Posts Tagged ‘Julia Hartwig’

“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.

Au revoir, Marek Skwarnicki (30 April, 1930 – 12 March, 2013)

Monday, March 25th, 2013
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marek

Marek Skwarnicki, in the crowded apartment on Ulitsa Pigonia

For the last week or two, I kept thinking that I should drop a note to Polish poet, novelist, essayist, journalist, and translator Marek Skwarnicki   So I finally wrote him a friendly email on Saturday, inquiring about his well-being and that of his wife, Zofię.  Marek is another in the tribe of people I wanted to stay in touch with – but he was so easy to lose track of, even in Kraków, living way out on Prądnik Biały, in the most farflung northern outskirts of the city, in one of the highest floors of an anonymous apartment block on Ulitsa Pigonia.

I googled him yesterday, just to see what he might be up to, and had another shock:  according to the Polish media, he had died on the 12th of March, about the same time I began having the impulse to write him.  (This is the second time this has happened in two months, which is eerie to say the least.)  He was a month shy of his 83rd birthday. President Bronislaw Komorowski posthumously awarded him the Officer’s Cross of the Mark Skwarnickiego Polish Order of Polonia Restituta, for “outstanding contribution to Polish culture.”  The Polish media don’t list a cause of death (nor does Rome’s La Stampa), nor tell us whether his wife survived him.  Obviously, I didn’t attend the 20 March funeral mass at the Benedictine abbey in Tyniec, celebrated by Cardinal Franciszek Macharski – the eminent poet Julia Hartwig spoke afterwards at the event, which was attended by former colleagues at Tygodnik Powszechny and Znak.

So let this be my tribute to one of the kindest people I remember.

Moj-Milosz-Krakow-Bialy-Kruk-2004-CzeslawMarek was one of the contributors to An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz – I don’t remember who suggested I talk to him.  This is what I had to say about him in the Contributors Notes:

Marek Skwarnicki—Polish poet, writer, and translator of poetry—was imprisoned in the German concentration camp Mauthausen in 1944. From 1958 to 1991, he was on the editorial board of Tygodnik Powszechny. He has written many volumes of poetry and memoirs from his travels with John Paul II, which he covered as a reporter. His correspondence with Miłosz is included in his book Mój Miłosz (My Miłosz).

I made the trek out to meet Marek and his wife Zofię in 2008, during my fellowship to Poland.  Did I bring flowers on this visit, or the second?  I can’t recall, but flowers always seemed plentiful in that apartment, along with the sweetish wine and store-bought pastries they served to guests.  At one point I brought an armload of bright yellow flowers – that I remember.

On my first visit, the devout Catholic writer told me cheerfully, “Miłosz was a heretic, like all great artists” – yet gave a nuanced portrait of the anguished religiosity of the Nobel poet. In Invisible Rope, he tells the story of his first contact with Miłosz:

“Because of the changes in the Soviet Union, Khrushchev coming to power and de-Stalinization, the year 1956 became pivotal in Polish political history. The publishing policies in my country experienced a “thaw,” an easing up of the state censorship that used to control not only every printed word, but also the size of periodical circulation and even the content of business cards. The name of Czesław Miłosz was now permitted to be mentioned in print.  Tygodnik Powszechny — a general-interest, political, Catholic, and sociocultural weekly — resumed its publication after a forced hiatus.

While still a student, I had written for the magazine under an assumed name. Later, I forged relations with the former editors and, in 1957, (since because I myself had started writing poetry), my poem titled ‘A Letter from Warsaw’ appeared in Tygodnik Powszechny; this poem was my way of thanking Czesław Miłosz for being the ‘daylight’ of my young years and the ‘rescue’ in Warsaw. Truth be told, the entire Communist press lashed out at me. Nevertheless, the poem was published.

marekskwarnicki

In younger days (Courtesy the Skwarnicki family).

On Christmas 1957, I received a letter from Paris. The envelope carried no return address. Inside was a white card with a red-and-white border. In the top left corner, there was a little Christmas tree and a handwritten inscription ‘Merry Christmas’; and in the lower rightcorner, it was signed ‘from Czesław Miłosz.’ This was the beginning of our relationship, which deepened into a friendship between an older poet and a younger one (this is how Miłosz described it) and ended only  with his death in Kraków.”

