets writing in Poland during the mid-twentieth century. Born into a nation with a rich literary heritage and during a century wherein her country experienced unprecedented violence and upheaval, Swir chose her path as a poet out of necessity, believing that the language of poetry is more essential than ever in extreme times and dour circumstances:
By expressing reality, poetry masters and overcomes it. Poetry creates around man a delicate, tender miniworld to protect him from the dreadfulness of the maxiworld. Every Negro or Eskimo lullaby is a warm nest for a human nestling, enveloping its helplessness. Let our words be as necessary and useful as once were words of magic. This is an unachievable ideal (quoted in Milosz, "Introduction," 6).
Swir's total dedication to an, admittedly, impossible ideal is characteristic of her personality and the key to her genius as a poet. Her art was, indeed, necessary—certainly to her own survival, but also to the creation and conveyance of her unique perspective on the changing roles of both women and artists in a volatile world that challenged them in exhilarating ways.
Born in 1909 and and dying in 1984, Swir bore witness to both World War I and World War II, participated in the resistance movement during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, and lived most of her life under Poland's oppressive post-war Communist regime. In his introduction to Talking to My Body, a collection of Swir's poems edited and translated into English by Czeslaw Milosz, he identifies her as "a survivor." Among her harrowing experiences of the Nazi occupation, Swir was once arrested and waited for an hour, expecting to be executed. Fortunately, she was released and was able to return to her roles in the underground movement as writer of political tracts and as a nurse in a makeshift hospital for insurgents. In response to the years of physical and psychic trauma she endured, she once said, "War made me another person. Only then did my own life and the life of my contemporaries enter my poems" (quoted in Milosz, "Introduction," 3). In fact, Swir's identity was shaped by the experience of war: even the name by which she is known to most readers, "Swir," instead of "Świrszczyńska," takes its origins from her work as a member of the Polish resistance. Milosz would later choose to use her alias, with Swir's permission, when he translated and published her work, thus introducing her to English-speaking readers as the revolutionary that she was.
Despite her claims that the ideal poets must strive for is impossible, Swir's poetry somehow manages to achieve what she sets out to accomplish. Her poems participate in two realms, creating the private, "tender miniworld" which insulates the self against the horrors that would destroy it even as they engage the reality of the "maxiworld" and make it palpable to the reader. The result is a body of work that explores the full spectrum of possible subjects, ranging from the personal to the political, from the domestic to the international, from the delicacies of erotic love to the devastating effects of war.

Early Life & Formation
Swir understood her vocation as an artist from an early age. Her father, Jan Świrszczyński, was an impoverished avant-garde painter, and Anna grew up in his studio, quietly observing him at his labors. Her mother, a former singer, had given up her art to take care of her family, but Swir records in her poems about her early life her pleasure in hearing her mother's voice, "the soprano of Miss Stasia, / a beauty/ from the town of Ostroleka" ("Christmas Eve," Talking to My Body, 23). In fact, Swir's "Poems About My Father and My Mother" (unpublished until after her death), provide poignant glimpses into her childhood. They tell the story of an itinerant life, as the family moved from residence to residence within their home city of Warsaw, of increasing poverty and her near-constant state of hunger, of her father's refusal to despair when forty years' worth of work was destroyed during the bombing of Warsaw, and of her grief at the eventual death of each parent. Amid the grim reality of their lives, the child in these poems understands the nature of the sacrifice her parents have made in order for her father to practice his art, and understands that she, too, is implicated in this sacrifice:
My Father's Workshop

I owe my second birth

to my father's workshop. 

Father painted its walls
black, it was sublime
like a coffin, on the black walls
tall stained-glass paintings
grew in corners, that was
power, they thronged, 
every day taller, beating their wings
against the high ceiling, father
was painting in an overcoat, I was cold
and hungry, I used to sit 
cross-legged on the floor, 
we had no table, and I wrote
Latin verbs, in the alcove
the soup was boiling, mother, 
sick, was lying there, I was
afraid she would die, 
I listened to their breathing, the window in the roof
was white with frost, the coal
was used up, I thought
under my blanket that I
would be the Spirit-King, in the ceiling
there was a hook
from which a starving painter
who lived here
hanged himself.

