Tuesday, August 09, 2005


From the barricades

The poet Anna Swir (or Swirszczynska) of Poland took part in the Resistance during the Warsaw uprising in 1944. The experience infuses all of her poetry in one way or another, whether or not the actual subject matter is the Second World War or the Resistance, and -- in a way -- also shapes the poetry she wrote during the 1930's when much of the world was pushing toward world war.

Her father was an artist, and she spent much of her early life growing up in the workshop where he painted. From the poem "I Am Eleven":

I love father's paintings.
They are my brothers and sisters, my only
comrades, in the workshop
cut off like the struggle of a madman.

When nobody is home
I pass my ink-stained finger
through the flame
of the candle.
I want to become a saint,
I want to measure up to father's paintings.
(In the book Talking to My Body, translated from Polish by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan, Copper Canyon Press, 1996. Passages quoted from Swir's poems are from this book except where noted; most of the poems in the book were published in books by Swir several decades after the Second World War.)

As her poems matured, Swir wrote about her life and the world with an intensity and directness that make a sharp contrast with more tentative or academic attempts common in the literature of the twentieth century. From the poem "Woman Unborn":

Here is Romanticism, where I could have been a spinster,
Here is the Renaissance, where I would have been
an ugly and unloved wife of an evil husband,
The Middle Ages, where I would have carried water in a tavern.

I walk still farther,
what an echo,
my steps thump
through my minus life,
through the reverse of life.
In the poem "Goddess of Matriarchy" Swir describes a figure of vast power and beauty and wisdom, directly addressing the goddess who approaches the world of human beings:

like the eternal ice of Antarctica,
you will arrive
for the future must arrive.

You will arrive on your legs thick as power,
you, powerful
as a million years of fire
enclosed in a million years of ice.
And you will open your mouth
walled shut for a million years.
Included as an Appendix at the end of Talking to My Body is an interview between translators Nathan and Milosz, and here -- inserted in passing through the interview -- we find several of Anna Swir's poems and prose poems dealing directly and explicitly with her experiences during the Warsaw Uprising: the most powerful and riveting heart of her work.

In a short prose poem, Swir describes a truck rushing down a winter night street, carrying in the back prisoners, bound in barbwire, mouths covered shut with plaster, temporarily "clothed" in paper clothing: prisoners being taken to the concentration camps. She describes one of the soldiers guarding the prisoners, who offhandedly watches the buildings and windows the truck passes:

He is somewhat sleepy after yesterday's bout with drinking and probably for that reason he does not notice that on the first floor a windowpane flickered in the light of the moon. Someone noiselessly half-opens a window and, standing, makes a sign with his hand to those who ride to their death.

One of them sees him.
Swir's poems from her work in the Resistance and the Warsaw Uprising (where she was a volunteer nurse at an improvised field hospital) were gathered into a collection titled Building the Barricade, a translation of which was published in Poland in 1979; I've never come across a copy of the book. A few poems from Building the Barricade are included the anthology Postwar Polish Poetry edited by Czeslaw Milosz (the 1983 edition published by the University of California).

The often-used phrase "poetry of witness" might easily come to mind when one reads Anna Swir's poetry; but "witness" is inadequate to describe the power of Swir's poems, her relentless insistence on presenting the truth free of ornament and pretense. "Along a street swept clean of people," Swir writes (in the poem "It Smashes Barricades"), "a tank rolls firing." The poem (a bare eleven lines long) concludes:
Out of the gateway leaps a kid
a bottle of gasoline in his fist.
Along the street swept clean of people
he runs
at a crouch
at the tank.
(In Postwar Polish Poetry, cited above.)

Hi Lyle
Thanks for introducing her work (and life) to me. She's a fascinating woman and strong poet!
I wrote this long comment last night, but it didn't show up (blogger was down for repairs or something). So, I'll try it again!

Anyways, thanks so much for this post. I am a huge Swir fan. She is the one poet who I can truly say changed me as a writer. I found her work thru an anthology edited by Milosz called "A Book of Luminous Things". Right off I was drawn to her work and ordered a copy of "Talking To My Body."

She's also a very philosophical poet. Questions of the body/consciousness/soul show up a lot in her work, "Large Intestine" and "What is a Pineal Gland" are a few of my favorites. Where someone like Jorie Graham also has a philosophical edge to her work, I can't really get into her because of the "prophetic" all-knowing, pretentiousness of her voice. Swir is always so humble, yet assertive and direct.

She's also great at minimalism, rarely uses adjectives or adverbs--this has helped me a lot in my own work because at times I can be very indulgent (who me?) and now it's something I pay closer attention to. Yes, of all poets I've read in the past 3 years or so, Swir has taught me the most.

Enjoyed this post Lyle, thanks for sharing it.
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