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The Speech of Fire : TALKING TO MY BODY. By Anna Swir, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan (Copper Canyon Press: $14, 160 pp.)

September 29, 1996|Christopher Merrill | Christopher Merrill is the author of several books of poetry, most recently "Watch Fire" (White Pine Press)

Anna Swir (Swirszczynska) was born in 1911 in Warsaw. When she died 83 years later in Krakow, she left behind a unique body of work. Hers is a poetry unrivaled in its attention to the ways in which desire shapes our lives. She calls a night of love "a big baroque battle / and two victories," and while she thinks "The poet should be as sensitive as an aching tooth," her own vision is as fierce as life itself. "Talking to My Body," which is an expanded version of "Happy as a Dog's Tail" (1985), the selected poems that introduced Swir to American readers, is indeed a celebration. What she explores and expresses in the most vivid terms is the life of a singular woman--and an emblem of this century.

The daughter of a painter, Swir studied medieval and baroque Polish literature and then survived the Nazi occupation of Warsaw as well as the Warsaw Uprising, serving in the resistance and as a military nurse. Thirty years after the war, she found a language, stripped down to its essentials, for what she witnessed:

\o7 When a Soldier Is Dying

By the stretcher, on the floor

I knelt close to him,

I kissed his tunic,

I was saying you are beautiful,

you can give so much happiness,

you don't know yourself how much happiness,

you will live, my beautiful,

my brave boy.

He smiled and he listened,

his eyelids heavier and heavier,

he did not know that such words

are said to a soldier

only when he is dying.


"War made me another person," Swir said. "Only then did my own life and the life of my contemporaries enter my poems." And they came into her work with gusto. Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz (who, along with Leonard Nathan, translated "Talking to My Body") suggests in his introduction that the central theme of her poetry is "Flesh in love-ecstasy, flesh in pain, flesh in terror, flesh afraid of loneliness, exuberant, running, lazy, flesh of a woman giving birth, resting, snoring, doing her morning calisthenics, feeling the flow of time or reducing time to one instant." In a single page (her work is inevitably short) Swir seems to compress everything she has experienced. And because she believes "every poem has the right to ask for a new poetics" her work dazzles in its variety, its wit, and its range of affections.

Thus in one poem a woman talks to her thigh: "It is only thanks to your good looks," she confides, "I can take part / in the rites of love." In another, virginity offers "the pleasure of longing--very precious." In yet another, the poet renounces her physical inheritance, in the form of her grandfather's fingernail, in order to "give birth to a new time," a time measured by love and longing, decay and death, all redeemed by poetry.

Her parents, too, are resurrected in these pages--the day and night they knelt and prayed by her bed, "saving" her from a fever; how her mother stood in line for hours, waiting in freezing weather for bread or 20 pounds of coal with which to heat their flat, the way her father, having lost 40 years worth of paintings when a bomb fell on his workshop, "started over--from the beginning." The poet's glowing memory of them is tempered by her determination not to ignore their foibles--after all, she does not forget that when her family had to sneak out of an apartment owing six months rent, she carried a pot and a teakettle. And that helps to explain the power of these portraits.

The last lines of a poem written on her deathbed give a sense of Swir's unflinching regard:

I trod a thousand paths in the sun and in the snow,

I danced with my boyfriend under the stars.

I saw love

in many human eyes,

I was eating with delight

my slice of happiness.

Now I am lying in the surgery clinic in Krakow.

It stands by me,


they will carve me.

Through the window the trees of May, beautiful like life,

and in me, humility, fear, and peace.


"Talking to My Body" concludes with an illuminating dialogue, between the translators, about Swir's achievement and place in contemporary Polish poetry. It is not clear why poems from "Building the Barricades," her 1974 book about her experiences in World War II, appear only in the dialogue; a more representative sampling of her work might include a generous selection from the book in which she learned, for example, that "it's sinful to eavesdrop / on the speech of fire." And though she may claim to "run away from that speech/ which resounded on the earth/ earlier than the speech of man," and which reappeared during the shelling of Warsaw, it will be obvious to readers of "Talking to My Body" that Anna Swir's own speech, her poetry, descends from that fire.

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