Posts filed under ‘Polish’

Draft of a Modern Love Poem

Tadeusz Różewicz


And yet white
is best described by gray
bird by stone
in December

love poems of old
were descriptions of the flesh
described this and that
for instance eyelashes

and yet red
should be described
by gray the sun by rain
poppies in November
lips by night

the most tangible
description of bread
is a description of hunger
in it is
the damp porous core
the warm interior
sunflowers at night
the breasts belly thighs of Cybele

a spring-clear
transparent description
of water
is a description of thirst
it produces a mirage
clouds and trees move into
the mirror

Lack hunger
of flesh
is a description of love
is a modern love poem

Translated by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire

Shall I not compare thee to a summer’s day?

Różewicz is considered by many to be the most influential poet in postwar Poland. His writings are stripped bare of rhetorical excesses and his purpose is simply to create “not verses but facts”. Incidentally these facts have turned into even more powerful metaphors. Milosz once said of him, “Różewicz is a poet of chaos with a nostalgia for order”.


April 24, 2007 at 7:54 am 8 comments

Building the Barricades

Anna Swirszczynska ‘Swir’

Selections (click on title to hear)

Building the Barricade

We were afraid as we built the barricade
under fire.

The tavern-keeper, the jeweler’s mistress, the barber,
all of us cowards.
The servant-girl fell to the ground
as she lugged a paving-stone, we were terribly afraid
all of us cowards –
the janitor, the market-woman, the pensioner.

The pharmacist fell to the ground
as he dragged the door of a toilet,
we were even more afraid, the smuggler-woman,
the dressmaker, the streetcar driver,
all of us cowards.

A kid from reform school fell
as he dragged a sandbag,
you see we were really

Though no one forced us,
we did build the barricade
under fire.


That Brat

In the morning when he began setting
the bottles of gasoline in the gateway,
the janitor swore like mad.

That brat
stuck his tongue all the way out at him.

In the evening the soldiers brought him back,
he had set a tank on fire.

Now the janitor swore more softly as he dug a small hole
in the yard for that brat.


Said the Major
(in memory of Anna Ratynska)

“The order must be delivered within the hour,”
said the major.
“That’s impossible, it’s hell out there,”
said the second lieutenant.
Five runner-girls set out,
one got through.

The order was delivered within the hour.


The Last Drop of Air

The sweethearts were dying
buried in the rubble of the cellar.

When there was no more air
and death
forgot to come
who gave who
the last drop of air.


Against the Machine Gun Nest with Grenade

They’ve stopped shooting, lieutenant,
give me a grenade, I’ll go first,
I’m the smallest, they won’t spot me,
I’ll move like a cat on it’s belly, give me a grenade.

Like a cat on its belly, through the puddle,
a grenade in my hand, slowly, very slowly,
my heart pounding so hard they might hear it,
help me, God, slowly, very slowly,
like a cat on its belly, closer, closer,
oh God, even closer, even closer,
now pull the pin, leap.

She leaped. The Germans
let loose with a burst.


The Planes

Those were not German planes,
they were bringing help,
we could not believe our eyes,
but there were fewer and fewer living eyes left.

The roar
of antiaircraft bursts
assured us
those were not German planes.

We lifted up our hands,
with our hands
we tried to shield from death
the planes that were not German.


Waiting to be Shot

My fear grows more powerful
every second
I am as powerful
as a second of fear
I am a universe of fear
I am
the universe.

Now that
I am standing at the wall
and don’t know whether to close my eyes
or not close them.

Now that
I am standing at the wall waiting to be shot.

When you Shoot at Me

For a split second
we look each other in the eye.
When the split second passes
you will shoot at me.

It’s hard to die
it’s hard to kill
there is fear in my eyes
there is fear in your eyes
you are killing these two fears
by shooting
at me.