(Talking to My Body, 22)
The image of her father painting beneath the sinister hook indelibly etched in her memory suggests the child's intimations of mortality but also her intuitive sense of art as a practice that defies poverty, sickness, and death. Art simultaneously starves and resurrects the members of her family, gives her an identity as the "Spirit-King" who has the power to save them, even as she labors at language, the medium through which she will eventually pursue her own art.
As a child Swir wanted to be a painter, but her family lacked the means to send her to the Academy of Art. Instead, she attended Warsaw University where she studied medieval and baroque Polish literature and fell in love with poetry. It was during this period that she wrote her first poems, published in the 1930s. These poems are mostly brief, deftly drawn miniatures, distanced, detached, outwardly-focused pieces that exclude personal details about her life. In 1934, Swir's poem "Noon" was awarded first prize in a poetry competition sponsored by Literary News, an organization run by a group of well-established poets. Two years later, she published her first book, Poems and Prose, thus marking her entrance onto the literary scene.

The War & Its Aftermath
As Swir attests, the events of World War II powerfully shaped her life and her work in a number of significant ways. Since she never wrote an autobiography or completed the memoir she had planned, and since there is no comprehensive biography of the poet to date, few details are known about her activities during the war. Swir did write a brief standardized biographical essay about herself for the Lexicon of Polish Authors and, later, enlarged upon this in her "Introduction" to her volume of Selected Poems in 1973, but the focus in the latter account is on her childhood. Thus, the best available record of Swir's experience of the Nazi occupation and the Warsaw Uprising lies in the poems that she wrote, a series of haunting sketches, many of them photographic in style and impression as she tries to capture, through the accumulation of telling detail, the horror, desolation, and the rare moments of consolation she experienced during those years. Swir would wait 30 years to publish these poems in the collection, Building the Barricade, in 1974. Many of the poems in the volume take the vantage point of an anonymous, detached observer, as if to offer a dispassionate account of the facts. Others, however, depict a deeply personal engagement with the events of the war and their impact on ordinary lives:
I Carried Bedpans

I worked as an orderly at the hospital

without medicine and water. 

I carried bedpans
filled with pus, blood and feces.


I loved pus, blood and feces— 

they were alive like life, 

and there was less and less
life around.


