Posts Tagged ‘Anna Frajlich’

“The last time we saw Wisława Szymborska”: Poet Anna Frajlich remembers an ambulance, a corkscrew, and collages at Christmas

Saturday, December 12th, 2020
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We’ve written about award-winning Polish poet and writer Anna Frajlich. Now she has a brand new book out with Academic Studies Press. The Ghost of Shakespeare, edited by Ronald Meyer and translated by Timothy D. Willliams, takes its name from her essay on Nobel Prize laureate Wisława Szymborska, but also considers other major Polish writers of the twentieth century – Zbigniew Herbert, Czesław Miłosz, and Bruno Schulz among them. The book includes her memories of her exile from Poland in 1969, her subsequent life in New York City, and her American career as a scholar and leading Polish poet of her generation ever since.

Below, her recollection of her last memories of Szymborska, on November 22, 2011. “I would surely have forgotten the date if it were not for Skype, which keeps a precise record,” she said. She listened to the voicemail recording of the Nobel poet’s secretary Michał Rusinek, her secretary, or “First Secretary” as she called him, but Szymborska picked up the phone as she was recording a message. She continues:

The matter about which I was calling was rather absurd. The previous May we had been over to her place for dinner. For years, whenever we visited Kraków, she would invite us for dinner, always with some interesting company. It was an exceptionally merry evening; Wisława served us herself, leaving the men the task of uncorking the wine. During one such endeavor the corkscrew broke, and they were forced to somehow get the cork out without it. So when we got back to Warsaw, my husband and I bought a corkscrew, wrapped it in bubble wrap and sent it to Kraków. In the second half of November the corkscrew arrived in New York with the note “Return to Sender. Unclaimed.” That was the reason for my call. And that was our last conversation.

After a quick greeting, she said she had to go, because an ambulance was coming; I believe she called it an “R,” using the old twentieth-century term, but I can’t be sure on that point. She told me what had happened, but I’ve since forgotten. I even heard the ring of her buzzer, at which point we said our goodbyes.

Anna remembers a lifetime in letters…

In early 1996, I managed for the first time to work up the courage to write to her from New York. The Manhattan Theatre Club, knowing that she was on the short list for the Nobel Prize, proposed that I prepare an evening of Szymborska’s poetry, including narration to be read by me with the poems. A few months later, I received a moving letter, dated April 20, 1996:

Dear, Sweet Pani Anna! Thank you for this program and especially for your narration, which moved me enormously Instead of writing your own poems, you devote your energy to other people’s. But at the same time, you have demonstrated that my poems are not “other” to you, and for that reason I feel overjoyed, like the recipient of the most lavish present imaginable. I have one question, though: when did Polityka publish an accolade of “The Joy of Writing”?—I knew nothing of this and only learned about it from you.

The letter ends with a warm invitation, “because our next meeting shouldn’t be by chance, should it?”

A few months later Wisława Szymborska was awarded the Nobel Prize. …

We were guests in Wisława’s home for the first time three years later. It was an unforgettable evening: the other guests were fascinating, the food served by the poet herself was tasty, and we had the traditional Szymborska raffle, conversations and laughter. The guests included Dorota Terakowska, her husband Maciej Szumowski, Stanisław Balbus, Leszek Szaruga. Wisława suggested she and I switch to the informal form of address, “ty,” and told my husband she would follow suit with him the next time we met. When the next time came, she was surprised to still be on formal terms with him; she opened the cognac we’d brought, and we finalized the matter.

Even before that, I had begun to receive her magnificent, sparkling collages at Christmas time. From then on, Wisława always found time for us when we came to Kraków. She attended my readings, a fact which elicited some amazement, since she was known for rarely being seen at such events. We now would mostly meet at her place, but then go out for lunch in a restaurant. She never let anybody treat her; instead, she would treat the two of us and a few other people as well.

I tried to talk Wisława into coming to the United States, where numerous institutions were interested in hosting her. In response I received a gentle refusal: “Aniu, do you really see me doing all that traveling? I would be like a one-legged woman in the States, mute, since I don’t know the language. I would live in a state of constant stress, starting before the trip, then during and after. So even though you are there, and a few other kind souls, I’m not coming” (February 3, 2005).

