"“I can’t die, madam,
my sister won’t manage without me.
She’s a hunchback, lying by that door.”
from the wounds of her sister,
the death of her hunchback sister"-
In February of this year, I was privileged to read and post on the very first book of a new publishing house, Calypso Editions, a brand new wonderful translation of Leo Tolstoy's "How Much Land Does a Man Need".
"Building the Barricade and Other Poems" is a collection of translations of poems written by Anna Swir (Anna Swirszczynska-1909 to 1984-Poland) concerning her experiences during WWII in Warsaw. She served as nurse in Resistance medical facilities. (There is an excellent article about life in Poland during WWII HERE. For readers of my blog in Manila where I am located, the destruction of Warsaw was even worse that of Manila.)
These poems are powerful, not because they condemn the actions of the Germans (anyone would do that) but because they make us feel what Swir felt. Swir's formal education was in Slavic Medieval Studies.
One of the saddest paradoxes one will find shown to us in literature from Homer to Elizabeth Bowen's WWII Short Stories is that living in a war makes people feel more alive. Bowen said her senses never really were so alive as during the Blitz of London. She worked as fire warden and patrolled the streets to be sure everyone's lights were out.
The poems of Swir are about what she felt and experienced during the worst of WWII. It is very telling that it took thirty years for her to be able to begin writing poems about her experiences during the war. Perhaps she could write a poem in thirty minutes after thinking about it for thirty years.
Localized literature is interesting mainly to those who know the locality. Real literature transcends locality. In The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story by Frank O'Connor says when ever he would teach a class in creative writing, he would tell the students a story W. B. Yeats had told him. He said Yeats told him when you first get an idea for a story, set it in 10th century Byzantium, then rewrite it set in Florence in the 14th century, and if it makes sense in those contexts rewrite it as a current day story. The Poems of Swir pass these tests of universality.
Her poem "I Carried a Bed Pan" belongs next to Walt Whitman's poems about his experiences as an orderly in the military hospitals of the American Civil War.
"I worked as an orderly at the hospital
without medicine and water.
I carried bedpans
filled with pus, blood and feces.
I loved pus, blood and feces—
they were alive like life,
and there was less and less
When the world was dying,
I was only two hands, handing
the wounded a bedpan."
I really do not know what I can say about this but I do not think I will forget it. It might make even mighty Achilles weep. In a way, the assault of the Nazi's on Europe was a war on the reading life, the beauty of 1000 years was destroyed in just a few weeks in Warsaw. I have to share one more poem that powerfully resonated in my mind.
"An old man
leaves the house, carrying books.
A German soldier grabs the books
and throws them in the mud.
The old man picks up the books,
the soldier hits him in the face.
The old man falls,
the soldier kicks him and walks away.
The old man
lies in mud and blood.
Underneath, he feels
Where ever in the world there is war on the reading life the goose step will soon heard.
I loved all the poems. If the work were ten times as long as it is, I would be ten times as happy.
There is a very good introduction to the poems by Jericho Brown, a Professor at the University of San Diego. The poems also appear in Polish next to the English translations, just like in a Loeb classic text. It should be a very good language learning vehicle for those wishing to achieve a poetic fluency.
After reading the second work of Calypso Editions, I have even more now confidence in what I said of them in my review of "How Much Land Does a Man Need".
When I read the mission statement of Calypso Publishing I was reminded somehow of Virginia and Leonard Woolf working at Hogarth Press, producing books notable not only for their content but books that are works of art themselves.
Calypso Editions is an artist-run, cooperative press dedicated to publishing quality literary books of poetry and fiction with a global perspective. We believe that literature is essential to building an international community of readers and writers and that books can serve as a physical artifact of beauty and wonder in a world of digital saturation.
I read the poems in this work three times, some of them five times.
Building the Barricade and Other Poems is a beautiful deeply moving collection that I hope will get the very large readership it deserves.