Sunday, January 15, 2012


Building the Barricade

This past fall I read Building the Barricade by Anna Swir, book of poems translated from Polish by Piotr Florczyk (Calypso Editions, 2011; the book includes the original Polish poems in addition to the translations). Anna Swir (or Swirszczynska), who lived 1909-1984, took part in the anti-Nazi resistance in Poland during the Second World War; she was in Warsaw during the uprising by the underground in August 1944, and she volunteered as a nurse at an improvised field hospital. Most of the poems in Building the Barricade are from those experiences.

The poems in Building the Barricade (which which all of the quoted passages here are taken) are stark, spare, terse as military dispatches. Swir wrote the poems many years after the experiences from which they were written (the book was first published in Poland in 1974), though the poems still convey the hardened immediacy of the days and hours and moments Swir was writing about. The poems are absolutely free of ornament; they waste no time telling what they have to tell.

From the poem "Conversation through the Door," in which the speaker in the poem shows up at an apartment (during the street fighting throughout the city) to tell parents that their son, a soldier in the Resistance, is dying:

He opens the door,
doesn't unhook the chain.
Behind him his wife

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

I say: the doctor let him
have wine.
He says: please wait.

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

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

The 1944 Warsaw Uprising took place as the army of the Soviet Union was approaching Warsaw from the east, and the German army was retreating toward the west. Tens of thousands of residents of Warsaw died either during the fighting or from mass murder atrocities committed by the German Nazi military. At least 200,000 residents of Warsaw were forcibly evacuated by the German army as the army retreated, and were sent to forced labor camps, or to concentration camps to die. At least 80 percent of the buildings in Warsaw were destroyed during the war. The 1944 Warsaw Uprising took place in a city in flames.

Why am I so afraid
running down
this burning street.

There's no one here
except flames roaring skyhigh;
and that bang was not a bomb
only three floors collapsing.

Naked they dance, liberated,
waving their hands
from the window caves.
What a sin to spy
on naked flames,
what a sin to eavesdrop
on breathing fire.

(From the poem "I'm Afraid of Fire".)

Many of the poems seem, on the surface, to be simple reports of randomly observed incidents. In their very simplicity they reveal large stories that have repeated themselves throughout the city gripped in bloody battle, in which life becomes reduced to the barest extremes. In the poem "He Got Lucky," Swir writes about a man carrying some books; in an almost offhand act of harassment, a German soldier grabs the man's books and throws them down in the mud.

The old man picks up the books,
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.
Underneath, he feels

Not all of the poems in Building the Barricade are bleak or hardened; in a few of the poems, Swir reaches beyond the evident despair and finds signs of life. Here and there a kind of raw lyricism emerges, a glow of warmth and an intimation of happiness, the possibility of a future. From the poem "First Madrigal," in which she writes of spending a night with a lover:

It was rich
like a coronation ceremony.
It was fleshy
like the stomach of a woman in labor
and spiritual
like a number.

It was only a moment of life,
though it wanted to be a conclusion.
By dying
it wanted to understand the mystery of the world.

That night of love
had ambitions.

I've written about Anna Swir's poetry previously in this blog, here. Every time I read her poems, I'm amazed by the power and and range she's able to find, in poems that seem to be almost impossibly pared down to the bone. Out of a century of fire and ashes, out of a nightmare of piled bodies and incinerated cities, Anna Swir's poems offer answers to impossible questions.

As a girl
I climbed from the attic window
onto the roof
in order to jump.

As a woman
I had lice.
They cracked
when I ironed my sweater.

I waited an hour
before a firing squad.
I went hungry
for six years.

Then, when I gave birth to a child,
they cut me open
without anesthesia.

Then I was killed
by lightning three times,
and I had to be resurrected three times
without anybody's help.

Now I am resting
after three resurrections.

Thanks for the recommendation, Lyle. I know Swir only from Milosz's anthology A Book of Luminous Things and look forward to reading more her now.
Lyle, thank you so much for your wonderful review of Swir. We truly appreciate your support of her poetry. So few Americans know her work. Next up from Calypso - two novellas!
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