When the world was dying, 

I was only two hands, handing

the wounded a bedpan.
(Building the Barricade, 23)
"I Carried Bedpans" dramatizes poignantly the ways in which 'her own life and the life of her contemporaries' entered Swir's poems during the war. The intense carnality of the poem, a trademark of Swir's mature style, insists upon our common human frailty: the emphasis on (and repetition of) "pus, blood and feces," the humble stuff we are made of, is counterbalanced by the inadequacy of her fervent attempts to lend assistance to the wounded, "I was only two hands." And yet, this seemingly hopeless scenario is redeemed by her grotesque confession, "I loved pus, blood and feces," for these signify life in the face of the death, the body's refusal to surrender to its inevitable demise. It has been observed that the poems in Building the Barricade subvert traditional poetic representations of the heroic, particularly the romantic legacy of Polish heroism and glorification of rebellion (Ingbrant, 61). Swir's poems claim that heroism consists not of grand but small actions, most of which take the form of bearing witness: the nurse who offers a kiss and assurances of life to the soldier as he dies, the anonymous watcher who signs out the window to acknowledge the truckload of hostages being driven to their execution, the message-bearer who goes to the house of a dying soldier's parents. Swir's unswerving courage in describing and documenting such (supposedly) small acts of valor have earned her the title "the Homer of the Warsaw Uprising." Universal admiration of these poems, by English and Polish readers alike, has led many critics to consider Building the Barricade her greatest single achievement (Ingbrant, 62-63).
Another crucial impact of the war on Swir's life was her displacement, along with many others in her home city, from Warsaw to Cracow. Once she arrived there, she moved into an apartment in a building known as "Writers' House" on Krupnicza Street. Among the residents were some of Poland's best-known literary lights, including future Nobel Laureates Wislawa Symborska and Czeslaw Milosz. However, Swir did not fit in with the bohemian culture of the place, nor did she belong to the circle of the elite who presided over the literary evenings held in the communal canteen.
Perhaps one reason for her identity as an outsider is that Swir worked almost exclusively as a playwright, rather than as a poet. For a time, she worked as a literary supervisor at Theater of the Young Spectator (1946-50), where she wrote and adapted plays for young audiences. She also wrote children's books, producing over 50 titles—an accomplishment that won her a literary prize in 1973. During the years when Stalinism was most intense, her plays written for adult audiences reflected the spirit of socialist realism, though after Stalin's death in 1953, she was able to turn to more psychological and political drama. In addition, Swir wrote contemporary comedies for popular entertainment, translated poetry (mainly from the French), produced opera librettos, and adapted literary works for the stage, radio and television. Though she was always engaged in a number of different literary projects in her professional life, Swir continued to write poetry privately. She would eventually collect and publish the poems in a series of volumes, beginning in 1958, and the poems, rather than her plays, would establish her literary reputation.
Friends who knew Swir during her Cracow years characterize her as a hard-working woman who was devoted to her parents, living with and caring for them into their old age. She was also an activist, who campaigned against social ills, especially those that made life difficult for the poor and for woman and children. Swir, who was a teetotaler, was an active member of the Anti-Alcohol Committee of Cracow's Women's Council, and spoke out openly against drinking habits in Poland, a rigid stance which was alternately perceived as an expression of moral superiority and a capitulation to communist party propaganda. In reality, such social radicalism was an expression of her earnest belief that the poet's role is to work towards creating a better world: "[the poet] believes that with his poems he could save humanity, and has qualms of conscience that he has not yet succeeded in doing so" (Ingbrant, 42). Clearly, Swir was markedly different from many of her contemporary colleagues, both in terms of the theory and practice of her art. At the time, she seemed to have little in common with them, and Swir seemed destined to remain on the margins.
When Swir was forty-four, after many years of being unattached, she met and married actor Jan Adamski (a man seventeen years her junior). Interestingly, the priest who married the couple was Karol Wojtyla, who would later become Pope John Paul II, and a year later he baptized their daughter, Ludmila. It is worth noting here the role of Swir's Catholicism in her life. As a child she received the sacraments and attended Catholic schools, and in her autobiographical account she states that, as a young girl, her greatest ambition was to be a saint. Though her poems openly explore her adult ambivalence about the faith she had inherited, on her deathbed, Swir made peace with the Roman Catholic Church (a church that was now overseen by her compatriot and former priest, John Paul II). This quiet undercurrent of Catholicism is evident in Swir's poems in a number of ways, perhaps most forcefully in the incarnational quality of her poetry and her complex attitude toward the body. The centrality of the flesh and the joys and agonies of embodiment recur throughout her work, so much so that Milosz would eventually adopt the title, Talking to My Body, as the title of his volume of English translations of Swir's poems.
Swir's marriage to Adamski lasted thirteen years. Their union came to an end due to his involvement with another woman (poet Halina Poswiatowska). Swir never married again, but she eventually entered into a lasting relationship with another man, whose identity is known only as "Jozef," the life companion to whom she dedicated her book, Happy As a Dog's Tail in 1978. Her post-marriage life was marked by a devotion to ascetic practice and physical discipline. Swir became a vegetarian and practiced yoga and gymnastics on a daily basis. She also enjoyed jogging and long cross-country walks, activities that were not only unconventional, for the time, but they also seemed somehow inappropriate for a woman of her age. All of this served to set her further outside the mainstream, both in terms of her life and her work.
Cracow, the so-called "city of poets," never did claim Anna Swir as one of its own, though she spent the remainder of her life there. She has never been listed among the city's celebrated poets or legendary personalities, nor was she given burial, upon her death, in the "Alley of the Meritorious" at the Rakowicki Cemetery. Instead, Anna Świrszczyńska rests alongside the city's ordinary citizens.