“The absurd is the most essential ingredient in reality.”

Two years later: “I still haven’t even gotten around to thanking you for the French book—how do you feel about the translation? And at the same time you’ve sent me a new surprise—your students’ essays about my Grandpa … Good God, could my dear old Granddad ever have imagined that he was going to be read by American college students? And by such gifted readers to boot? Life is truly strange, but of course you know that” (April 4, 2007).

Even in these fragments, we see Wisława Szymborska precisely as she was in life—direct, down-to-earth, immensely witty, thoughtful and warm, with an undeniably strong personality. In one of the miniature letters that she mostly wrote on the back of her famous collages, she noted: “Sometimes I think the absurd is the most essential ingredient in reality” (October 24, 2003). That belief comes across in many of her poems as well.

The last time we saw her was in May. She was cheerful, elegant, serving every course herself; she placed me next to her and ordered me to do something I was passionately fond of doing, so: I talked. This time, for some reason, we didn’t take any pictures. In the drawer of my desk I have a mirror that I won in the famous Szymborska raffle that night, and on my shelf, in its sealed envelope, lies the corkscrew.

Celebrating “Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard” in NYC

Tuesday, September 25th, 2018
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Gathered for a discussion of books, poetry, literature, and culture…

The Book Haven has lapsed into an unaccustomed silence. That’s because we’ve been on the road. We’ve reconnected with friends and allies in New York, based at the hospitable Westchester home of Izabella Barry, who hosted a celebration for Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard on Sunday. Old friends were in attendance – the Polish poet and professor Anna Frajlich and the Russian poet and screenwriter Helga Landauer, and the photographer Zygmunt Malinowski who has guest posted on the Book Haven. New friends were there, too: the poet Kathryn Levy.

With poet Anna Frajlich…

Irena Grudzińska Gross was the moderator for my interview– I lucky on that on that score, the author of Czeslaw Milosz and Joseph Brodsky: Fellowship of Poets is a matchless scholar and human being. We ended the interview with a discussion of my forthcoming ‘The Spirit of the Place’: Czesław Miłosz in CaliforniaAs Sunday afternoon crawled into evening, we flicked on the lights, poured more wine, and continued to discuss literature, poetry, culture.

Now I’m hunkered in Yale’s Beinecke Library. I’m finding some gems among the archives, like this one, from Czesław Miłosz, which seems appropriate for the times: “Textbooks of history tell us about crusades, about burning heretics and religious wars. All that pales in comparison with what the twentieth century demonstrated. Uncounted millions of human beings were killed not in the name of religion but in the name of lay fanaticisms and politics, that is, in a struggle for power. By the same token a belief in the moral progress of humanity was undermined, that belief so dear to our ancestors of the nineteenth century when it strangely, against logic, coexisted with the theory of evolution advanced by biologists. Technological progress did not make man a better being, on the contrary; and now we must admit that we know nothing as to where our species drifts, for goodness and purity of heart are as proper to it as the worst monstrosity.”

Poet Anna Frajlich’s long journey from Warsaw to New York

Wednesday, August 10th, 2016
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Anna, photographed by Krzysztof Dubiel.

Poet Anna Frajlich-Zajac (she uses Frajlich as her pen name) is retiring from Columbia University, where she taught Polish language and literature for decades. The Harriman Institute’s Ronald Meyer has written a tribute to the Polish poet. Here’s how she came to New York City, in a wave of Jewish emigration too little known in the West:

Anna and her family were part of the mass emigration of some 13,000 Poles of Jewish descent who had fallen victim to a virulent anti-Semitic campaign and political crisis known as March 1968. Emigration required renunciation of one’s Polish citizenship, which Anna had to perform on behalf of her two-year-old son. Like her fellow émigrés, Anna believed that she would never see her native land again. Officially they were bound for Israel, but her husband argued that if they were to leave Poland, they should go as far as possible from Europe; thus they informed the authorities in Vienna that they wished to make the United States their home. They traveled to Rome under the care of the gendarmerie due to their statelessness. As they awaited travel documents for the United States, they were charged only with refraining from any demonstrations, which left them free to explore the Eternal City and begin adapting to life in the West. Many years later Anna’s Roman ramblings would provide the background for her dissertation and monograph, The Legacy of Ancient Rome in the Russian Silver Age.

