Selected Poems of Anna Piwkowska
Iza Wojciechowska is the recipient of a 2013 PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant and a NYSCA grant for her translation of Anna Piwkowska’s The Dye Girl. Read her introduction to Piwkowska’s work and her translation here.
They called her old, mean, sick,
half-adrift, counting on nothing.
But what is it to love a hero these days?
Maybe fools and tyrants are better.
Phaedra shaves her lovely head before the mirror,
woman, mother, pauper, beggar.
Her profile grows hard like marble
and tears set on her cheeks. Any hired mourner
feels more than she does, they whispered in the corners.
No one tends to the garden, no one cleans the palace,
and she no longer changes her dresses, her slips.
Theseus returns, Hippolitus bows his head,
a swallow lies dead on the stones.
In rainy France, Phaedra is reading a novel.
Make your way back through hexameters, hang yourself
or open your veins, she whispers to someone inside her.
She looks beyond the ring of light. In the gray shadows:
her own face, thinner, back from the dead.
Old, stained brown, but no, not mad,
she talks to herself, and walks, slightly hunched,
through vast stores of samples, tubes, and testers,
lipstick dreams she places in her cart,
she mixes powders, dips her face in clay.
But her profile still looks chiseled, her name
is burned into her shoulder, bruises mark her breasts,
and on the cool stones before the subway entrance
rests her pallet, her romantic trash, her bed,
her weaving unraveled, her centuries-old thread
of a story.
Ismene, sister of mine
I came from the North by train,
the city familiar as the back of my hand,
everyone in the family dead. We’d waited
in vain for so many resurrections
we lost faith in returns from the underworld.
I emerged from the subway to a bright street,
trees gleamed in early green,
and hyacinths hidden all winter
peeked shyly from the ground,
purple, pink, and wet.
Our house existed, tall as a ship.
Bells were ringing, people hurried,
and on your kitchen table lay
round, smooth, lilac
eggs. Children were saying: Easter.
Where did I come from, return from, where am I from?
Back from a trip again, in a coat again, you
in a colored dress, in the kitchen as always
say to me: The Savior is risen.
You’re right again, little Ismene,
You believed in mundanities and miracles,
in the glint of dishes and the smell of starch,
while I believed in train stations and the rush of airports
when I renounced you, my own.
What am I seeking, centuries later, here
in your house? The thread from the spool, pull it,
help me, because that thread is the seam of your dress.
Nieborów, Holy Week 2007
Caught in the dark shade of olive trees,
they stand packed into a herd: gaunt, dense, still,
and above them the fruit is sticky-green,
and above the fruit are oily clouds.
We, too, wait for evening in the shadow of the mountain,
when the heat will lift, cicadas’ shrieks will lull,
and clouds will roll into the valley. The acacia is fragrant
and blooms as if death did not exist, and we,
increasingly restless and increasingly mortal, watch
as the sea grows mossy and woolen,
as blue powder settles on the mountain,
and the poppy seeds of evening are braided sweetly into strudel.
The moon soaks its silver bathrobe in the salty sea,
and waves scatter feathers, torn apart at the seams.
That’s when the goats leave. And they enter our sleep.
And they graze and they chew our hay-like dreams.
Crete, July 2006
They’ll bury us, bury, scatter to dust
But today or tomorrow or in ten years
they’ll bury her and nothing will be left of her,
nor of that saucy one in the red skirt. (…)
And above all, not only they, but I, too,
will be buried and nothing will be left.
—Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
They’ll bury us, bury, scatter to dust,
and you, little girl with the blue jump rope,
and the boy who likes to look at the portrait
of another boy in the vast gallery
when the September sun softens and dissolves
contours and stains, defining shadows.
What do we want, what do we all want
when we laugh, when we harmonize in high whispers
and low voices, slightly hoarse
as if to mute the joy just in case,
and we mete out the days but the nights,
embraced or alone, drive our tears in salty squadrons,
a soaked cavalcade of horses.