Career & Critical Reception in Poland
The critical reception of Anna Swir's poems in her native country was appreciative, on the whole, but the subversive nature of her work, in terms of both style and content, caused dissent among critics and readers. The publication of her Collected Poems in 1958 was greeted with anticipation as this was her first collection since her pre-war debut volume in 1936, but many readers found her stylistic experimentation to be a source of distraction and preferred her earlier work. Swir eschewed formal poetry, choosing the prose poem as her primary medium. Some critics, in fact, questioned whether Swir's work constituted poetry at all. Black Words (1967), published nearly 10 years later, garnered less attention, as did The Wind (1970), but the critics who did pay attention to Swir's work began to observe the continuities that connected these seemingly dissimilar volumes to one another. Many of Swir's poems emphasized the biological aspects of human experience, an exploration of the significance of being embodied, particularly for women. Commenting on Swir's strikingly "audacious" images of childbirth in her "Mother and Daughter" poem series, critic Jerzy Kwiatkowski observed:
No Polish woman...has written about such matters so powerfully, so revealingly, so uncompromisingly. But neither has any woman manifested in her verses such a strong sense of precisely her own femaleness. In Swir, being a woman is above all a form of being human, of active and triumphant humanity. Man wanders somewhere on the peripheries of a great matriarchy, becomes its mere supplement—necessary but not treated with any great respect. Swir takes her revenge on the patriarchy that has been governing human affairs since time immemorial. (quoted in Ingbrant, 54)
Interestingly, Kwiatkowski does not directly connect Swir with the ideology or politics of feminism, believing that the latter is characterized by "the vehemence of the suffragette," whereas Swir's poems quietly authenticate the experience of universal human suffering, rather than the suffering of one marginalized group. This distinction is one that Czeslaw Milosz will make, as well, when he later takes up the cause of Swir's work in attempt to bring it the attention he believes it deserves. It is almost as if male critics (and the critical establishment during this time in Poland was almost exclusively male) believed it necessary to separate Swir from the feminist movement in order to legitimize her poems for all readers, rather than consigning her to the narrow category of "women's poet." It might also be noted that the distrust of "isms" of any kind is understandable, on the part of these critics, given their cultural and historical context. Poland had suffered for decades from the parade of ideologies—Nazism, Marxism, Communism, Stalinism, etc.—each of which had run roughshod over their nation and impinged upon the freedom of the individual.
The publication of the controversial Jestem Baba (translated as I Am a Woman or To Be a Woman) in 1972 proved to be a watershed moment for Swir's career. Critics identified the poems alternately as a provocation, indicting society for its mistreatment of women, and as a brave display of realism that challenged people to look into the face of injustice without flinching. The poems in the first half of the volume featured brutal scenes of violence against women, whereas the poems in the latter half of the book explore the theme of eros with her characteristic emphasis on the carnal. Swir breaks cultural taboos in both sets of poems, redefining what is permissible in poetry and broadening the scope of traditional love poetry, wherein women nearly always figure as the object of the male gaze rather than the subjective presence in the poem. In addition, some of the female voices in Swir's love poems are implicitly those of older women, breaking yet another stereotype, the assumption that elderly women are impervious to desire. In fact, the Polish word Swir uses in her title, "Baba," is most often translated as "witch," or "grandmother," or "hag," rather than as the more generic "woman." Originating in folktale tradition, the Baba is typically a threatening figure, a woman who knows the secrets of deep magic and can, therefore, pronounce curses and cast spells on ordinary mortals. Thus, Swir chooses to identify with a creature who is an outcast, despised and feared by men, yet who is in full possession of her own mysterious—and expressly feminine—power.
With the publication of Building the Barricade (1974) on the 30th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, Swir produced yet another volume of subversive poetry, only this time the subject is war rather than love. Here Swir challenges the conventions of patriotic poetry, even as in her previous poems she challenged the existing models of womanhood. Her fearlessness in taking on a historical event sacrosanct to the heart of Polish readers, and depicting it in such an intimate and deeply human way, won Swir a place in the history of Polish poetry, even if not in the canon of those considered the greatest practitioners.
Swir's reputation was well established when her final volumes were published, Happy as a Dog's Tail (1978) and Suffering and Joy (1985), the latter collection published posthumously by her daughter. These are poems that return to her earlier theme of embodiment, praising the graces of ordinary bodily activity—walking, yawning, snoring, singing, breathing—even as they lament the body's inevitable mortality. They are informed by paradox and oxymoron, a deep sense of ambivalence about what it means to be human. The poems that follow demonstrate the range of attitudes towards the body evident in these volumes:
I Say to My Body