The two had a mutual friend in their fellow Pole and fellow poet, John Paul II.  Marek met Karol Wojtyla in the late ’50s in the editorial offices of Tygodnik Powszechny – well, Kraków is a small town.  From that time onwards, he became a sort of literary counselor to the poet-pope, and was invited to Rome to assist the Pope in the final editing of Wojtyla’s Roman Triptych: Meditations.  Marek also translated the Psalms – curiously enough, so did Miłosz, teaching himself Hebrew to do so.

The only time I riled this gentle man, even a little, was when, on his manuscript, I politely inquired whether Polish authorities weren’t tracking his unconventional trip across America, where he finally met Miłosz face-to-face after years of correspondence:

“I like to add that you made me slightly angry on you with your remarks about my fear of Polish political police. I am and I was in your free country the free man, not slave, not afraid of  Polish KGB.  I did not made report to them after return to [my] country.  They did not know that I was visiting office of Polish Section of Voice of America, what was more dangerous than [visiting] Milosz. Sorry. Warm wishes to you.”

I remember my second and last visit to the tiny, crowded apartment on Pigonia in 2011.  As I left, they urged me to come back again before the end of my trip – I remember saying goodbye, not knowing if I had the time in my tight schedule to find my way to this apartment building again.  I suspected I would not, but looked at the generous, expectant faces of this hospitable, open-hearted, and thoroughly devoted couple – half-blind, half-deaf, yet waiting for me – and I said I would try.

Moj-Milosz-Krakow2

Józef Czapski: A Life in Translation – and a Cahiers Series giveaway

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012
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Update on 3/26:  Still some editions of this treasure available for free for a retweet (or Facebook “share”) during the giveaway: Go to Facebook and Twitter pages here and here, beginning today.  I wouldn’t miss it. The New York Review of Books called this series “exquisitely produced, lavishly illustrated, and lovingly edited”

“…but knowing him at all was my good fortune.”

With those words – iambic pentameter with a stranded, falling syllable at the end – Keith Botsford begins his “autobiography” of artist, author, and critic Józef Czapski in the Cahiers Series’ Józef Czapski: A Life in Translation.

The Cahiers series/Sylph Editions will be hosting a giveaway on its Facebook and Twitter pages here and here, beginning today.  I wouldn’t miss it.

While visiting the Cahiers headquarters in Paris, Daniel Medin casually handed me Józef Czapski: A Life in Translation.  I didn’t realize until some time later, after my return to America, what a gift it would prove to be.

Botsford uses Czapski’s own words, interrupted with his commentary and illustrated with twelve of Czapski’s paintings. He calls this a “biography from within,” but he begins on the outside, with externals: Czapski was “not just tall, he was elongated…enormously wide awake behind his glasses.”

“There were two odors about him: the saddle-soap smell of the Uhlan officer and the more delicate perfume of the diffident man of delicate sensibilities, a whiff of the ascetic.”

Czapski seems to have cast a salutary spell on Botsford: “How could one fail to love such an Eye?” he asks. But it’s not just the artist’s vision that haunts him: “I am setting down a quality of his mind: the way he made connections. Not table-talk. He spoke ill of no one; even about Picasso he changed his mind.”

Polish officer in 1943

It’s hard to read much of 20th century Polish literature without running across the name Józef Czapski, one of the founders of the influential Polish emigré monthly Kultura.

My visit to the Kultura office in Maisons-Laffitte last month more insistently reminded of the remarkable man I had so far overlooked. A crucial chunk of Czapski’s  bio is necessary to understand him:  he was one of about 400 officers to survive the Katyń massacre, in which the Soviets slaughtered 20,000 Polish officers.  In 1941 and 1942, Czapski was sent as an envoy of the Polish government to look for the missing officers in Russia. After the war, Czapski remained in exile in Maisons-Laffitte. He was in a key position to offer help to dissidents and defectors. And he did.

During Czesław Miłosz’s time in Washington as a cultural attaché for the Soviet government, Czapski had told him that if he decided to jump ship, Kultura would protect him.

Miłosz had other reasons to be grateful to Czapski, the man who introduced him to the writings of Simone Weil through her first published book, Gravity and Grace. Czapski also showed him Arthur de Gobineau’s pages about ketman, which would become a key concept in the poet’s influential denunciation of communism, Captive Mind.

Botsford writes of Czapski: “In fact he was serene, and good order reigned in his mind. I take it as significant that from a man who had, like every Pole, suffered greatly from Poland’s German and Russian neighbors, I never heard a word against either nation, only a very pure love of his childhood and Poland.”

