Archive for September 13th, 2017

“Nothing is as it was…To understand nothing”: Julia Hartwig, “the Grand Dame of Polish Poetry,” 1921-2017

Wednesday, September 13th, 2017
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At her house in Warsaw, 2011 (Photo: Humble Moi)

The poet Julia Hartwig was buried in Warsaw today. That was the first news I heard. Then I learned that she had died in her sleep on July 13, in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, where her daughter lives. A shock, but not a surprise.

She was the “Grand Dame of Polish poetry”  – so said the president of Poland, but it’s hardly the first time the tag was applied to her. Czesław Miłosz said it decades before. I’ve written about her here and here and here. Or you can read about her in my own 2011 article in World Literature Today. To my best knowledge, it is the only interview with the poet in an English-language publication. It was republished by the Milena Jesenská Blog here.

She was buried today next to her husband, the poet and translator Artur Międzyrzecki. She was 95.

She was my friend in Warsaw – more than that, my psychological north star in that reconstructed city. We met at the suggestion of Adam Zagajewski, and the introduction was made by Marek Zagańczyk of Zeszyty Literackie.  I would visit her on my return to Poland, either at her home in Warsaw or in Kraków, at the Czesław Miłosz centenary.

The photo at above was taken at our first meeting in 2008, after Marek guided me on foot through the backstreets of Warsaw at dusk of a hot August day. She was a gracious hostess. She always had a glass of wine and at least a light meal or snack prepared for me – and on that day, she also gave me a hardcover copy of In Praise of the Unfinished, newly published in English. Her accented English was formal but fluent,  for she and her husband had spent years in America on the academic circuit. She told me of the war years – she had been a courier for the Home Army during the German Occupation, and as a teenager, was tipped off that the Gestapo were looking for her. She had to walk out of the city with the clothes on her back. (I write about her description of that experience and others in World Literature Today article, again here.)

I wondered if that sense of a vanished life, disappearing in an instant that was fixed in fear, left a poetic mark on her – as shown in lines like this one, from “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. . . .
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.

Julia before, and still…

As Rita Signorelli-Pappas wrote while reviewing In Praise of the Unfinished in World Literature Today, “Although Julia Hartwig, like her fellow Polish poets, suffered and survived the constraints that postwar communism imposed on personal freedom, the experience has not irrevocably darkened her poems, which continue to affirm natural beauty and childlike wonder. In ‘Return to My Childhood Home,’ what is too painful to be understood is firmly held in counterpoise with remembered contentment.”

From the Signorelli-Pappas review again:

What gives Hartwig’s poems their unusual freshness is her lightness of touch—she seems able to effortlessly balance the real and the mythic. In “Philemon and Baucis,” she presents a modern epilogue to the Ovidian myth. A husband who distractedly listens to his wife’s shuffling footsteps in the middle of the night suddenly becomes disoriented and asks, “Is this shuffling real, or is it only a memory, in the past, in nonexistence?” In Ovid, the couple’s generosity to the gods was rewarded with a gift that froze them in eternal union, but Hartwig’s poem suggests an elastic, reversible sense of time in which the present looks back at the past and the past points forward to the present.

I have one quibble with my own photograph, and the images included in the Polish news coverage: why do we always honor the dead with photos of decrepitude and old age? The smaller photo above is also Julia, and equally her, and equally the way we should remember her.

I made a habit of celebrating her birthday with a phone call to Warsaw or a blogpost. Her birthday wasn’t hard to remember – it was the same birthday as my own mother, and of Miłosz’s death: August 14. Her birthday greeting this year went unanswered.