Children yell immortally like animals,
shredding divine throats, those silken larynxes,
to be, in just a moment, certain of one thing:
they will also bury their children’s children.
And fragile is our faith or there is no faith,
and weak is our love, no, there is no love,
there is fear and peril in the silence of miraculous noon,
like then, when sheltered in the Altamira grottos
they stubbornly painted stony recesses
with red bison that looked blue in the light,
fleeing through steppes and fatally wounded,
because they felt already that they’ll bury them too,
their bones and skin, and just to bring along
a small, clay bowl
or the head of a woman carved from stone
and a bear figurine, a bone statuette,
birds with round holes to wear round the neck,
to hang on a string for the complacent dead,
because they are not lonely
with a bird on the neck, with a bear figurine.
And only here can we bring our peril
and only here can we hide our love
and shelter fragile faith within objects and colors,
in Liguria and Toirano where there are footprints
and symbols drawn with warm fingers,
and scratches from fragile, broken nails
trying to etch the outline of a bear.
Only there, where there are graves and burial mounds
and menhir lanes and mundane stones
and blocks of ochre good for dyeing
bodies or walls in abysmal, colossal caverns,
only there where a person is alone with his fear
where a captive of his own terror leaves marks in the clay,
so we continue to dot sheets of paper
to fill the void with paintings or poems.
Only there does a person encounter his god.
This was in Odessa
Dogs lay on sidewalks
escaping the heat. The wind blew sand
in our eyes. Pupils burned. Garbage whirled.
Fruit piled up on street corners,
melon juice staining our skin
and clothes. White starched skirts
were ready for the wash again by nightfall.
Wind blew in from the steppes.
Cats sought out basements or gaps in the gates,
and a saxophonist played a single song.
Someone had crocodiles, lizards, snakes for sale:
czetyrie hrywny—four crowns—
he yelled from the crowd.
The tired city, steeped in dust,
had abandoned all its reason.
It smelled of dirt and rancid oil.
The sidewalk melted in the heat.
And our fingers met
though I hadn’t spoken in weeks.
Night ground itself into dawn,
the day sprinkled us with pepper, burning
our eyes, and existence wrestled
with nonexistence for a moment until the day
proved victorious and the hills bloomed.
The levers of earth’s axis creaked,
the morning put out the blaze for a moment,
and an unknown ebb within us
moved pearls and jellyfish into the depths,
into the sea.
Odessa, August 2002
A rusty rose bush, the frosted scent
of pale pink petals, the first notes of fall.
In the old woodshed a bicycle, wet coats in the hall
and dogs like in paintings of Old Masters. Apples
on the casement windows, rats settling in basements,
leaves reddening in vineyards left neglected.
Everything is frozen, dead, and disinclined
to transform flowers into fruit, to ripen in time
to preserve the world’s order. Chaos spreads
through scarlet leaves, through tangled roots
of maple trees and oleanders, frozen boxwoods
and the wilted leaves of dry, brown carpets.
Diana rushes to the hunt, a deer runs into the line
of fire, panting and afraid, and we too move out
for hunting. It is autumn, the grape-gathering time.
We remove our clothes, disguises, smiles,
and staring straight before us, pared of skin,
unabashed by utter bareness and inherent sins,
we hunt for kisses eating thick, red clay
in order to make it by winter
when we will be like moles, blind, mute,
autumn’s barbarians dipped into the earth.
Nieborów, November 2007
The Tower of Babel
I can be empty like a beehive and full like a beehive.
Golden bees dance inside my stomach
drunk on nectar and sun
when all of my-not-my daughters
come out to meet me.
At 4:20 in the morning they emerge from the trains
with wet hair and an unfulfilled glint
in their emerald, black, and blue eyes.
My daughters dream of immortal fame,
and everything still is possible.
No one can deprive them of illusions
when they run like this, Giantesses with evil hearts,
Didos, Valkyries, Sakuntalas.
It’s possible to be a bad woman and a good person, isn’t it?
perversely said the youngest one
while we tried on more coats
and she chose attentively and with reflection:
long, black, with a hood, resembling a habit,
and a green one, with lining in a military fashion,
and a blue one as well, silk.
