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Czeslaw Milosz on Anna Swir's poems

Milosz translated Talking to My Body from Polish

Anna Swir: developed late as a poet and developed late as a woman
  • Anna Swir: developed late as a poet and developed late as a woman

Author: Anna Swir (1909-1984) was born in Warsaw.

Swir’s father was a painter, the family was poor. “An Artist Moves” describes Swir’s parents and herself, escaping an apartment on which they owed a half-year’s rent:

"At dawn we leave on tiptoe.

"Father carries the easel and three paintings, mother a chest and the eiderdown inherited from grandmother, I myself a pot and a teakettle."

Swir attended university, studying medieval and baroque Polish literature. Her first poems were published in the 1930s. These poems, writes Czeslaw Milosz in his introduction to Talking to My Body, “bear the marks both of her upbringing in the artistic milieu (images taken from paintings and albums of reproductions) and of her fascination with the Middle Ages.”

During World War II, Anna Swir suffered the fate of her fellow Poles — Nazi invasion, occupation, the 1944 63-day Warsaw Uprising. She served in the Resistance and as a military nurse. Milosz quotes Swir’s summary of this period of her life: “War made me another person. Only then did my own life and the life of my contemporaries enter my poems.”

After the war, there was a husband, a daughter, and beginning in the 1970s, four collections of poems described by Milosz as “dictated by eros, or by empathy and pity, for suffering people.” (About Anna Swir’s personal life, Milosz said on the day that we talked, “The marriage didn’t last long. Then she separated and she had some lovers.”)

Talking to My Body; Copper Canyon Press, 1996; translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan; $14; 160 pages

Type: Translation from Polish of some 100 poems written from early in Anna Swir’s life to a poem — “Tomorrow They Will Carve Me” — written while she was on her deathbed.

Death came and stood by me.

I said: I am ready.

I am lying in the surgery clinic in Krakow.

Tomorrow they will carve me.

There is much strength in me. I can live, can run, dance, and sing.

All that is in me, but if necessary I will go.

Milosz explains that he translated the poems and then showed them to his friend, poet Leonard Nathan. Nathan read Milosz’s translations and marked wordings which he thought “doubtful.” The two friends then worked on these passages. Milosz provides an introduction in which he mentions that he and Swir made their “literary debut more or less at the same time before the war, and later I used to see her, though not often, in underground Warsaw, where writers would attend clandestine meetings. When, after many years, I met her in Poland in the summer of 1981, she seemed to me much stronger — in the physical sense, too — than she had been in her youth: an attractive woman, lithe, with a ruddy complexion, her hair like the white mane of a fairy-tale witch.”

At volume’s end, Nathan and Milosz engage in a Paris Review-like dialogue about Swir and her poems. The 20-some pages, conversational in nature, serve as a charming lecture on Swir herself and the nature of poetry.

On the winter afternoon that I talked with Mr. Milosz about Anna Swir’s poems he explained that he set about translating Swir’s poems, “in order to repair injustice, because she was underestimated. I consider her a very important poet. But she was somehow in the shade. First of all, she had great difficulty in finding proper expression for her experiences, her war experiences. And then later she had difficulty finding this proper expression also for her love experiences. So she was a latecomer in a way. And for that reason she was not highly known.”

Mr. Milosz added, “Through the political difficulties for ten years after the war her poems were not published at all. Late in life, she succeeded in writing poems about her war experience, because it was very difficult, very tormented. And also, her erotic poetry is poetry of her old age. She published her book, she wrote her erotic poems when she was 60.

“She bloomed late. She developed late as a poet, and she developed late as a woman. And then she published a poem, ‘I am A Woman,’ which shocked the masculine audience because it was so openly feminist. And they didn’t like that sort of garish talking, a woman talking about sex. So that was one reason why she was ranked together with ‘crazy feminists,’ so to speak.”

Mr. Milosz went on to say that he was very pleased by “women’s reactions to my book on Anna Swir. They are enchanted, those who write about that book.”

I asked what women have said to him about the poems.

“They were enchanted by my very warm reception of the poetry of Anna Swir. There is practically a love relationship between me and Anna Swir. Though we were not lovers at all, but it is sort of by empathy I feel her body, so to say.”

Later in our conversation I asked Mr. Milosz if he thought of himself as having a muse, or a series of muses, women who had served as his inspiration.

“A given human person?”

Yes.

“It is not direct, not in a romantic manner, you know. But certainly some persons we meet in life have a very durable presence in our mind, a durable presence as personalities, as — in living human beings, even if they are dead. And, of course, they can be called ‘muse.’ I guess that the most, the strongest muse in my case was my mother. I guess I was in love with her.”

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