I say to my body

—You carcass—I say, 

You carcass, crated, nailed down, 
deaf and blind
like a padlock.


I should beat you till you scream, 

Starve you for forty days, 

Hang you over the highest abyss of the world.

Perhaps then a window in you would open

on everything I feel exists

on everything that is closed to me.

I say to my body: 

You carcass, 

You are afraid of pain and hunger, 
You are afraid
of the abyss. 
You, deaf, blind carcass—I say
and I spit at the mirror.

(Talking to My Body, 94)

I Talk to My Body

My body, you are an animal

whose appropriate behavior

is concentration and discipline. 
An effort
of an athlete, of a saint, of a yogi.


Well trained

you may become for me

a gate 
through which I will leave myself
and a gate
through which I will enter myself. 
A plumb line to the center of the earth
and a cosmic ship to Jupiter.


My body, you are an animal

for whom ambition 

is right. 
Splendid possibilities
are open to us.

(Talking to My Body, 121)
As these two poems demonstrate, Swir's conversations with her body (a favorite trope) range from the humorous to the hopeless, the delighted to the desperate, comedy and tragedy set side by side. This element of the grotesque enables the poet to comprehend all the possibilities, in terms of our lifelong relationship with our bodies—to express our sense of wonder at ourselves as "paragon of animals" and disgust with ourselves as mere "quintessence of dust." Set side by side, these poems make contradictory claims—our bodies are a prison (padlocked shut) and our bodies are a gateway; our bodies are dead carcasses and our bodies are living animals; our bodies are our greatest limitation (deaf and blind) and our bodies are our greatest source of possibility. Swir does not lend greater authority to either poem: both visions are equally accurate and equally true, reminding us that the body can be viewed from an infinite number of angles, but we can never really know it fully. Incarnation simultaneously bodies forth and cloaks who and what we are. No matter how many poems Swir writes about her body in the course of her lifetime, it always remains enigma, and, thus, stands as a living, breathing metaphor of our intimacy with unfathomable mystery.