A Conversation with Mothers

He is going into captivity as if bearing
the bodies of his lads who’ve been killed.
He repeats in a whisper, repeats endlessly
their eighteen-year-old names,
he sees the eyes of their mothers, they are looking at him.

“Your son was killed defending the barricade
that’s no longer there, defending the house
that’s now disintegrated into rubble, into fine sand.
Your son was killed defending the street
that’s ceased to exist.
For those bricks, for that rubble, for that sand
they gave their living bodies.
I led them to their death
and I am alive.”

The Germans are saying: Hurry up, lieutenant,
hurry up into captivity.
But he can’t move any faster, he’s bearing
the bodies of his lads.

Author’s Note:

“The Warsaw Uprising was one of the most tragic events of World War II. The destruction it brought to a city of more than a million people can only be compared to the destruction visited on Hiroshima. Warsaw was transformed into a wasteland filled with corpses, ruins and smouldering ashes. That part of the population which survived the inferno was driven out and deported to various concentration camps. After the capitulation, German soldiers systematically burned and dynamited the remaining buildings. Himmler said: “Warsaw must be levelled to the ground, in order to set a deterring example for the whole of Europe.”

The priceless cultural heritage that had been accumulated in Warsaw over the centuries by countless generations of Poles was completely destroyed. The splendid palaces, the Castle of the Polish Kings, the historic churches, the rich collections of art, the museums, the libraries – all were turned into ashes and rubble. The flower of the young intelligentsia, who had been raised in a romantic love of freedom, perished. So did thousands of heroic children, the world’s youngest soldiers at twelve and thirteen: with unexampled courage they threw themselves at the tanks, gasoline bombs in hand, and carried dispatches under a hail of bullets. The German army that fought the insurrectionists was very well-equipped; it had bombers, tanks, self-propelled guns and flame-throwers. The insurrectionists had few weapons, limited mainly to pistols and grenades. People for whom even these weapons were in short supply often took them from the enemy with their bare hands. The insurrectionists suffered from hunger and cold; they had no medicines nor bandages. Despite everything, they fought heroically, in the belief that fervor and self-sacrifice would make up for the overwhelming strength of the enemy.

Life in Warsaw during the Uprising had the quality of a nightmare. The city was deprived of water, electricity, gas and food supplies. The sewer system was largely unoperative. Hospitals lacked medicines of pure water. German bombers rampaged over the city day and night, burying the living beneath the rubble. People sought shelter from the air raid in basements, but found no safety even there: the Germans dragged them out and conducted mass executions – of men, women and children. The Nazi tanks that rolled through the streets spread death and destruction. The insurrectionists and the population at large tried to defend themselves by building barricades. Everyone joined in this undertaking, regardless of age and sex. People did not sleep, eat or wash for days on end. No one knew whether he would be alive five minutes later. Corpses lay about in the streets, and the stench of rotting bodies rose from the ruins. Despite these horrible conditions, the city put up a heroic struggle for sixty-three days. The insurrectionists and the population at large displayed an extraordinary moral courage. But faced with the lack of food, weapons and ammunition, Warsaw finally had to surrender.”

(translated by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire)

Not all wars are fought by soldiers. Some of the most heroic battles of the last century were fought street by street, doorway by doorway, rice field by rice field; were fought by ordinary civilians who found they could no longer bear the tyranny of occupying forces, and chose to take arms against them, knowing full well that the odds were impossible, that defeat was almost certain. These were people who chose to reassert themselves in the face of oppression, and the cost of their rebellion was measured out in the lives of the innocent.

I first heard of Anna Swirszczynska in an essay by Milosz. Writing about the reaction to World War II and the destruction it caused to Poland in Polish literature, Milosz praised Swirszczynska to the skies, extolling her book Building the Barricades (Budowalam Barykade) as one of the finest literary responses to the horror of those days [1].

It’s not hard to see why. These poems, exquisite and deeply moving taken individually, form a collection that is an authentic masterwork of the last century – one now tragically overlooked (as I write this, no copies of Building the Barricades are availabe on Amazon, or anywhere else that I can find).