Yet, “Poland, and his exile, weighed on him.”

“not just tall, he was elongated” (Self-portrait, 1984)

“Striking is the fact that I can recall no whining. As he’d faced all he alterations of his long life, that Tolstoyan and Catholic streak in him was powerfully directed towards what was actively good, to what could still be celebrated about life.”

Czapski wrote:

Matisse was visited by Rouault. The two men had not spoken to each other in years. Matisse had survived two major operations. He told Rouault: How quickly life goes by! It’s terrible. Yet he was quite calm, blessed the blue sky he saw out the window, and wished his daily work was more like prayer.

How does one escape history? One doesn’t. There is something unbreakable about one’s being who one is, how formed, what seen and heard, where been when.

I think that Miłosz would have characterized him by the word he repeatedly emphasized in my own interview with him, “piety,” a term that embraced a respect for an aesthetic hierarchy. Joseph Brodsky would likely have called it “a plane of regard.”

The Nobel laureate said of Czapski: “He was deeply religious. So many of his major influences were men who thought of a divine order in the world. He read Rozanov, he debated with Simone Weil. All that was private and internal to the man. He had an idea of the Good in his head.”

This “idea of the Good in his head” permeated Czapski’s views of his art: The fullness of art is reached by the strait and narrow path of absolute humility, by veneration for the world as we see it, the use of the hand to draw it.  (Words that remind me an awful lot of the poet Julia Hartwig.)

Botsford, however, met Czapski when the artist was 70 – and  this short, 42-page study becomes truly remarkable when describing Czapski’s old age.  Czapski’s words again:

Akhmatova said: I kissed boots among the higher officials to get some news of my son, whether he was alive or dead, and got nothing. So many extraordinary people I’ve known. Why do I recall my fellow-officers in Griazovietz? Why did Herling-Grudziński listen to the stories of his fellow-prisoners, and tell them?  Because the stories they had to tell deserve to be remembered. They are gone, but who they were should not disappear. The Communion of Saints, the talk of the living and he dead, goes on.

Somewhere I read or heard of a woman who begged God to show her – even if just for a second – what paradise was like. An angel visited her and told her to shut her eyes and He would grant her wish. When she opened them again and looked about her, she said, But that is what I see every day.

Czapski’s old age lasted decades.  He soldiered on until 1993, and was more than ready for his death at 96.

But at eighty-three: I see death differently: as a form of salvation, a deliverance, as an ‘enough.’ What remains is what is poetry and what is goodness.

And elsewhere – “die and become. As a moth alters.”

Check out the giveaway.

(Photos at top and at right reproduced from the Cahiers Series with permission.)

Wisława Szymborska: a feather touch that, for all its lightness, lingers

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012
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Wisława Szymborska is dead at 88.  It’s after 1 a.m., but it wouldn’t seem right to let the night pass without a comment.

In 2008, I had tried persistently to meet the reclusive Nobel poet in Kraków – another story, for another time.  During my return for the Year of Czesław Miłosz last spring, my time had run out too quickly, and now apparently hers has also.

But I did see her briefly last spring, at a rare public appearance at St. Catherine’s Church, a reading where she shared the stage with her friend Julia Hartwig, the Chinese poet Bei Dao, and others.  The formidable figure seemed friendly, frail, exuding warmth and authenticity.  Afterward, she was whisked away through the back, like a rare and delicate doll that must be exhibited, but not touched by the fans who had flooded the medieval church.

Somewhere on a thumb drive I have a photo, but I’ll settle today for the more magical one from the Poetry Foundation website.

According to the New York Times obituary:

Despite six decades of writing, Szymborska had less than 400 poems published.

Asked why, she once said: “There is a trash bin in my room. A poem written in the evening is read again in the morning. It does not always survive.”

When I reviewed her collection Monologue of a Dog for the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005, I wrote this:

Perhaps the reason for the paucity is because it took a long while to edit the “I” out of her poems, which slip in and out of personal identity. The heart-breaking title poem assumes the voice of a dictator’s dog; “Among the Multitudes” considers the wonder of being born human rather than with fins or feathers; another poem ponders her one-sided relationship with plants; “Plato, or Why” asks about the Ideal Being — “Why on earth did it start seeking thrills/ in the bad company of matter? … Wisdom limping/ with a thorn stuck in its heel?”