Anna Swir in America : The Milosz Connection
Anna Swir and Czeslaw Milosz crossed paths a number of times in the course of their lives. Both belonged to the generation of writers who made their literary debut before the war, survived, and then made a post-war debut in communist Poland. But, unlike Swir, Milosz chose not to remain in his native country. In 1951, after his diplomatic service in France concluded, he carried out his literary work in exile, first in France and then in the United States. Throughout their careers the two poets were aware of one another's work, they had attended clandestine writers' meetings in underground Warsaw during the war, and they lived in the same apartment building for a time afterwards, but that had been the extent of their connection.
In June of 1981, Milosz returned to Poland for the first time in 30 years just after he had been awarded the Nobel Prize, and was invited to give a lecture at Writers' House on Krupnicza Street. Swir was in the audience, and Milosz recollects his pleasure at seeing her again. It is also evident that the reunion served as a catalyst that would lead to his decision to translate her work into English:
When, after many years, I met her in Poland in the summer of 1981, she seemed to me much stronger . . . than she had been in her youth; an attractive woman, lithe, with a ruddy complexion, her hair like the white mane of a fairy-tale witch. I told her that I had always valued her poetry, though at the moment I did not expect I would translate a volume of it into English. Somehow the decision matured slowly and became a reality three years later, in 1984. (Milosz, "Introduction," 7)
Milosz's meeting with Swir coincided with his discovery of her more recent poetry collections, Jestem Baba and Building the Barricade. In the 3rd edition of his anthology, Postwar Polish Poetry (1984), part of his tireless campaign to promote the work of poets from his native country internationally, Milosz included 17 poems by Swir, giving her a prominent place in the collection. (Only Zbigniew Herbert had more poems in the book.) It was in this volume that Milosz first introduced Swir by her alias, and thus it was under that name that American readers first encountered Anna Świrszczyńska. Milosz also included 12 of her poems in his highly eclectic anthology of personal favorites, A Book of Luminous Things two years later.
In 1985, Milosz published Happy as a Dog's Tail, the first collection in English to consist solely of Swir's poems. All of the poems were translated by Milosz, in partnership with Leonard Nathan, and consisted of poems from her mature volumes (the 1970, 1972, and 1978 collections). Eleven years later, Milosz and Nathan re-edited the volume, adding an additional 65 poems and removing 31 that had been in the first edition, and renamed the book Talking to My Body (1996).
The reception of Swir's work has been enthusiastic in America . Recognized as one of the most important 20th-century Polish poets, her poems are widely anthologized and are taught in Polish and Women's literature courses across the country. In addition, scholars, poets, and artists are inspired by her work in interesting ways. For instance, composer Aaron Jay Kermis, composed a music cycle entitled Love Scenes (1987) based on Swir's work, and new translations of the poems have appeared since Talking to My Body—most recently Building the Barricade translated by Piotr Florczyk (2009).
Unfortunately, the campaign Milosz conducted in Swir's native Poland did not prove as successful. After her death in 1984, Swir's work was largely forgotten, and Milosz worked to rectify this perceived injustice. The multiple newspaper articles that he wrote championing her work and the publication of his brief introduction to Swir's life and work, What a Guest We Had (1996), created some stir in the literary community. However, a number of members of the Polish literary elite viewed his evaluation of Swir's work as sentimental, a form of nostalgia, and the appearance of his book on Swir coincided with Wislawa Symborska's Nobel Prize, an event that would overshadow literary events in Poland for years to come.

Conclusion
In his "Introduction," "Afterward," and "Postscript" to Talking to My Body, Milosz identifies the compelling qualities of Swir's work that urged him to take on the project of translating her poetry and promoting it among English-speaking readers:
In Anna Swir's vision, we are alone in a world without gods, exposed to total annihilation every moment, helpless in the face of terminal illness and old age, driven to seek in one another's arms physical love as the only possible source of warmth and peace. Yet the exploration of the only tangible thing which is given us as ourself, namely our body, leads her to a paradoxical duality. Her personae are trapped by their flesh but also distinct from it, for they are consciousness, ever present, perhaps with rare exceptions—flashes of purely physical bliss. Her poetry is about not being identical with one's body, about sharing its joys and pains and still rebelling against its laws. (Milosz, "Introduction," 5)
Milosz identifies here the quintessential human dilemma that Swir captures so powerfully in her poetry, yet his emphasis on the dire aspects of embodiment seems disproportionate, given the balance in Swir's work between joy and horror, consolation and desolation. Interestingly, in the Postscript to the book, written for the 1996 edition, Milosz qualifies the bleakness of his earlier critical remarks, emphasizing the elements in her poems that keep them (and her readers) from edging into despair:
Opening myself to her verses, I have been more and more conquered by her extraordinary, powerful, exuberant, and joyous personality . . . her calm in accepting reality, whether it brought bliss or suffering. A mood of detachment is visible in her late poems. To have met such a person through her poems has inclined me to faith and optimism . . . In her later poems it was apparent that she had been gradually moving toward a supreme quietude. (Milosz, "Postscript," 157)
These remarks recognize the strength and wisdom that undergirds Swir's work, her undaunted courage in exploring the dark aspects of our humanity and her refusal to be cowed by that darkness. These qualities are nowhere more evident, than in the last poem she wrote while in the hospital awaiting surgery, just before her death from cancer:
Tomorrow They Will Carve Me

Death came and stood by me. 