There are many reasons why these are incredible poems. There’s the honesty, for one thing. Like many of the other poems we’ve featured in this theme, these poems give you the authentic sense of lived experience, show you vividly what it was like to be there [2]. Nothing is abstract here, nothing is imagined or metaphorical – indeed, the book as a whole reads like a furiously edited documentary, a collage of heart-rending vignettes put together by deft hands. Married to this is Swirszczynska’s eye for detail, her ability to unerringly pick the one scene that will tell it all, her talent for telling us just enough so that the picture comes alive, and leaving it to us to imagine the rest. (In one of the other poems – They were Twelve Years Old – Swirszczynska writes: “Two of them went to disarm an M.P. / one threw sand in his eyes, the other / lunged after the pistol in his holster./Only one returned that evening to his mamma with the pistol”). Then there’s the sheer range of the poems – the way Swirszczynska shifts effortlessly between the prosaic and the lyrical, between the human and the heroic, making you laugh and cry at the same time. But most of all, there’s the incredible sense of simplicity in her narratives, the vision of ordinary people somehow continuing to be their ordinary selves even as they perform extraordinary acts. Swirszczynska’s great insight is that heroes, at the end of the day, are people too. They have their frailties, their weaknesses. Their hopes are childish, their pride sentimental, their loves banal; they are frequently silly, often afraid. Yet it is such stuff from which the human barricade is fashioned, it is such stuff of which the resistance to tyranny is made.


[1] Milosz is also co-translator of a book of Swirszczynska’s later poems, Talking to my Body (Copper Canyon, 1996)

[2] Swirszczynska did, in fact, live through the Warsaw Uprising. At one point, in fact, she was arrested and awaited execution – an experience she describes in Waiting to be Shot above.

February 11, 2007 at 2:24 pm 6 comments

Just Children

Adam Zagajewski

Listen (to Alice Quinn read)

for Ewunia

It was just children playing in the sand
(accompanied by the narcotic scent
of blooming lindens, don’t forget),
just children, but after all
the devil, and the minor gods,
and even forgotten politicians,
who’d broken all their promises,
were also there and watched them
with unending rapture.
Who wouldn’t want to be a child
—for the last time!

Szymborska, Milosz, Herbert. Now add Zagajewski. The reading and commentary are from (note: its not an mp3, but a ,wma file).

Alice Quinn on “Just Children” by Adam Zagajewski.

Adam Zagajewski was born in Lvov, Poland, in 1945, and his masters were Czeslaw Milosz, Wislawa Szymborska, and Zbigniew Herbert, the great poetic voices of post-war Poland. The New Yorker ran Adam’s poem “Try To Praise the Mutilated World” in the issue just after Sept. 11, 2001, and it struck a necessary note at that time. These great postwar Polish poets lived through so much: They’d managed to perfect, in the 30 years following the war, a balance of reverence for the world and a sharp awareness of the fragility of life.

One of the things I love about the poem is the way the punctuation figures: the implied single quotations around the word “just,” and the use of an exclamation point at the end following that wonderful question “who wouldn’t want to be a child, for the last time”—that exclamation point makes a point, but with an air of gentle surprise. I also love the tranquil mood of the poem and the way that as you read it your senses light up to the dimension of the sentence—you’re gazing so intently at the lindens and at the children, lulled into a meditation on how delightful it would be to be a child. Then comes a swerve at the close: “Who wouldn’t want to be a child for the last time”—and you think “Ummm … maybe.” Childhood, after all, is just the braided thing that every stage of life is: ecstasy, but misery and other things, too.

