Poetry Collection

Poetry Collection by Wioletta Grzegorzewska translated by Marek Kazmierski.

Lovers Angling

 

Drunks spreading themselves along the pier.

A girl impaling a worm on a hook

with the help of swearwords.

A lad toying with a reel—[private]

slowly raising and lowering the bail.

Charcoal aroma set over the dock.

Blue fishing lines pulsating.

It is almost night, and yet I can still see
their lures swaying in the depths.

 

Christina’s World

 

I will not be home tonight,

 

not to where the air grows thick

 

and every object swells

 

in the amber light of the stove.

 

 

I will hide in ergot kernels,

 

dazed by the smell of Pennsylvania herbs,

 

open a world which will not be maimed

 

by the horizon’s edge.

 

An Easter Verse

 

A cold April. Chicks coming to

in a cage under a giant light bulb.

I served them finely chopped feed:

boiled eggs, milfoil, water in a jar lid.

I admired these beings, fragranced with sand

and mucus, hatched in an alien darkness,

not unlike the all-night cuts in electricity.

I still remember the rustling when the bulb died,
spots of colour stiffening, flickers.

 

A Lady Feeding Rats At Wooton Bridge

 

They crept from their dens to the sound of her clogs

creeping along the concrete flooring. Carrying a basket full of feed,

bread chunks and beetroot. After her, across the courtyard,

a black mass would spill, squealing horrendously,

as if someone were running a knife against a pane of glass.

I keep dreaming about this hungry demon, stealing from

its cracks—females with their weathered gums,

gnawing on one another at the sight of these pitiful scraps.

When the farmer woman returned to her outhouse,

the leader of the rat pack would study her

with eyes like lentil seeds.

I knew then he would one day provide his cohort
with a hunk of fresh meat, wrapped in a worn cardigan.

 

In The Time of Seagulls

 

On this island, as if between dreams, I slowly turn,

am twin, fall ill with drawn-out weeks.

Fog along the steep streets, like the flighty Ariel,

floating from the trees, twisting women’s hair.

Time for tide out. Yachts nodding on the sands.

High Street vendors smelling of chips, peas,

lamb with mint sauce. Rum-oiled tourists

squandering all from dusk till dawn.

Hovercraft, like white shellfish, escaping the waters.

Peonies falling into tea cups: lips—petals—lips.

Amusement arcades filling up. Golf courses closing.

Take me away from this paradise, where I feel as tepid
as tea with milk. Take me, before I evaporate.

 

Stargate

 

A white night. Lime crumbling from the old apple tree

blocking the view of the house. Again, we are sleeping outside.

Two muskrats crawl out of the pond. Their wet hides,

like torn tinsel, holding strange fires.

I lie inside a concrete ring as if at the pearly gates,
while you slip into my lips a fruit drop.

 

All About My Father

 

Father, son of the muddy Warta, of Boży Stok,

of Silesian reservoirs and Jurassic quarries,

calamus warrior with a bamboo bow,

conducting guerilla wars with muskrats

brave enough to bite through spatterdock arteries,

love-seat onanist, if memory serves right,

fisherman with a burdock leaf hat, magician,

who miracled fags out of spit, baccy and paper.

In that smoke you excelled in beetle mythologies,

like the Tribolium destructor who lives in nut shells

and, when in danger, destroys its own larvae,

musician, abusing by night your innocent

banjo and my ears with grand improvisations,

playing on leaves before your stunned family

the songs of Elvis Presley and prison ballads,

bee keeper, with your bare hands carrying

young swarms to the orchard hive, feeding them caramel

pigeon fancier, poacher, master of ceremonies,

you picked through acres of gossamer bones,

you snared partridges curled up in the wheat;

denying pheasants their nuptial ointments and air,

guinea fowl trapped in copper skeletons,

you stuffed cleaned marten skins with wadding,

father whom I found, if memory serves right,

on the Wildstein collaborators list, you who schooled

workers in corridors to mark their time cards

like sick, white tongues, oh pylorus which sends
paper to be wasted, always seen at demonstrations,

at parties, at village fêtes, you farming Don Juan,

attendant to all ailments, you saved my life

with canine lard, if memory serves right,

lord of hypochondriacs, killed daily by one

of five hundred pages from the Family Book of Medicine.