I said: I am ready. 

I am lying in the surgery clinic in Krakow. 
Tomorrow 
they will carve me.


There is much strength in me. I can live, 

can run, dance, and sing. 

All that is in me, but if necessary
I will go.


Today

I make account of my life. 

I was a sinner, 
I was beating my head against earth, 
I implored from the earth and the sky
Forgiveness.


I was pretty and ugly, 

wise and stupid, 

very happy and very unhappy
often I had wings 
and would float in air.


I trod a thousand paths in the sun and in snow, 

I danced with my friend under the stars. 

I saw love
in many human eyes, 
I ate with delight
my slice of happiness.


Now I am lying in the surgery clinic in Krakow. 

It stands by me. 

Tomorrow
they will carve me. 
Through the window the trees of May, beautiful like life, 
and in me, humility, fear, and peace.

(Talking to My Body, 158-59)
In this, her final poem, Swir acknowledges death as companion—a sinister one, perhaps, but a companion nonetheless. The chilling statement, "It stands by me," suggests a steady presence, one that provides support as well as inspiring fear. Interestingly, in this poem Swir makes no distinction between her body and her self: the "I" of the poem is one with the body, as if the two have embraced each another, at last, as part and parcel. She confesses her sins and frailties, receives absolution, and waits calmly for whatever the future may bring. "I am ready," she says. On her deathbed, the most extreme of human circumstances, poetry provides Swir with what is essential, a language "as necessary and useful as once were words of magic," enveloping her helplessness and empowering her to master reality rather than be mastered by it—an ideal she is able to achieve after all.

Works Cited
Ingbrant, Renata. From Her Point of View: Woman's Anti-World in the Poetry of Anna Świrszczyńska. Stockholm Slavic Studies Series. (Stockholm: Stockholm Institute for Scandinavian Law, 2007).
Milosz, Czeslaw. "Introduction" in Talking to My Body, (Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 1996), pp. 3-7.
Milosz, Czeslaw. "Postscript" in Talking to My Body, (Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 1996), pp. 157-59.
Swir, Anna. Building the Barricade & Other Poems. Piotr Florczyk, translator. (Calypso Editions, 2009).
Swir, Anna. Talking to My Body. Czeslaw Milosz & Leonard Nathan, translators, editors. (Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 1996).






Thursday, November 1, 2018

Anna Swir / She Came to Say Farewell


Mother embrace
by Kate Ahn



She Came to Say Farewell
by Anna Swir
Translated by Czeslaw Milosz & Leonard Nathan

On the day after her death
mother came
to say farewell to me.

At night I heard
her steps nearing my bed
step
by step. She stopped
by my head.

I said: Mommy,
do not appear, Mommy,
my heart will burst
from fear.

No more than that
I said to her
by way of farewell.


Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Anna Swir / There is a Light in Me






There is a Light in Me
by Anna Swir

English version by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan

Whether in daytime or in nighttime
I always carry inside
a light.
In the middle of noise and turmoil
I carry silence.
Always
I carry light and silence.



Friday, October 19, 2018

Anna Swir / The Sea And The Man



The Sea And The Man 

by Anna Swir

Translated from the Polish by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan


You will not tame this sea
either by humility or rapture.
But you can laugh
in its face.

Laughter
was invented by those
who live briefly
as a burst of laughter.

The eternal sea
will never learn to laugh.





Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Anna Swir / A Woman Writer Does Laundry






A Woman Writer Does Laundry
by Anna Swir
Translated by Czeslaw Milosz & Leonard Nathan


Enough typing.
Today I am doing laundry
in the old style.
I wash, I wash, rinse, wring
as did my grandmothers and great-grandmothers.
Relaxation.

