Wednesday, January 25, 2006


Anna Swir

Anna Swir (1909 - 1984) was one of the finest poets of Poland during the second half of the twentieth century. The daughter of an artist and a former singer, her childhood was spent in poverty that was offset by the love of her parents. Late in life, she composed a number of poems about her childhood and her parents; "White Wedding Slippers" records how the family often survived by her mother's efforts:

At night
mother opened a chest and took out
her white wedding slippers
of silk. Then slowly
daubed them with ink.

Early in the morning
she went inthose slippers
into the street
to line up for bread.
It was minus ten degrees,
she stood
for three hours in the street.

They were handing out
one-quater of a loaf per person.

(Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan)

"He Sang All His LIfe" is a tribute to her father which also shows how he influenced her:

sang all his life.
When he was young, in Warsaw,
all winter, in the unheated workshop
he sang, his brush
gripped with fingers blue with cold.
When he came back and told mother
that he had not gotten a commission
for a portrait from a photograph,
and there was no bread for tomorrow,
he would take up his palette and start
to sing.

In Krakow when he had reached
and, in a corner of his workshop,
high-ceilinged as a church

death was waiting behind a picture --
he would sing all morning
and evening.
He sang loudly and beautifully,
people wouldstop on the stairs,

When he died and his paintings
were removed from the workshop, I
started to sing.
-- What are you doing -- said my daughter.
Grandfather died and you sing
so loud you can hear it
on the stairs.

And I sang one after the other
all the songs he sang when he was young
and when he was ninety,
with death
wainting in a corner behind a picture
in a workshop as wretched
as any when he was young.

I sang for the last time
between walls
black from soot,
where he had suffered for thirty years
and where he was taken
without pain
in his sleep by death.
Who one night came silently out
from behind a painting in the corner.

(Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan)

After putting herself through university studying medieval and Renaissance Polish literature, she began to write prose poetry mostly about the Middle Ages and painting. With the beginning of World War II, she joined the Resistance, writing for underground publications. During the Warsaw Uprising of August and September 1944, she served as a nurse in a military hospital. Her experiences during the war, including having been arrested and told she would be executed in one hour, changed her and her poetry, introducing concern for the immediate and the value of life. Almost 30 years were to pass before she could write about her wartime experiences in Building the Barricades (1974); poems such as "A Conversation Through the Door" reveal her personal involvement during the Warsaw Uprising:

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

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

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 his wife
begins to scream as if she were in labor.

(Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan)

Her maturest work, that of the 1960s and 1970s, is both feminist and erotic, work that explores what it means to be a woman, most specifically rooted in the physicality of the body. Poems such as "Maternity" explore that area of the feminine:

I gave birth to life.
It went out of my entrails
and asks for the sacrifice of my life
as does as Aztec deity.
I lean over a little puppet,
we look at each other
with four eyes.

"You are not going to defeat me," I say
"I won't be an egg which you would crack
in a hurry for the world,
a footbridge that you would take on the way to your life.
I will defend myself."

I lean over a little puppet,
I notice
a tiny movement of a tiny finger
which a little while ago was still in me,
in which, under a thin skin,
my own bllod flows.
And suddenly I am flooded
by a high, luminous wave
of humility.
Powerless, I drown.

(Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan)

"I'll Open the Window" examines aspects of the female/male relationship:

Our embrace lasted too long.
We loved right down to the bone.
I hear the bones grind, I see
our two skeletons.

Now I am waiting
till you leave, till
the clatter of your shoes
is heard no more. Now, silence.

Tonight I am going to sleep alone
on the bedclothes of purity.
is the first hygienic measure.
will enlarge the walls of the room,
I will open the window
and the large, frosty air will enter,
healthy as tragedy.
Human thoughts will enter
and huan concerns,
misfortune of others, saintliness of others.
They will converse softly and sternly.

Do not come anymore.
I am an animal
very rarely.

(Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan)

That's not to say, of course, that love cannot be a part of a woman's life:

"The Greatest Love"

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."

(Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan)

"The Soul and the Body on the Beach" dramatizes the bipartite nature of the individual:

The soul on the beach
studies a textbook of philosophy.
The soul asks the body:
Who bound us together?
The body says:
Time to tan the knees.

The soul asks the body:
Is it true
that we do not really exist?
The body says:
I'm tanning my knees.

The soul asks the body,
Where will the dying begin,
in you or in me?
The body laughed,
It tanned its knees.

(Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan)

"I Talk to My Body" perhaps best reveals the nature of her mature concerns and work:

My body, you are an animal
whose appropriate behovior
is concentration and discipline.
An effort
of an athlete, of a saint, and 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
from whom ambition
is right.
Splendid possibilities
are open to us.

(Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan)

I had read some of Swir's poems. I like her, and like the poems you chose to introduce her.
Glad you enjoyed them. I've become quite fond of her work, what's available of it in English in the volume Talking to My Body. (Copper Canyon Press, 1996) and just wish more of it were available.
She has a good number of poems in A Book Of Luminous Things, including The Greatest Love and I Talk to my Body, and about another 10 poems or so. That's all I'd read by her, so it's nice to find a few more here. Good stuff.
The Luminous Things anthology is where I first encountered her, too. Not surprising, since Czeslaw Milosz edtied it and he also translated the work in Talking to My Body; she was obviously a favorite of his.
Czeslaw Milosz's "Book of Luminous Things" introdced me to a whole new world of Polish poetry, giants like Anna Swir, Wisala Szymbroska
and Zbigniew Herbert. At 80 I can still get excited.
I am finishing A Book Of Luminous Things and came across her poetry. She writes beautifully, without undue adornment or embellishment. I was also surprised how much I enjoyed reading Whitman, a poet I never paid any attention.
I also find mysterious and wonderful qualities in the poetry of Anna Swir. I am a great admirer of twentieth-century Polish poetry. I first came across her several years ago through Milosz. Thanks for posting these. Salvatore
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