You could read this a hundred times. It’s so limpid and so wise. It reminds me sometimes of that beautiful poem of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Sandpiper” and the lines “[t]he world is a mist. And then the world is/ minute and vast and clear.” It’s that shift of scale, there, between looking at the children and yet being aware of the larger present—the devil and the minor gods and the politicians who don’t keep their promises but are still likely to be just as pierced by the sight of the children playing in the sand. –


October 16, 2006 at 10:47 pm 1 comment

I Would Like to Describe

Zbigniew Herbert

Listen (to Warya read)

I would like to describe the simplest emotion
joy or sadness
but not as others do
reaching for shafts of rain or sun

I would like to describe a light
which is being born in me
but I know it does not resemble
any star
for it is not so bright
not so pure
and is uncertain

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

to put it another way
I would give all metaphors
in return for one word
drawn out of my breast like a rib
for one word
contained within the boundaries
of my skin

but apparently this is not possible

and just to say — I love
I run around like mad
picking up handfuls of birds
and my tenderness
which after all is not made of water
asks the water for a face

and anger
different from fire
borrows from it
a loquacious tongue

so is blurred
so is blurred
in me
what white-haired gentleman
separated once and for all
and said
this is the subject
this is the object

we fall asleep
with one hand under our head
and with the other in a mound of planets

our feet abandon us
and taste the earth
with their tiny roots
which next morning
we tear out painfully

(Translated by Peter Dale Scott & Czeslaw Milosz)

Warya writes,

“honestly, quite incredible.
and here my two paisa:

I love Zbigniew Herbert, and it’s not just because his name begins with a Z. Although admittedly, that helps. With Milosz and Szymborska, he peaceably begins and completes my canon of fucking brilliant Poles (it is a small canon).
And I love this poem, for its exhausting pursuit of that elusive morsel of perfection, of perfect comprehension, which mirrors our own. It is the poem that paints us everything a writer has ever wished, asked, lamented; only who knew that from shuffling sands in the mind, crystal could pour out so, drenching paper? Oh but it does, and there’s your hand, in a mound of planets. ”


October 9, 2006 at 6:37 pm 8 comments

This World

Czeslaw Milosz


It appears that it was all a misunderstanding.
What was only a trial run was taken seriously.
The rivers will return to their beginnings.
The wind will cease in its turning about.
Trees instead of budding will tend to their roots.
Old men will chase a ball, a glance in the mirror –
They are children again.
The dead will wake up, not comprehending.
Till everything that happened has unhappened.
What a relief! Breathe freely, you who suffered much.

(translated from the Polish by the author and Robert Hass)

Such a wonderful fable this – the idea of time running backward, of the accidental world we live in being rewound.

Is this what we really want, though? To discover that all our suffering, all our loss has been for nothing, a matter of mere oversight, so easily undone? How terrible if the thing we have taken so seriously turn out to be little more than a trial run. And how difficult to begin again (if consciousness and identity still have meaning in the renewed world) knowing what could, possibly, lie ahead.


September 16, 2006 at 3:34 am 1 comment

At a certain age

Czeslaw Milosz


We wanted to confess our sins but there were no takers.
White clouds refused to accept them, and the wind
was too busy visiting sea after sea.
We did not succeed in interesting the animals.
Dogs, disappointed, expected an order,
A cat, as always immoral, was falling asleep.
A person seemingly very close
Did not care to hear of things long past.
Conversations with friends over vodka or coffee
Ought not to be prolonged beyond the first sign of boredom. It would be humiliating to pay by the hour
A man with a diploma, just for listening.
Churches. Perhaps churches. But to confess there what?
That we used to see ourselves as handsome and noble
Yet later in our place an ugly toad
Half-opens its thick eyelid
And one sees clearly: “That’s me.”

(Translated from the Polish by the author and Robert Hass)

There’s no one quite like Milosz, is there? The quiet patience of that voice, the sense of serenity bordering on wisdom. Milosz knows that you don’t have to be clever or breathless to write a great poem, all you have to do is let your heart be worn to a stone like stillness, and then speak from it without artifice or ornament.