Doing laundry is healthful and useful
like a washed shirt. Writing
is suspect.
Like three interrogation marks
typed on a page.



Talking to My Body
Copper Canyon Press, 1996


Saturday, October 13, 2018

Anna Swir / He Was Lucky






He Was Lucky

By Anna Swir

The old man
leaves his house, carries books.
A German soldier snatches his books
flings them in the mud.

The old man picks them up,
the soldier hits him in the face.
The old man falls,
the soldier kicks him and walks away.

The old man
lies in mud and blood.
Under him he feels
the books.



Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Anna Swir / The Same Inside



https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sDeAqN8EX2U

The Same Inside
by Anna Swir


Walking to your place for a love fest I saw at a street corner an old beggar women. I took her hand, kissed her delicate cheek, we talked, she was the same inside as I am, from the same kind, I sensed this instantly as a dog knows by scent another dog. I gave her money, I could not part from her. After all, one needs someone who is close. And then I no longer knew why I was walking to your place.


Saturday, October 6, 2018

Anna Swir / I Wash the Shirt





I Wash the Shirt

by Anna Swir

Translated by Czeslaw Milosz & Leonard Nathan

Anna Swir / Eu lavo a camisa

For the last time I wash the shirt
of my father who died.
The shirt smells of sweat. I remember
that sweat from my childhood,
so many years
I washed his shirts and underwear,
I dried them
at an iron stove in the workshop,
he would put them on unironed.

From among all bodies in the world,
animal, human,
only one exuded that sweat.
I breathe it in
for the last time. Washing this shirt
I destroy it
forever.
Now
only paintings survive him
which smell of oils.




Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Anna Swir / The Greatest Love




The Greatest Love

by Anna Swir

Translated from the Polish by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan

She is sixty. She lives
the greatest love of her life.

She walks arm-in-arm with her dear one,
her hair streams in the wind.
Her dear one says:
"You have hair like pearls."

Her children say:
"Old fool."






Sunday, September 23, 2018

Pablo Neruda / The Word




The Word

By Pablo Neruda
Translated by Stephen Mitchell

Pablo Neruda / La palabra

The word was born
in the blood,
it grew in the dark body, pulsing,
and took flight with the lips and mouth.

Farther away and nearer,
still, still it came
from dead fathers and from wandering races,
from territories that had become stone,
that had tired of their poor tribes,
because when grief set out on the road
the people went and arrived
and united new land and water
to sow their word once again.
And that's why the inheritance is this:
this is the air that connects us
with the buried man and with the dawn
of new beings that haven't yet arisen.

Still the atmosphere trembles
with the first word
produced
with panic and groaning.
It emerged
from the darkness
and even now there is no thunder
that thunders with the iron sound
of that word,
the first
word uttered:
perhaps it was just a whisper, a raindrop,
but its cascade still falls and falls.

Later on, meaning fills the word.
It stayed pregnant and was filled with lives,
everything was births and sounds:
affirmation, clarity, strength,
negation, destruction, death:
the name took on all the powers
and combined existence with essence
in its electric beauty.

Human word, syllable, flank
of long light and hard silver,
hereditary goblet that receives
the communications of the blood:
it is here that silence was formed by
the whole of the human word
and not to speak is to die among beings:
language extends out to the hair,
the mouth speaks without moving the lips:
suddenly the eyes are words.

I take the word and move
through it, as if it were
only a human form,
its lines delight me and I sail
in each resonance of language:
I utter and I am
and across the boundary of words,
without speaking, I approach silence.

I drink to the word, raising
a word or crystalline cup,
in it I drink
the wine of language
or unfathomable water,
maternal source of all words,
and cup and water and wine
give rise to my song
because the name is origin
and green life: it is blood,
the blood that expresses its substance,
and thus its unrolling is prepared:
words give crystal to the crystal,
blood to the blood,
and give life to life.


From Plenos Poderes / Fully Empowered (1962)