I couldn’t agree more with Anna’s assertion that “language is a key to literature, to history, to understanding progress of any sort.” I had the good fortune to meet Anna in connection with An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz:

Anna worked as a freelance cultural correspondent with Radio Free Europe (RFE) as a writer and interviewer, which culminated in her interview with Czesław Miłosz upon his receiving the Nobel Prize. She first met Miłosz at a lecture at the Guggenheim on October 17, 1978; he inscribed the date in his book about Stanisław Brzozowski, which Anna had purchased in a local Polish bookstore and brought for him to autograph. When writing her thesis on “one of the most original Polish thinkers of the twentieth century,” to cite Miłosz’s formulation, Anna had to travel across Warsaw to read this same book in the restricted section of the library, after producing a document from her thesis adviser. Now she had her own copy, with the author’s inscription. They continued to meet sporadically at readings and conferences.

invisibleThe Nobel interview, which has been published in English translation [that would be in An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz], almost did not come about. Miłosz had not been treated well by RFE in the early days of his emigration, and he did not feel obliged in the least to give them an interview. But he had been persuaded that since he had given an interview to Trybuna Ludu, the Polish Communist daily, he should give one to RFE. He agreed, but insisted that Anna conduct the interview. The interview took place at Miłosz’s home in Berkeley. The piece, which very much represents a poet interviewing a poet, was a resounding success; it was broadcast four times and published. In 1993, Anna was conducting interviews for the column “What Other People Read,” which was appearing in the cultural supplement to the Polish Daily News. She conducted a telephone interview with Miłosz for the column, realizing only after hanging up that she had forgotten to hit the record button. She immediately called him back and explained the situation. He “graciously” suggested that they conduct the interview again the next morning. You can read about Anna’s relationship with Miłosz, including how he introduced her to Scotch after they concluded the Nobel interview and that she taught his granddaughter Polish at Columbia, in her essay, “He Also Knew How to Be Gracious.”

Anna earned her master’s degree in Polish philology at Warsaw University, writing her dissertation on the philosopher and critic Stanisław Brzozowski and the Polish positivists. She began her graduate studies under the guidance of Zoya Yurieff, a professor of Slavic literatures and cultures at New York University who was an early inspiration and encouraged her graduate education in the first place. Yurieff also suggested the topic of ancient Rome in the poetry of the Russian symbolists.

What future for Anna? She plans to write a memoir called Women in My Life, which will include portraits of her mother and a Warsaw University professor, among others, and, of course, Zoya Yurieff.

Read the whole retrospective here. Meanwhile, a poem dedicated to her wonderful husband, reprinted with her permission:

Manhattan Panorama

to Władek 

The bridges overhang the city
like diamonds in a diadem
reflected lights are burning
in the Hudson and the Harlem Rivers
in the East River in the bay
and in puddles on the road
the bridges overhang the city
that shone in flight
between a setting star
and the rising moon
walls pinned into heaven
pressed by granite to the ground
wind in its stone sails
out to sea
it moves at dawn

(Translated by Ross Ufberg)

New York City in 62 hours: revisiting old memories, making new ones

Monday, May 6th, 2013
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I spent a whirlwind 62 hours in New York City, but they were “cherce.”  Fortunately, photographer (and friend) Zygmunt Malinowski was on hand to document some of the highlights, and has kindly allowed the Book Haven to feature them.

First, I spoke at a commemorative event for Krzysztof Michalski, the founder of Vienna’s Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen, where I was Milena Jesenská Fellow a few years ago.  “Democracy is Controversy Plus Solidarity: In the Absence of Krzysztof Michalski” was sponsored by the Austrian Cultural Forum and the Polish Cultural Institute, in conjunction with the P.E.N. Festival in New York City.

The panel left to right:  Alfred Gusenbauer, former prime minister of Austria;  literary historian and author Irena Grudzinska Gross of Princeton;  Andreas Stadler, director of the Austrian Cultural Forum; Marci Shore of Yale author of The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe, and Humble Moi…

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Whoops!  There’s someone missing from this line-up.  Same cast of characters, but below you can also see Yale’s Timothy Snyder, author of Bloodlands (and Marci Shore’s husband) at far right.

