Building the Barricade and Other Poems by Anna Swir. Translated by Piotr Florczyk. Calypso Editions, 2011. Review by Debrah Lechner. Poetry.
Anna Swir (Świrszczyńska) was born in Warsaw Poland in 1909 and lived and wrote through World War II and through the Nazi occupation of Poland during which she worked as part of the resistance and as a military nurse. Three volumes of her later poetry have been translated into English: Happy as a Dog’s Tail (1985), fat like the sun (1986), and Talking to My Body (1996). Swir is renowned for writing fearlessly about the female body. In this earlier work, which she published in Polish in 1974, she is no less candid concerning the primacy and imperative of living as a mortal, whether male or female, but this poetry is not very far removed from the trauma of war, from a period when Poland was under relentless bombardment. The raw honesty and imagery that emerged in Swir’s poetry through this experience makes it impossible not to respond emotionally.
This all the more the case because Swir’s unsparing poetry is in fact spare: simple, unyielding, unadorned. Every stroke is sure, much like a sumi-e painting.
Here is the poem “Conversation through the Door”:
At five in the morning
I knock on his door.
I say through the door:
in the hospital on Śliska Street,
your son, a soldier, is dying.
He opens the door,
doesn’t unhook the chain.
Behind him his wife
I say: your son asks for his mother
He says: His mother won’t come.
Behind him his wife
I say: the doctor let him
He says: please wait.
He hands me a bottle through the door,
locks the door,
locks with the second key.
Behind the door
his wife begins to scream
as if she were in labor.
This is my first exposure to Anna Swir. I will be reading everything I can find of hers in English.
If you speak Polish, it should be noted that the poems are included in Polish, too. Translator Piotr Florczyk is to be congratulated for bringing this volume to English readers.
The poetry of Building the Barricade and Other Poems conveys how life is to be cherished so purely that, after reading, it is a book you could hold while praying. Or if you’re not the type to pray, just hold it and hope.
I teach writing to community college students. Nearing the end of the term, they get to choose which poet in our anthology they want to present on and to discuss. Anna Swir is always a huge hit.
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