Or perhaps it’s because, as she has written elsewhere, she has tried to borrow weighty words, and then labored to lighten them. As always with Szymborska, a poet who survived the Nazi and Soviet regimes in Poland, poems of war and dislocation are told with a feather touch that nonetheless, for all its lightness, lingers. “Some People” describes the plight of refugees: “Always another wrong road ahead of them,/ always another wrong bridge/ across an oddly reddish river.”

Szymborska’s lightness is never denial or indifference; it is a subtle means of defiance. Italo Calvino, who praised the literary virtue of leggerezza, which he called the “subtraction of weight,” elaborated: “Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space. … I have to change my approach, look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition and verification.”

The BBC included this poem, the wisest epitaph:

The Three Oddest Words

When I pronounce the word Future,
the first syllable already belongs to the past.
When I pronounce the word Silence,
I destroy it.
When I pronounce the word Nothing,
I make something no non-being can hold.

 

TLS: Czeslaw Milosz around the world

Thursday, November 24th, 2011
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Rock star treatment

What a nice way to celebrate Thanksgiving!  My article in the Times Literary Supplement is online today, and not behind a paywall.  It begins:

In May this year, the streets of old Cracow were dominated by two names, two events. Czeslaw Milosz’s centenary jostled with Pope John Paul II’s beatification in windows, on banners and billboards, on bookstore shelves, in fliers and leaflets – the pope, perhaps, having the edge over the Nobel laureate, except on the kiosks where Milosz Festival posters prevailed. “It seems to me every poet after death goes through a Purgatory”, Milosz told me over a decade ago. “So he must go through that moment of revision after death.” The “revision”, at this point, is a triumph of twenty-first-century branding and marketing, featuring commemorative books, pens, postcards, blank books, and T-shirts; Milosz’s scrawled signature appears on napkins and even on the wrappers of tiny biscotti.

The Works

Few poets have been feted with such rock star exuberance. The “Milosz Pavilion” on Szczepanski Square hosted literary luminaries such as Adam Zagajewski, Bei Dao, Tomas Venclova, Adonis, and Natalya Gorbanevskaya. (Even the reclusive Wislawa Szymborska made a rare public appearance with her colleague Julia Hartwig at the medieval St Catherine’s Church.) Meanwhile, the Jagiellonian University’s Collegium Novum sponsored a week-long scholarly conference with seventy participants from around the world, including the eminent critics Helen Vendler and Clare Cavanagh, and some leading Polish scholars. The Jagiellonian Library, farther from the centre of town, exhibited manuscripts, photographs and first editions. The events were attended by thousands. All this year, books have poured from Polish publishers. Most notably, Milosz’s own publisher, Znak, issued two hefty volumes: Andrzej Franaszek’s 1,000-page biography – a bestseller – and a new 1,500-page Collected Poems. A few of the literati complained to me that Milosz was not receiving his due among the younger generation – an honoured marble bust to be dusted off seasonally, but not read or remembered – but I saw plenty of evidence to the contrary.

The rest is here.

Portrait of the artist as a young woman

Sunday, August 14th, 2011
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One of the misfortunes of late-blooming fame is that people remember you old.

But the long body of time equally remembers the young Julia Hartwig, the Polish poet, essayist, and translator who celebrates her 90th birthday today.

So let’s commemorate the day with his lovely portrait of the artist as a young woman.

Celebrations are being held in her native Lublin, and elsewhere in Poland as well.  Meanwhile, on this side of the ocean, you can catch up with my earlier post here, or catch my profile of her in the July/August World Literature Today, or catch a few video clips here.  Or go to the Web of Stories for more videos here.

Happy birthday, Julia.

because too may of those who distinguished
between what is permanent and ephemeral
have left

– from “Now”

Julia Hartwig on the Bibliothèque Nationale, postwar Paris, and Long Island

Saturday, August 6th, 2011
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Hey, this is cool!  After we posted on Julia Hartwig‘s upcoming 90th birthday, a reader tipped us off to Web of Stories, which has some video clips of the poet (Czesław Miłosz called her “the Grande Dame of Polish poetry”).

So here I am, on a Saturday night, listening to Julia talk about her life again, from her downtown Warsaw apartment.

