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Day 22 of the 2020 countdown finds us on a small pond in a nature center, contemplating contemplation. One of the biggest gifts this year brought us is time and space for contemplation.

 

poem is taped to dock

 

Priceless Gifts

by Anna Swir

translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan

 

An empty day without events.

And that is why

it grew immense

as space. And suddenly

happiness of being

entered me.

 

I heard

in my heartbeat

the birth of time

and each instant of life

one after the other

came rushing in

like priceless gifts.

 

 

If someone designed a Rorschach test using poetry instead of inkblots, here would be the first question:

 

Does the phrase an empty day without events fill you with

  1. existential horror
  2. relief
  3. I don’t even understand what that means

 

The pandemic has emptied our schedules. We leave the house on a need-to-go basis. We said goodbye to our usual distractions—shopping, movies, coffee shops, concerts—and embraced a new one, at least in the massive increase in attention we give it. Screen time.

 

But to experience the priceless gifts Anna Swir describes, empty time has to stay empty. I’m lucky to have experienced such soul-opening more than once, most recently this fall on a long walk on a hilly country road. Cool air, sunshine on yellow trees, wide open fields, and suddenly my heart opened, just as Swir describes. It’s almost a physical event. Unfortunately, in the middle of this rapture, the phone in my fleece pocket rang. It was my daughter, crying. She had tested positive for COVID, she didn’t feel well, and she was scared.

 

That pretty much sums up 2020.

 

I love this poem, I love the careful, precise way Swir illuminates a delicate emotional state. If you’ve ever experienced transcendent joy and tried to describe it to someone, you’ll appreciate the craft in this deceptively simple poem. Swir is the master of marrying complex internal events with clean and clear language. (Her poem “The Same Inside” is another example. It moved me near to tears, so deeply did I relate to it.)

 

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Here’s a biography of Swir from a previous post:

 

Anna Swir (Świrszczyńska) was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1909. Her family was poor but artistic. Her father was a painter, her mother a former singer. Swir worked from the time she was young, and paid her way through university where she studied medieval Polish literature.

 

She worked as a waitress during WWII and began writing for underground journals. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, she joined the resistance. I read that she was arrested at one point during the war and told she would be executed in an hour, but I can’t find any details of her reprieve. During the bloody Warsaw Uprising (in which Poles attempted to liberate the city), she worked as a military nurse.

 

Although she began publishing poetry in the thirties, her poems weren’t available in English until the late seventies. In addition to writing poetry, she wrote children’s plays and directed a children’s theater. She lived in Krakow until her death from cancer in 1984.

 

 

 

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poem is underneath the picture of the woman eating an apple

poem is underneath the picture of the woman eating an apple

The Same Inside

by Anna Swir

 

Walking to your place for a love feast

I saw at a street corner

an old beggar woman.

 

I took her hand,

kissed her delicate cheek,

we talked, she was

the same inside as I am,

from the same kind,

I sensed this instantly

as a dog knows by scent

another dog.

 

I gave her money,

I could not part from her.

After all, one needs

someone who is close.

 

And then I no longer knew

why I was walking to your place.

IMG_1402

 

 

Once at a party I met a woman and very quickly something strange happened. We formed a connection so immediate and palpable that I look back on it a year later with wonder.

 

We didn’t have anything in common as far as I could tell. She was a gentle person, ladylike even, very different than me. I’m told I sometimes have an edge. She was well-dressed and perfectly groomed, two phrases that will only apply to me when I’m laid out in my coffin.

 

I’m sure we fielded questions, trying to figure out why we felt this remarkable connection. Sometimes you meet people and your brains connect, or your experiences connect, or your senses of humor, your interests, the way you look at things. This was none of those. We just understood each other. Or as poet Anna Swir puts it

 

she was

the same inside as I am,

from the same kind

 

We stayed together much of the evening. We didn’t talk about anything important or intimate, and yet our bond felt important and intimate. The most tender parts of us recognized each other and responded with sympathy. It sounds romantic but it wasn’t. It wasn’t exactly like friendship either. I liked her very much and felt easy and graceful with her but I didn’t expect to see her much afterwards. I can’t describe it to you. It sounds made up or silly. But I tell you, it was as real as the chair I’m sitting in.

 

I thought about that evening for a long time after, and then I didn’t run into her again and the seasons changed and I forgot about it. This poem made me remember.

 

“The Same Inside” is simple and surreal at the same time. A woman sets out to meet her lover. She meets instead a panhandler. Then she has no need of the lover. She’s had something better:

 

After all, one needs

someone who is close.

 

I don’t want to pick apart this poem in my usual fashion. It’s so exquisite, I feel as though my clumsy fingers would mess it up.

 

Let me just say that I love how Anne Swir (and her excellent translator Czeslaw Milosz) sounds so natural on the page. This poem is at least fifty years old and probably much older, but it feels fresh. I read it over and over, marveling at how she does it. Her words are simple, her style unaffected, her voice full of heart. I’m beginning to think this enchanting combination of effortlessness and soulfulness is a Polish trait–I hear Anna Kamienska and Wislawa Symborska here—this wonderful ability to speak from the heart without sounding overly sentimental. Swir connects with readers in the same way she connects with the beggar woman—with a marked absence of irony and guardedness.

 

I left the poem in a spot where a man in a wheelchair panhandles a few times a week. Delbert McCoy, a burn victim, collects money in an old Pringles can outside Rite Aid, hands out candy, and once in a while sells copies of his book, Still on Fire. Delbert was trapped in a nightclub fire in his youth and has endured dozens of surgeries to survive and repair the damage to his body. He looks nothing like the able-bodied suburbanites who pass by him on the way to the drugstore: his skin is mottled, his face disfigured, and his arms end in stumps instead of hands. Even so, his humanity shines through his wise and kind eyes. His gentle presence is a reminder that, appearances to the contrary, we are all the same inside.

 

ImageAnna Swir (Świrszczyńska)was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1909. Her family was poor but artistic. Her father was a painter, her mother a former singer. Swir worked from the time she was young, and paid her way through university where she studied medieval Polish literature.

 

She worked as a waitress during WWII and began writing for underground journals. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, she joined the resistance. I read that she was arrested at one point during the war and told she would be executed in an hour, but I can’t find any details of her reprieve. During the bloody Warsaw Uprising (in which Poles attempted to liberate the city), she worked as a military nurse.

 

Although she began publishing poetry in the thirties, her poems weren’t available in English until the late seventies. In addition to writing poetry, she wrote children’s plays and directed a children’s theater. She lived in Krakow until her death from cancer in 1984.

 

If anyone has more information about her (there’s not much on the web) or has had a similar bonding experience to mine, please share!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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