Review of Anna Swir’s Talking to My Body
By J. Hope Stein
To that which is most important
Were I able to shut
My eyes, ears, legs, hands
And walk into myself
For a thousand years,
Perhaps I would reach
—I do not know its name—
what matters most.
“Poetry creates around a man a delicate, tender miniworld” Anna Swir declared, “to protect him from the dreadfulness of the maxiworld.” Talking to My Body, the collected works Polish feminist Anna Swir, takes us on a journey of “that which is most important.” What can we learn from the world contained within Swir’s miniatures? How do Swir’s poems which were written from the 1930’s – 1970’s inform and refresh our modern 21st century approach to mind, body and spirit?
In the first section of Talking to My Body titled “Poems About My Father and My Mother” Swir creates “mini worlds” that give tender glimpses of her nuclear family (the speaker and her parents). The collection begins with a speaker who defines herself as part of a threesome. She evokes the preciousness of this magic threesome effectively in “Three pieces of Candy” “We taste. Three paradises melt /in our mouths.” And in and the final line of “Christmas Eve,” “ How good it is we’re here, / we three.” And shows us the touching vulnerability of a child talking about her parents in “My Father’s Workshop,” “I would wake up at night/ afraid they both would die, / I listened to their breathing…” In “An Artist Moves,” the speaker describes her relationship with her parents with a sibling-like quality of joy and mischief. There is a sense of “the us” (nuclear family) against “the maxiworld” in the circumstances of life. Swir creates a world in which these 3 characters are working together as a single organism to survive and makes us see family in a way that seems fresh to modern eyes.
An Artist Moves
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.
We load it all on a car, quickly,
So the janitor does not see.
My father is pulling the cart, quickly,
So the janitor does not see.
Is pulling the cart, quickly,
My mother pushes at the rear quickly,
I push also, quickly, quickly, quickly,
So that the janitor does not see.
A half-year’s rent.
As the collection progresses, there is still a magic threesome, but now it is the speaker who becomes the mother, her husband and their child. “In Felicia’s Love – Three Bodies” the final image has the effect of echoing the earlier familial images and communicating this special tenderness is passed down to the next generation. “And the three bodies pool their warmth/ At night, when a pregnant woman/ lies by her man.” Swir’s vision of the nuclear family is strikingly different than what we see in modern culture where we are surrounded by images of the failure of family. In present culture we are encouraged to look beyond family, beyond what we have, and we ask ourselves if we are happy. Yet, while the soul of Swir’s family may feel ideal to us, it also feels like the most natural thing in the world. We rediscover something about what family means the way we do when we watch a nature documentary and see animals acting instinctively. Milosz calls Swir’s poems “anti –psychological.” The lack of psychology and plainness of the language helps us see family in its natural form. Between political family values and teen angst the soul of the 21st century family can often get lost. We are surrounded by art and media that aim to expose the imperfections of family. Family is often portrayed with sarcasm as something you need to escape from, something that inspires therapy. Swir’s poems remind us that family survives as the sum of the parts. What’s interesting about this section in Talking to My Body in relation to the rest of the collection is the speaker’s strong sense of self. There is never any doubt that the speaker isn’t exactly where she belongs. Yes there is poverty, hardship and extreme vulnerability, but the speaker’s identity is unshaken.
In the next section of “Talking to My Body” there is a shift in tone and the speakers of the poems seem very disconnected and alone in the world. Swir uses the technique of writing about flesh and body parts in a plain unsentimental way. It’s as though the speakers in her poems are aliens trying to make sense of body and soul. In “Myself and My Person” Swir writes, “There are moments/when I feel more clearly than ever that I am in the company/of my own person” Then she asks “what would happen” if she physically turned left but her “own person walked to the right.” In Czeslaw Milosz’s introduction he says ”The language of theology lost its hold over the minds of even the most fervent believers. The language of philosophy is hardly possible. The language of science is in it’s optimistic nineteenth century variety has suffered a loss of self-assurance. In this situation a poet trying to come to terms with experience has had to discover his or her own improvised means.” We find ourselves in a similar time of rugged individualism. There is this sense that everyone is walking down the street listening to the sound of a different drum - literally on their Ipods. In Swir’s case it’s almost as if she has created the most simple unit of religion where she has made her body the temple or church by which she seeks and prays in search of self. In her often painful search for self, there are moments of ecstasy in which the mind body and soul align in just the right way. (These days we have a drug called “ecstasy” that will do that for us.) In “A Woman Talks to Her Thigh” she describes a profound soulful state which she reaches through physical intercourse– “The souls of my lovers/open to me in the moment of love/…I read as does an angel/thoughts in their skulls/…I enter their souls,/I wander/ …I come to myself slowly.” She concludes – “the most exquisite refinement” of her soul cannot do for her what the good looks of her thigh can.