Let this light blue kingfisher be damned for all time
for digging his nest deep within your weak heart.[/private]




Madame Mephisto (excerpt)

Excerpt from Madame Mephisto by A.M. Bakalar.

Urban Dictionary on Poland: A nation that is unaware of its own col­lective backwardness, to its utter tragedy. It works efficiently only under occupation and dictatorship. Xenophobic and nationalistic.

You don’t believe me? It gets better. Have you heard of a country where twin brothers rule, one the president, the other the prime minister? No? How about this one: the president dies in a plane crash, for which he was most probably responsible because he forced the pilot to land, kill­ing himself, his wife, and ninety-four other people? Did I hear you right? You say it’s a conspiracy theory? Not so fast.

It is your country we are talking about.

But maybe you are right. It is all fucked up anyway.

[private]I am sorry, perhaps I shouldn’t swear. Not in front of you, at least. And we are going to a funeral in five days. But there is still time before we pay our respects.

You see, there are some things you should know about our country. And our family of course since, well, you and I are going to spend lots of time together. And I am not talking about those many hours before the last rites. Everybody is so busy with grieving and lamenting that they almost forget about you. You could say we have a lifetime ahead with each other.

What? Don’t look at me like that. There is nothing to be afraid of. You will learn to appreciate me. Oh, for Christ’s sake, don’t cry now! I am not a monster. But hold that thought. You see, my mother once said to me: ‘How can you be my daughter?’ A bit harsh, if you ask me, don’t you think?

If I were you I would listen to what I have to say in the coming days because I am doing you a favour. I like to think of it as a rescue operation. Oh no, I did not ask for it. Believe me, taking care of you is the last thing I need in my life. I had no choice. Nobody asked for my opinion.

This family! It’s so much easier to love each other from a distance.

So here we are now, you and I. We will see about the future later.

Anyway, we may as well spend this time we have together getting to know each other, or you getting to know me. Here in this room, in my parents’ house. Did you know that it was built in 1928? Of course not. How would you know? Mind you, it is a very solid construction unlike what they build these days. They moved to this house in the late 1990s from a block of flats we used to live in.

Are you comfortable? Good. I will place a pillow under your head.

Let me make it easier for you and lay down the options. You can listen to what I have to say and make up your own mind about whether you want to leave with me for London after the funeral. Or you can simply ignore it and get on with your life, here in this country I decided to leave a few years ago. But you should know that if you choose to stay I will not be able to help you because the family I left behind don’t exactly wish me well, and are not the kind of people I think you should stay with anyway. But we will get to that later.

Why am I saying this? Oh, because I am—well, how to put it? I guess you could call me a herbal purveyor. My clients call me a guardian angel, a lifesaver. Commonly known as a cannabis dealer if you insist on using the, in my opinion, outdated terminology. But this is not the only reason why my family is reluctant to welcome me back. I am a professional liar. I am two people. I take pleasure in experimenting with people’s emotions, people who trust me, putting their understanding of me in doubt.

Basically, I am the best thing that could have happened to you.

You see, I offer you a once in a lifetime chance to change your destiny. Learn from my mistakes. As I said earlier, I did not ask for it but since we have found ourselves in this situation we may as well use it as a business opportunity. Let’s say I have acquired enough and I am ready to share. And since I hate surprises I think it would only be fair to show you the whole picture.

As I was saying, I left the country a few years ago. It was 2004, and Poland joined the European Union. I felt no patriotic duty to stay. Living in Poland was a structured phase of my life. I had just spent four years working as a translator in a bank, right after I did my university degree in translation studies. It was a cover job.