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Next, some of us who met for the Czesław Miłosz centenary in New York City two years ago decided to celebrate a reunion.  What better place than the famous Russian Samovar, a longstanding mecca for the Russian literati (and other Slavs … and non-Slavs)? The place was a familiar haunt for Joseph Brodsky, a friend of Miłosz’s.

The Russian Samovar’s legendary proprietor Roman Kaplan appeared toward the evening – he’d founded the hang-out with Mikhail Baryshnikov and he’d also been an especially close friend of Brodsky’s.  No sooner did he find out about my association with the Nobel poet than he pulled me into the corner seat, where Joseph Brodsky had usually held court, and a photo with the (by then) glassy-eyed Moi was snapped.  Glassy-eyed, but nevertheless … stepping into a page of New York cultural history.

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Finally, here’s the whole reunion crew.  This is the only photograph in the group that is not by Zygmunt, because that’s him at far left, looking gravely into the camera (in the mirror you can see the mystery guest photographer’s arms).  The poet Anna Frajlich is next to Zygmunt, then Alla Roylance, Moi, Izabela Barry, and Władek Zając.  Couldn’t find a better group of people.  And you’d hard-pressed to find a better dinner, beginning with vodka infused with horseradish, cranberries, and lemon (you can read about them at the Paris Review here) continuing with Georgian and traditional Russian dishes, and finishing with samovar tea with jam.  Dostoevsky would have approved entirely.

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After the panel discussion, we ended at the residence of U.N. Ambassador Martin Sajdik.  Risotto with white spargel, a perfectly chilled white wine from the Kamp River region, quince schnapps, and plenty of Mozartkugeln.  Can’t top that … but ohhhhh, I wish I could find that brilliant Austrian wine here, but the ambassador, rightly known as a connoisseur, told me the American market likes its wines a little more fruity, a little less delightfully sharp – you have to go to Vienna to get these.  As good an incitement as any, should you need one.

Here’s Roman Kaplan reading Joseph Brodsky’s poems in the commemorative corner:

 

Virtual ink for An Invisible Rope at Words Without Borders

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011
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Words Without Borders has included a nice summary of the Czesław Miłosz centenary events by Iza Wojciechowska – just when we thought we were the only ones keeping track of the celebrations (with articles here and  here and here and here).  But nicest of all, WWB gave price of pride to An Invisible Rope, and particularly to the Columbia University launch for the book.

The piece concludes:

The title of the book, An Invisible Rope, comes also from “A Magic Mountain,” a refutation of defeat, perhaps apt for a poet who dealt with political tensions, who was banned in his own country, and yet who became Poland’s best-known poet:

Until it passed. What passed? Life.
Now I am not ashamed of my defeat.
One murky island with its barking seals
Or a parched desert is enough
To make us say: yes, oui, si.
“Even asleep we partake in the becoming of the world.”
Endurance comes only from enduring.
With a flick of the wrist I fashioned an invisible rope,
And climbed it and it held me.

Anna Frajlich, one of the contributors to An Invisible Rope and a panelist, recalled running after Miłosz the first time she met him with a copy of his Man Among Scorpions to tell him, “I want to thank you for writing this book.” In a way, An Invisible Rope—and the entire year-long celebration of the poet’s life—is a means for both the people who knew Miłosz and for those who simply admire him, to thank him for writing his books, which contributed much to the canon of Polish and worldwide literature.

Read more here. Hat tip to Tess Lewis for the tip. And now, as the clock strokes twelve, bed.
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Youtube immortality — Adam Zagajewski, Anna Frajlich, and me in Brooklyn

Monday, April 11th, 2011
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Everyone asks about the Brooklyn Central Library launch for An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz. How did it go?

You can see for yourself here and here — or click on the links below to hear poets Anna Frajlich (at top) and Adam Zagajewski (at bottom) share their memories of Miłosz for a few minutes. (By the by, the woman to Adam’s left is art historian Elisabeth Kridl Valkenier, who knew  Miłosz in the 1930s. And the man to Elisabeth’s left is photographer Zygmunt Malinowski, who kindly provided photos, including the cover art, for An Invisible Rope.

Thanks to Grzegorz Worwa for providing the clips.