In each of these she was a different woman.
Her reflected silhouette multiplied
in time to the dancing, rotating mirrors.
She gleamed and armed herself as if for war, for great silence, for a ball.
And though she will lose her ring many more times when she swims,
some fisherman will always find it
in the dark and wet stomach of a freshly caught fish.
It is she who will swaddle a son, and the king will regain his memory,
though now she thinks she will bear only brave daughters.
Because my daughters want to have daughters:
Didos, Valkyries, Sakuntalas.
They want to bear children, write books, own a house
by the sea, heal, cure, save.
They want to make sense if only of a bowl of rice
and to watch waves crash against the shore,
wash grains of sand down to the bone, to the core
of existence till only amber beads remain
or pearls that shine victorious on their young necks.
Because they came from the sea, the depths, the deep, the warmth and the dark.
Their true life is eternity:
this moment when they thread the silver needle,
say goodbye for good, bake gingerbread, kiss,
paint eggs a lovely shade of scarlet,
buy dresses, stockings, and books.
Go out on the balcony, said the middle one
when the rain fell in the fresh, soft garden.
The storm was breaking the pink chestnuts’ branches,
and the thunder reached far into the earth.
Behind us, in the library, a concert.
But she no longer heard the flutes, horns, strings.
She saw armed girls riding through the garden
on horseback or in chariots drawn by wolves
trampling deep blue pansies rimmed in gold.
But the garden was still beautiful, full of fallen heroes
escorted directly to Valhalla.
I watched the middle one steer a boat through the bloody downpour.
It’s possible to be a bad woman and a good mother, isn’t it?
she asked perversely, laying a hand on her warm stomach.
On a day like this I am full like a beehive and the men who are always there
are not near me now. They’ve gone away to war
or they’re celebrating their return from a victorious voyage.
They dance around the fire they kindled
from dry wood and crystallized coal.
They dance with medallions on their hearts
where they keep pictures of women.
They love these Didos, Valkyries, Sakuntalas
just as they love the men:
heroes returning home.
My daughters-not-daughters know all this,
but they must depart for a moment.
They want to go through the forest alone,
to move the fire, the secret, the word.
It’s possible to be a bad woman and a good ruler, isn’t it?
perversely asked the oldest one
when I took her to the station.
She had a backpack and a bicycle: an old bike from Amsterdam
on which she intended to traverse the world.
She was a nomad, a traveler, a gypsy
unable, anywhere, to set down roots.
But I knew that it was she, the oldest,
who would deceive, slice the hide of a sacrificial animal,
found a capital, rule a city
and never let herself be banished.
On a day when I am empty like a beehive, my great-grandmother is afraid.
She is dying in a hospital in Milanówek and forgets her mother tongue.
Or the opposite: she remembers the language of sweet meadows,
dark woods and secret deities.
The language of birds and wild animals,
the roaring Žeimena warm from the sweltering heat,
and dry, chattering boughs
thrown into the fire on winter evenings.
When my father sprints up the stairs, the nurses whisper:
she speaks in some strange language impossible to understand.
But she is three days away from death
and utters careful, weighty words now only in Lithuanian.
Perhaps she is praying, or perhaps she is remembering.
In any case she is preparing to cross.
My grandmother understands her and my mother understands her too.
But in me there are no words I could use to reassure her.
I know just one, taken from childhood: apelsina.
A round, orange citrus, succulent and fragrant.
But that is not enough and my great-grandmother is leaving me without a goodbye.
The beehive is empty. The bond is severed.
But when my three daughters come to me
I believe that none of us will ever speak again
in some strange language impossible to understand.
I believe we will fathom the secret of the Tower of Babel, we will learn the languages.
I speak to them through the memory of my grandmother and great-grandmother: apelsina.
And I take out the fruit: a round, orange citrus.
Not an apple, not a rib, not a tree, only that strange childhood word.
Apelsina round and life-giving as the sun.
Vilnius – Warsaw, 2007