August 30, 2006 at 2:07 am Leave a comment

Going Home

Wislawa Szymborska

Listen (to Black Mamba read)

He came home. Said nothing.
It was clear, though, that something had gone wrong.
He lay down fully dressed.
Pulled the blanket over his head.
Tucked up his knees.
He’s nearly forty, but not at the moment.
He exists just as he did inside his mother’s womb,
clad in seven walls of skin, in sheltered darkness.
Tomorrow he’ll give a lecture
on homeostasis in metagalactic cosmonautics.
For now, though, he has curled up and gone to sleep.

Retreating back to your mother’s womb – life can make you crave that space, at times. All the things you have done and achieved just can’t buy you, what you are dying for. There is just not enough homeostasis in the metagalaxy to comfort you. But then you wake up, walk the walk, talk the talk and the you everyone knows – is just fine.

note: Oh, Szymborska! again? you ask. :) Long answer : We like, we post :)


April 11, 2006 at 8:14 pm 2 comments

Thank-You Note

Wislawa Szymborska


I owe so much
to those I don’t love.

The relief as I agree
that someone else needs them more.

The happiness that I’m not
the wolf to their sheep.

The peace I feel with them,
the freedom —
love can neither give
nor take that.

I don’t wait for them,
as in window-to-door-and-back.
Almost as patient
as a sundial,
I understand
what love can’t.
and forgive
as love never would.

From a rendezvous to a letter
is just a few days or weeks,
not an eternity.

Trips with them always go smoothly,
concerts are heard,
cathedrals visited,
scenery is seen.

And when seven hills and rivers
come between us,
the hills and rivers
can be found on any map.

They deserve the credit
if I live in three dimensions,
in nonlyrical and nonrhetorical space
with a genuine, shifting horizon.

They themselves don’t realize
how much they hold in their empty hands.

“I don’t owe them a thing,”
would be love’s answer
to this open question.

Tr. from Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

Capturing the forgotten (moments, people, feelings, incidents). That is something Szymborska can do with such elegance.

This poem, for instance, thanks people who make life normal. Life is not always high drama and a torrent of emotions. For every garb in expensive fine silk, you need ten others in simple cotton. And making a perfect cotton dress needs an artist just as skilled, if not more.


March 21, 2006 at 3:00 pm 2 comments

Ars Poetica?

Czeslaw Milosz


I have always aspired to a more spacious form
that would be free from the claims of poetry or prose
and would let us understand each other without exposing
the author or reader to sublime agonies.

In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent:
a thing is brought forth which we didn't know we had in us,
so we blink our eyes, as if a tiger had sprung out
and stood in the light, lashing his tail.

That's why poetry is rightly said to be dictated by a daimonion,
though its an exaggeration to maintain that he must be an angel.
It's hard to guess where that pride of poets comes from,
when so often they're put to shame by the disclosure of their frailty.

What reasonable man would like to be a city of demons,
who behave as if they were at home, speak in many tongues,
and who, not satisfied with stealing his lips or hand,
work at changing his destiny for their convenience?

It's true that what is morbid is highly valued today,
and so you may think that I am only joking
or that I've devised just one more means
of praising Art with the help of irony.

There was a time when only wise books were read
helping us to bear our pain and misery.
This, after all, is not quite the same
as leafing through a thousand works fresh from psychiatric clinics.

And yet the world is different from what it seems to be
and we are other than how we see ourselves in our ravings.
People therefore preserve silent integrity
thus earning the respect of their relatives and neighbors.

The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.

What I'm saying here is not, I agree, poetry,
as poems should be written rarely and reluctantly,
under unbearable duress and only with the hope
that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.

Continuing with the general trend of poems about poetry (no, BM, I'm not trying to make this a series, it's just, well, interesting), here's one of my all time favourites.

Oh, and do read the commentary on Minstrels. I have a lot to say about this poem (and about Milosz generally), but I couldn't put it better than the commentary there.


February 28, 2006 at 6:59 pm 3 comments