Here’s one where she’s recounting her years in Paris, and her time studying at the Bibliothèque Nationale while she was writing her monograph on Guillaume Apollinaire.  This clip recounts the young scholar trying to get access to some of Apollinaire’s racier writings in the library:

The hostile reception she met in postwar Paris with her brother Walenty Hartwig, who went on to become a renowned endocrinologist:

And finally, on her idyllic life on Long Island, far away from Communist Poland:

There’s more – about wartime Warsaw, cultural Poland, Solidarity and martial law, and the vicissitudes of life under communism. It’s really an excellent series of video clips – well done, Web of Stories! Just put the name Julia Hartwig into the search, and about 50 clips come up.

And oh, of course they’re subtitled in English.

Happy 90th birthday, Julia Hartwig! Poland’s late-blooming poet is still in glorious flower.

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011
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The birthday girl in Warsaw (Photo: C.L. Haven)

I wrote about the Polish poet Julia Hartwig some months ago on the Book Haven here – but now there is an special occasion for celebration.  The poet turns 90 on August 14th.

It’s rare that a poet’s supreme moment of recognition should occur so late in life – rarer still that the poet’s productivity is unimpeded by age.  However, the Grande Dame of Polish poetry is clearly an extraordinary woman.

I made sure to celebrate my own way, with an article in the July/August issue of World Literature Today.  It’s not online, alas, but here are a few excerpts to familiarize the West with a poet who received as much applause as Nobel winner Wisława Szymborska when they shared the stage last May in Kraków’s medieval St. Catherine’s Church.

“My way of poetry is a long way,” Julia Hartwig told me on a hot August night in her Warsaw apartment.

Her comment is at once enigmatic and precise. Precise because the poet, who turns ninety this year, has been writing for eight decades, since she was ten. She has been publishing collections of her poems since the 1956 thaw over half a century ago. Yet her long career is still in glorious late flower.

Enigmatic, too: her range of vision roams through centuries, continuing a conversation with her recently dead colleagues, literary forebears, and friends throughout time. All great poetry does that, really—but in Hartwig’s case the search is direct and unambiguous. Titles of poems in her newest collection in English, It Will Return, reference Arthur Rimbaud, John Keats, and Joseph Brodsky as well as Vincent Van Gogh, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Henri Rousseau.

Her life was largely a quiet and orderly one, after the national upheaval of war, when she worked as a runner for the Home Army, and studied in Warsaw’s underground university (the Gestapo’s attentions forced her into hiding for a time).  After the war, she went to Paris on a scholarship and never lost her love for France.  She wrote about Guillaume Apollinaire and Gérard de Nerval and translated Rimbaud:

“What is striking about French literature is the range of scale: the Hugo-style genius of the French spirit and the Rabelaisian bawdiness, de Musset’s charm and Apollinaire’s thrilling melody, Lautréamont’s madness, the inexhaustible passion of Rimbaud’s poetry, the latent sensitivity of Reverdy’s cubism, the inventiveness of the lyrical paradox in Jacob’s work,” she wrote. “Old and new, separate and shared, like the root, stem, leaf, and flower in one plant.”

In 1954 she married the eminent poet, writer, and translator Artur Miedzyrzecki (1922–96), who had served the Polish Army in Italy. She published her first book during communism’s brief 1956 thaw, when she was in her mid-thirties.

“I waited for good poems, it’s true,” she said. “But still the attention was . . . it was remarked.”

I find the frequent comparisons to Szymborska to be a bit offensive, as if there were only one slot were available to a female poet per generation.  I aired my grievances … well, a little, anyway:

May in Kraków – must they be compared?

She is often compared to Wisława Szymborska. One wonders if the association would come less easily if Szymborska were not a woman of the same generation. But it’s not entirely the comparison of poetess with poetess—both have a light, deft touch and a taste for whimsy.

But Hartwig’s terroir extends into a different psychological landscape. She has called her way “reality mysticism,” extending her acceptance of the world to all its horrors, then moving beyond to transcendence. Of the world, she wisely told her translator Bogdana Carpenter, “One cannot set oneself apart from it and be alone like an underground man or a misanthrope.”

But it’s more than that. Reality mysticism doesn’t abstract or withdraw from the present, or use it for a jumping-off point for dreamy speculations, but holds us steadily there, using it to increase our attention, our presence, and our appreciation.

For example, “Return to My Childhood Home” begins with wonder and loss, moving to consolation and light:

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.

Many more happy moments  in your beloved Warsaw, Julia  – a thousand lamps to greet you on your way!

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.