Archive for September 22nd, 2010

A phone call with Julia Hartwig

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010
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In Warsaw (Photo: C.L. Haven)

I’m an old-fashioned girl.  I still consider an international call a big deal.  I don’t make them frequently, and it always surprises me when you punch a handful of digits and someone like Julia Hartwig picks up the other end of the line in Warsaw.

I hadn’t spoken to Julia Hartwig since my fellowship summer in Poland, and am currently working on a piece about the Polish poet for World Literature Today — that is, I will be when I finish the indexing and proofreading for An Invisible Rope.  In Poland, Adam Zagajewski had encouraged me to meet her — somehow the name had led me to think her a young American woman, the few times I ran across any reference to her at all.  So I was surprised to find an the octogenarian “grande dame” of Polish poetry.

Truth is, Hartwig is too little known in the U.S., though her second book, It Will Return, was published by Northwestern University Press this year.  Her first book in English, Knopf’s In Praise of the Unfinished, received accolades where it was reviewed, but it wasn’t reviewed widely.

She’s received a number of honors, but never the NIKE Award, Poland’s leading literary award, for which she’s been nominated thrice.  She’s up again this year.  Let’s hope the 89-year-old poet takes home the award next  month.

On the phone, I remembered the brusque and throaty voice.  Although she lived in the U.S. for a number of years, her English can seem tentative and uncertain.

I said there was a chance I would be back next year in Warsaw — that unreal, half-fabricated city. I can’t quite remember the words she said, but I had a feeling that she would hold me to that most tentative promise.

Meanwhile, a poem:

Return to My Childhood Home

Amid a dark silence of pines—the shouts of young birches calling each other.
Everything is as it was. Nothing is as it was.
Speak to me, Lord of the child. Speak, innocent terror!
To understand nothing. Each time in a different way, from the first cry to the last breath.
Yet happy moments come to me from the past, like bridesmaids carrying oil lamps.

Postscript:  We got a nice mention from SCOPE Magazine blog here. The magazine launches in January, but the blog is here, right now.  Check it out.