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Pope's Book of Poetry Looks Like a Bestseller in His Native Poland

John Paul II's verse uses nature for imagery and touches on death and his succession.

March 07, 2003|Ela Kasprzycka and David Holley | Times Staff Writers

WARSAW — Pope John Paul II proved Thursday that here in his predominantly Roman Catholic homeland, he is not just the supreme moral voice but also a cultural superstar: a sensationally successful poet.

In a country where a literary work that sells 50,000 copies is a bestseller, "Roman Triptych," John Paul's first book of poetry since he became pope, went on sale Thursday with an initial printing of 300,000. More than 90% of them have already been ordered by outlets ranging from bookstores to sidewalk kiosks.

"The pope is very close to his native country, the ties are very strong, and what he has written will be read by many here," said Agata Urbanik, 20, a university student. "In Poland, to many people the pope is more important than religion. People often look at him but sometimes don't listen.... Maybe through this poem he wants to show us that he really has something to say."

The book, a long, three-part poem written in Polish, was released simultaneously Thursday in Polish and Italian. Translations in other languages, including English, will be released later.

In the poem's first part, called "The Stream," John Paul, 82, uses images of the mountain streams that he loved to hike along as a younger man, noting that "if you want to find the source, you have to go up, against the current." He seems to use the flowing water as a symbol of transience and of life's journey.

In a moving and somber passage in the second part, "Meditations on the Book of Genesis," the ailing pontiff touches upon death and succession, and indicates that he will not heed those who suggest that he should resign if worsening health keeps him from performing his role. He contemplates Michelangelo's frescoes in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel and paints an image of cardinals gathered there to choose the pope, the way it was in 1978, the year he was chosen after the death of John Paul I. "That's how it will be again, when the need arises after my death," he writes.

"By playing the ace of hearts" with this line, said Marek Skwarnicki, a prominent writer and decades-long friend of John Paul, "the pope cuts off all the speculation as to his resignation."

This section is also "an appeal to the cardinals to allow themselves to be embraced by Michelangelo's vision of God," added Skwarnicki, who wrote an epilogue for the book. "The pope speaks to the church hierarchy. He tells them: This is not a career, not fighting for power and influence. This is the Holy Spirit's work."

The poem's third segment ponders the story of Abraham, the biblical figure honored by Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Part of it is set in Ur, Abraham's traditional birthplace in modern-day Iraq, but it makes no reference to the current crisis.

The pontiff also speaks of similarities in the beginning and end of life: "And so the generations pass -- naked they come into the world and naked they return to the earth from which they were formed And yet I do not altogether die, what is indestructible in me remains!"

At the Vatican, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a close papal advisor, described the poem's "true vision" as an "immense arc" that reveals itself in its description of Abraham ascending a mountain "towards the source which is also the final destination."

John Paul composed the poem after an emotional visit to his homeland in August, writing in longhand in the quiet of his lakeside summer residence south of Rome.

The Polish edition includes drawings by Michelangelo and two pages of text in the pope's handwriting. Each book is sold with a CD recording of a popular actor, Krzysztof Globisz, reading the poem.

Marek Wos, 59, a lawyer who bought the burgundy-covered 40-page volume Thursday at one of Warsaw's glittering new shopping malls, said that "even if this book is not top poetry, it still contains words of a man who has something very important to convey to us."

"The pope knows his nation. I think he wanted to be a Pole above all," Wos said. "Today in Poland nobody publishes 300,000 copies, especially of poetry. If someone sells 10,000 copies, everyone is very happy. And in this case I think the 300,000 will be sold very quickly because it is the pope who wrote it, and also because, let's not hide it, he is reaching the end of his life."

Long before becoming pope, the young Karol Wojtyla studied literature at Jagiellonian University in Krakow. He later published poems, plays and essays during his decades as a priest, bishop and cardinal in that southern Polish city.

"It is the Polish priests and marketing specialists who said that the pope wants this book to find its way into every home," Skwarnicki said. "The pope does not think of such things. The pope thinks how to avert war with Iraq."

Yet "poetry is something very important to the pope," Skwarnicki added. "The pope will be very happy that people are buying his book. He is a Polish poet. But the pope wrote it for the church and for the world. There are no Polish elements in it.... It is addressed to everyone."

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Kasprzycka reported from Warsaw and Holley from Moscow. Maria De Cristofaro of The Times' Rome Bureau contributed to this report.

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