A Review of Anna Swir’s Talking to My Body
by Seretta Martin
“Flesh. Flesh is love and ecstasy, in pain, in terror, flesh afraid of loneliness, giving birth, resting, feeling the flow of time or reducing time to one instant.” These are the words of Nobel Prize-winner, poet and translator, Czeslaw Milosz when describing the themes of Anna Swir’s poems, which he translated into English in this excellent and memorable book in five chapters: Poems About My Father and My Mother, Wind, To Be a Woman,
Other Poems and Poems About My Friend.
What themes could be more compelling? I was immediately captivated by her uncomplicated, yet sophisticated miniature prose poems of sensuality and “calligraphic neatness.” Anna has such honesty in the way she views the body with both detachment and intimacy. Great poetry is often marked by the use of simple words to express complex emotions and insights, as is true of Anna Swir’s. She uses the simplest of words in intuitive ways creating a visceral quality that is uniquely hers.
In his introduction, Czeslaw describes Swir’s poetry as distinctive from that of American women poets who have written on the same theme. Anna had the “rare intensity and ability to be more objective” about a woman’s body. The body is both “the subject and an object observed with detachment.”
In her poem “A Woman Talks to Her Thigh” (Chapter 3) we see objective detachment: “It is only thanks to your good looks / I can take part / in the rites of love.”
We hear her honesty, sensuality and intensity in these excerpts from other poems: “Look in the mirror. Let’s both look. / Here is my naked body. / Apparently you like it…” – Large Intestine (Chapter 3)
“I say to my body / – You carcass – I say, / … crated, nailed down, /
deaf and blind / like a padlock. / I should beat you till you scream, / Starve you for forty days, / hang you over the highest abyss of the world. /…
I say / and I spit at the mirror.” – I Say to My Body: You Carcass (Chapter 4)
“Our embrace lasted too long. / We loved right down to the bone. /
I hear the bones grind… Do not come anymore / I am an animal / very rarely. – I’ll Open the Window (Chapter 3)
In contrast to poems such as “I Say to My Body: You Carcass,” which sounds angry at the body, here is a poem in its entirety to show the loving tenderness found in many of Anna’s sensual poems:
Three Bodies (Chapter 3)
A pregnant woman
lies at night by her man.
In her belly
a child moved.
“Put your hand on my belly,”
says the woman.
“What moved so lightly
is a tiny hand or leg
of our child.”
It will be mine and yours
though only I have to bear it,”
The man nestles close to her,
they both feel the same.
In the woman a child moves.
And the three bodies pool their warmth
at night, when a pregnant woman
lies by her man.
In her own declaration about poetry Swir wrote: “ The poet should be as sensitive as an aching tooth.” She shows us this in “Tear Stream. Also, notice how her line breaks are effective in giving us anticipation and surprise: “They are dying, clasped tenderly to one another, / bound by their suffering / as once they were by love. / Unable to live together, / necessary to each other at that moment of dying, / close to each other / in that moment only…
…Their embrace is ice, / …Her tears / roll down his naked arm, / his tears stream / between her naked breast / Then / they both harden / like sculpture on an Etruscan sarcophagus. – Tear Stream (Chapter 3)
In terms of craft, Swir did not write literary criticism but she made a few profound remarks: “ By expressing reality, poetry masters and overcomes it. Poetry creates around man a delicate, tender miniworld to protect him from the dreadfulness of the maxiworld.” When asked how to write a poem she responded that “nothing can replace the psychosomatic phenomenon of inspiration.” She thought this was the only “biological” way for a poem to be born and “every poem has the right to ask for new poetics.” Anna also had keen thoughts about style and I believe that she was right. She said, “Style is the enemy of a poet, and its greatest merit would be non-existence. A writer has two tasks. The first – to create one’s own style. The second – to destroy one’s own style. The second is more difficult and takes more time.” This led to the idea of “transparent style,” which I understand to be seamless like a silk nylon and as unobvious as well-concealed secrets.
Czeslaw paints Anna’s version of the world as one where “… we are alone in the world without gods, exposed to total annihilation every moment, helpless in the face of terminal illness and old age, driven to seek in each other’s arms physical love as the only possible source of warmth and peace.”
Chapter 1 is devoted to poems about Anna’s parents. In these next two poems, memorable as a haunting cry in a dream, we witness their life in the war-shattered Poland of World War II:
White Wedding Slippers
mother opened a chest and took out
her white wedding slippers
of silk. The slowly
daubed them with ink.
Early in the morning
she went in those slippers
into the street
to line up for bread.
It was minus ten degrees,
for three hours in the street.
They were handing out
one-quarter of a loaf per person.
He Did Not Jump from the Third Floor
The second World War
Tonight they dropped bombs
on the Theatre Square.
At the Theatre Square
Father has his workshop.
All paintings, labor
of forty years.
Next morning father went
to the Theatre Square.
His workshop has no ceiling,
has no walls
Father did not jump
from the third floor.
Father started over
from the beginning.
Throughout this book “Her personae are trapped by their flesh but also distinct from it, for they are consciousness, ever present, perhaps with rare exceptions .... “ We observe the trapped body in “I Cannot”
(Chapter 3) and Take My Pain (Chapter 5)
I envy you. Every moment
You can leave me.
“ I said: / – Take my pain, I am afraid of it, / it gnaws at / my warm entrails. /
… He took it / and carries both. Lower and lower / he bends under its weight.” – Take My Pain
“Flesh in pain, in terror, flesh afraid of loneliness, … feeling the flow of time or reducing time to one instant.” – In her last days, these words echoed the chilling reality of Anna Swir’s life as she became ill. Though he didn’t know of her fragility, it was at this time that Czeslaw Milosz wrote a letter to her that made her extremely happy. He announced that he’d decided to translate her poems in English for this book. I imagine that she was as ecstatic as in her poem: “Happiness” – “ My hair is happy / and my skin is happy. / My skin quivers with happiness…” (Chapter 2)
This vital woman who seemed strong and immune from death with her ruddy complexion, “fairy-tale witch hair, and life-affirming poems, died of cancer in 1984, a few weeks after receiving his letter. I’m sure it must have made him feel magnificent to know that, at the end of her life, he’d brought some joy to a friend – one of Poland’s most distinguished poets. And somehow I think that Anna felt a sense of another world beyond death as she wrote these three poems:
We Survived Them (Chapter 1)
For a solemn opening
of his post-mortem exhibit
he will arrive and stand by me
in his old grey sweater.
Nobody will see him
only I will look at him.
He will say: -
–We survived them.
“ Only after mother’s death / I learned with amazement / that we were not /
one person. / And it’s precisely then, / more than any other time, /
we became one person. / I felt her inside me, like a child / Her death will be in me / till the end. – Her Death is in Me (Chapter 1)
“It’s getting close / the moment of leaving. / My heart is like a candlestick / with a hundred arms, lighted / for the ritual of dying. /… I say farewell to the earthly stars, / … to trees / in the forest and to the wind … / I say farewell to Anna. / I bless people / … Those who did me good / and those who did me evil. / … I am like a king at this moment / when my being fades / so that I begin to be …” – My Friend Speaks When Dying (Chapter 5)
I invite you to enter the world of Anna Swir by reading her book that has proven to be as essential to my poetic life as my hands that type these words. Enter her miniature world, “a world in which the body and individual survive.” Her book lives on the bookshelves of mortals but she has joined the ranks of those who achieved immortality through poetry.