Anna Swir (Świrszczyńska) was born in Warsaw, Poland, to an artistic though impoverished family. She worked from an early age, supporting herself while she attended university to study medieval Polish literature. In the 1930s she worked for a teachers’ association, served as an editor, and began publishing poetry. Swir joined the Resistance during World War II and worked as a military nurse during the Warsaw Uprising; at one point she came within an hour of being executed before she was spared. In addition to poetry, Swir wrote plays and stories for children and directed a children’s theater. She lived in Krakow from 1945 until her death from cancer in 1984.
Her poems have been collected in English translation in Building the Barricade (1974), Happy as a Dog’s Tail (1985), fat like the sun (1986), and Talking to My Body (1996), translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan.
Swir’s poems about war and death use direct, simple language. In Building the Barricade she includes a section called “Poems about My Father and My Mother,” which affectionately describes scenes of her parents. Swir also wrote candidly and passionately about the female body; in his introduction to Talking to My Body, Milosz identified her central theme as “Flesh. Flesh in 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.” Eva Hoffman, reviewing Happy as a Dog’s Tail for the New York Times, commented on Swir’s adept depictions of erotic love: “The quick, decisive strokes in which she registers moments of meeting, coupling or parting are almost abstract in their lack of surface detail, but they give us glimpses of a turbulent, even ferocious internal life.”
Swir’s awards include the Krzyz Kawalerski Oderu Odrodzenia Polski (1957), Krzyz Oficersk Orderu Odrodzenia Polski (1975), Nagroda miasta Krakowa (1976), and Medal Komisji Edukacji Narodowej.
Anna Swir (1909-1984) is a Polish poet sadly little known in America, despite the efforts of her great admirer and associate, the Nobel-winning Czesław Miłosz, on her behalf. This out-of-print selection of her love poems was translated by Miłosz with the help of Leonard Nathan and published the year after her death. They teamed up again for an expanded collection called Talking to My Body (1996). The latter is somewhat easier to find and contains much of the same material, so unless you find Happy as a Dog’s Tail in a used bookshop, like I did, you’d probably be better off choosing that one.
Happy as a Dog’s Tail is relentlessly monochromatic in selection. In the first half of her career, Swir did a series of war poems based on her experience in the Warsaw resistance and as a military nurse. Later in life she turned her attention solely to love poems – though they could more accurately be called hate poems – and those are what Miłosz and Nathan chose for the exclusive subject of this collection. At first glance it looks like a mistake but rereading reveals a method to the myopia.
Swir in translation is forthright and easy to handle but hardly “confessional.” She is invested in a woman’s point of view but her voice is full of irony and detachment. Comparisons could be drawn between her work and Anne Sexton’s in Love Poems and Transformations – both women speak in a tone arch, energetic, mocking and cold. Unlike Sexton, Swir keeps this coldness pressed sharply close to the point at all times. And though their stylistic approaches are very different, there is also an unexpected similarity between Swir’s poetry and Djuna Barnes’ novel Nightwood.
Make no mistake: despite the title, Happy as a Dog’s Tail is a frightening and astonishing book. Swir’s vision is dark, frigid and ascetic. To flip through the pages of this slim volume is to grow apprehensive, recognising the nihilistic cliff her poems teeter upon. They’re the easiest things in the world to read, but much harder to absorb. One of the shortest of them all is ‘I Cannot.’
I envy you. Every moment
You can leave me.
Her obsession is with alienation. Flesh and spirit are in an unrequested marriage, forcibly bound even as the body degrades (nowhere better summed up than in the poem ‘Large Intestine’). The struggle for spiritual supremacy is painted through the abandonment of lovers and the stern, bitter triumph of isolation. It is her especial focus in the middle portion of the book, taken up with the three ‘Love’ cycles (Felicia’s, Antonia’s and Stephanie’s). These women depart relationships to achieve liberation and each cycle concludes with them living alone, their pain unshared; they choose to return to a virginal solitude that for all of its sorrow and loneliness is theirs alone. Longing / … / fashions the soul / as work / fashions the belly. God is not an image in Swir’s work, and yet her poems carry the weight of Monasticism, of isolating and offering oneself up to the scourge, to be cauterised and purified.
There is a sacrificial ecstasy manifesting itself in the lines of many poems: ‘I Starve My Belly for a Sublime Purpose,’ ‘Fireproof Smile,’ ‘Song of Plenitude,’ ‘Intensity of Atmosphere’ – too many to quote from. Happy as a Dog’s Tail takes a Medievalist quandary and writes it into the secular, sexually liberated landscape of the modern world. In ‘Iron Currycomb’ she writes:
Oh, I toil hard,
with an iron currycomb
I scrub my body to the bone,
the bone to the marrow.
I want to be cleaner than the bone.