In “What is a Pineal Gland” the speaker describes her lover sleeping and the physical work going on inside his body, his lungs and digestion. And asks “do you belong to me?/I myself do not belong to you.” She then describes her own body processes, lungs and digestion and with an outer body perspective writes, “homeless, I tremble looking at our two bodies.” She further dissociates between the self and the body in “Large Intestine.” “Here is my naked body. /Apparently you like it, /I have no reason to./Who bound us, me and my body?….Where am I, I, I myself?” She wonders where her real self is— if it’s in her belly, her intestines, her toe, and concludes “apparently in the brain.” The repeated use of “apparently” is darkly comedic and resigned. She continues, “Take my brain out of my skull. I have the right/to see myself.” And at the end of “Large Intestine” she is further resigned and defeated by the eventual decay of the body. “slowly annihilated because of the body/I will become kidney failure/or gangrene of the large intestine. /And expire with shame.” Between soul and flesh, the mind struggles to find the self in Swir’s poems. Swir is flesh-obsessed, as we are. While our culture replaces flesh with silicon, freezes flesh with injections of Botox, worships giant billboards of flesh that looks like it will never die, Swir is obsessed with the body decaying. In “You Sleep” – the speaker is so debilitated by this struggle she cannot answer a simple question from her lover - if she is happy –because she is flooded with images, fear of death and the end of the body and earthly relationships. The question “are you happy” is something we as 21st century Americans feel entitled to ask ourselves everyday. And depending on the answer we will abandon jobs, parents, friends, marriages, kids to strive towards a more perfect happiness.
Towards the end of Talking to My Body we see another slight shift in tone. The poems in which Swir talks to her body become more resolved and even ecstatic at times.
Thank you My Fate
I made love with my dear
As if I made love dying
As if I made love praying,
Over my arms and his arms.
I don’t know whether this is joy or grief,
I don’t understand what I feel, I’m crying,
I’m crying, it’s humility
As if I were dead,
Gratitude, I thank you, my fate,
I am unworthy, how beautiful, my life.
In “Thank you My Fate,” the speaker embraces her fate as she understands it and is in a unique state of euphoria which her body and soul worked in unison to reach.
Similarly in “The Iron Hedgehog,” Swir restores a sense of inner world and although vulnerable, the speaker is connected to something in her poems about family. She returns to her ‘miniworld” against the “maxiworld”.
The Iron Hedgehog
A happy woman,
I am as an embryo in the mother’s womb,
I sleep hidden in you.
Don’t give birth to me yet,
I want to be in you always….
…The world is freezing, I am afraid…
Do not ever give birth to me
I want to sleep in you
Swir’s detached, matter-of-fact way of talking about the flesh and organs, strips out the sexiness and deflates our modern notions of body. It removes us from a perpetual state of denial and “by expressing reality, attempts to master and overcome it.” Swir’s quiet style has a similar effect in her war poems which are discussed in the afterward of Talking to My Body. In “Manhunt,” in very simple strokes, she conveys every citizens’ vulnerability under the Gestapo—
“…the man who stepped up to the door holding a sleepy child on his shoulder did not know that the house was surrounded.” In “Ghetto: Two Living Children” she writes of a shooting of 2 children in the ghetto “ hidden behind a street corner, wrapped in mist, a German soldier at a machine gun…” Again, the power in Swir’s poems comes from her plain approach on matters unspeakable, like decay of flesh and war. Swir said “Let our words be as necessary and useful as once were words of magic. This is an unachievable idea.” Yet Swir herself is able to achieve a certain magic by connecting us to our deepest unarticulated fears about “that which is most important” and concluding in “I Talk to My Body” “splendid possibilities/are open to us.”
 Czeslaw Milosz, “Introduction” from Talking to My Body, page 3-6
 “The Afterward Dialogue between Leonard Nathan and Czeslaw Milosz” from Talking to My Body, page 141-156
 Czeslaw Milosz, “Introduction” from Talking to My Body, page 3-6