I want to be clean
Physicality and eroticism are ever-present in this book. Swir does not shy from the topic but she often treats it as more trouble than it’s worth. Sexual acts are maligned, dark things; primal practicalities; sardonically accepted gifts; a beautiful song of the night / a song of combat. In older times, the goddess of fertility was often also the goddess of war and Swir unabashedly revels in these mythical traits of womanhood. She gives no sympathy to men, only a terse and mocking laughter. Stephanie claims I walk obediently / in the dog collar of your adoration only a few poems away from breaking things off with her lover. True tenderness is saved only for old women, as in the poems ‘The Same Inside’ and ‘The Greatest Love.’
Swir’s poems are ferocious and uncompromising; her vision potently, almost murderously, feminine. She more than repays a weekend spent pouring over her writings. But her obscurity in this country is terrible, so American feminism didn’t do her much good. Rather, lovers of poetry both male and female should seek her out as too unique to be missed. See if you can find this or Talking to My Body and help propel Anna Swir to the resuscitation she deserves.
Anna Swir (1909-1984) was a Polish poet whose verse, arid and ominous yet full of life, is too little known today. Thankfully, in 2011 Calypso Editions made a selection of her war poems available in a new translation by Piotr Florczyk with a foreward by Jericho Brown. This decision can only be applauded (though I still hope to see the Complete Poems one day).
Swir worked as a military nurse during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 and her first-hand experience led to the sequence of poems Building the Barricade, first published in Poland in 1974. While her later love poems are psychological labyrinths with a strongly feminist outlook, Building the Barricade recounts incidents, reviving the small and forgotten characters of war: civilians, volunteers, looters, infants, nurses; all the people that history remembers on the sidelines even while being in the middle of it all. The sole poem to make mention of the higher military is not actually about them at all but the girls who deliver their orders:
‘Said the Major’
“This order must be delivered within an hour,”
said the Major.
“That’s not possible, it’s an inferno out there,”
said the second lieutenant.
Five messenger girls went out,
one made it.
The order was delivered within an hour.
The poems are arranged as an evolving narrative; this if anything heightens the intensity of Building the Barricade – from the immediacy of ‘Beauty Dies’ and ‘Conversation Through a Door’ it leads us to the uprising’s end and then come Madrigals, ‘Waiting Thirty Years’ and ‘Poetry Reading’ as the war becomes internalized and life somehow continues. More than that, when you read the Madrigals (“That first night of love…” the first after the War?) they perfectly match the tone of her love poems (collected in Happy as a Dog’s Tail and Talking to My Body). Piotr Florczyk preserves the voice from the earlier Czesław Miłosz/Leonard Nathan translations, which is the highest praise I can give any translator.
It was only a moment of life,
though it wanted to be a conclusion.
it wanted to understand the mystery of the world.
That night of love
Above all else, Building the Barricade is a survivor’s narrative, exhausting and stark. The more I read it, the more it drained me. The titular poem shows Swir surviving as others die at random, a motley assortment, smuggler girl, dressmaker, tram driver / all of us cowards. The chaos and unpredictability of the uprising is a common theme. ‘He Got Lucky’ refers to a professor who escaped with only a beating while ‘The Child Lives One More Hour’ deals with infant starvation with brutal calmness. Looters perish by the very chaos that enables them to steal and museums burn.
What a sin to spy
on naked flames,
what a sin to eavesdrop
on breathing fire. I flee this speech
on earth before the speech of man.
‘Talking with Corpses’ eventually finds her apologizing for being alive but the dead have no envy of the living and forgive her: Life / after all was so dangerous back then. I would not hesitate to call this necessary poetry. Truthful, vivid memories of the rubble of World War Two.
“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.”
Wiersze i proza (Poems and Prose) (1936) Liryki zebrane (Collected Poems) (1958) Czarne słowa (Black Words) (1967) Wiatr (Wind) (1970) Jestem baba (I am a Woman) (1972) Poezje wybrane (Selected Poems) (1973) Budowałam barykadę (Building the Barricade) (1974) Szczęśliwa jak psi ogon (Happy as a Dog's Tail) (1978) Cierpienie i radość (Suffering and Joy) (1985)
COLLECTIONS IN ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS
Thirty-four Poems on the Warsaw Uprising (1977), New York. Transl.: Magnus Jan Kryński, Robert A. Maguire. Building the Barricade (1979), Kraków. Transl.: Magnus Jan Kryński, Robert A. Maguire. Happy as a Dog's Tail (1985), San Diego. Transl.: Czesław Miłosz & Leonard Nathan. Fat Like the Sun (1986), London. Transl.: M. Marshment, G. Baran. Talking to My Body (Copper Canyon Press, 1996) Transl.: Czesław Miłosz & Leonard Nathan. Building the Barricade and Other Poems of Anna Swir Tr. by Piotr Florczyk (Calypso Editions, 2011).