You need to have a cover job if you don’t want to get caught. This is your first lesson. You should remember that. You see, I did not actually need to leave as I was already making good money, from dealing cannabis, of course, not as a translator. Growing and selling weed made me feel needed, appreciated, rewarded. Simply put, there is no comparison between working in an office and working as a cannabis grower.

After Poland joined the EU we, the young people, had such hopes, hopes for our own country. That things would get better from now on! There’s nothing better than being young and naïve, with no imminent danger of future responsibilities like parenthood, marriage, paying taxes—basically being a good citizen. Some call it contributing to society.

Trust me, it’s all bullshit.

Do you remember what I said about the twin brothers? Well, it was like the movie they starred in when they were 13. What was the title? Ah yes, The Two Who Stole the Moon, about two cruel and lazy boys who one day have an idea to steal the moon, which—in the story—is made of gold, so that they will not have to work any more. You see, those twin brothers later became two cruel politicians who, like the boys in the movie, had a vision of the glory of this country. Yes, you are right, unlike the boys in the movie, the brothers did have jobs—president and prime minister—but their paranoid ultra-nationalism and obsessive reli­giousness has turned our country into a place I can no longer call my home. It is not always about money, so I can’t complain. (Mind you, the UK has one of the largest cannabis mar­kets.)

You see, in a way, the twin brothers made it so much easier for me to make this decision and leave. After Poland became a member of the EU I gave up on my homeland and devised a plan to retreat to London.

There was also the question of my family, or my mother to be precise, who I thought would be the main beneficiary of my absence. Don’t get impatient. We will get to the family. But first things first.

A cover job. Remember?

When I think about the first few years of my life in London, I admit that I was not ready to circulate amongst the Westerners. You must remember the years of communist propaganda did a good job of tem­porarily carving its way into my emotional system. Under the ban­ners of the Polish United Workers’ Party to the victory of socialism! The Polish-Soviet friendship!

Bollocks.

Perhaps I did not smile as much as was expected of me during my first job interview in London, which unsur­prisingly turned out to be a failure. I tried to be friendly and unthreat­ening. But smiling was something I had yet to master. No matter how much I wanted to escape from my birthplace, and find solace in invent­ing my new immigrant identity, I was forced to admit to myself that the essence of my being was formed where I came from. And where you and I come from a smile is a rare phenomenon, perhaps because of the turbulent history of our country, feeding fears and expectations directly to the heart of each Pole. Poles have a talent for lamenting, endlessly dissecting the events of the past.

While I was battling the crowds on Oxford Street, trying to squeeze my way towards the pedestrian crossing, I received a phone call from the little-known agency called Office Beasts that set up my first interview.

‘I’m sorry but you didn’t get the job.’

‘What?’ I said against the roaring noise of a double-decker bus passing in front of me.

‘It’s not that you don’t have the right experience. They really liked you. But they said, and please don’t feel bad about it, they said you’re too beautiful and they would have trouble working with you. We’ll find something else for you.’

‘Why don’t you send me where looks do matter?’ I asked, but it was unnec­essary. Office Beasts never set up another interview and I didn’t know enough about political correctness to question what I had been told.

Of all the insecurities I brought with me—my imperfect command of English with a dominant Polish accent, my unprivileged non-Western edu­cation, and my lack of work experience—my face hardly made it to the list.

My first job interview in Poland had not gone well either, in fairness. With a degree in my hands I knocked on the door of the biggest bank. Ah, those were the days of the Celtic Tiger, and the Irish were investing in the Polish banks before anybody else in Western Europe realised that the countries of the former Soviet bloc would soon become goldmines of opportu­nity. McDonald’s had just opened its doors and we all queued for hours to taste the West. The new owners needed translators and interpreters, and I needed a cover job for my budding cannabis enterprise.

The president of the bank, a Polish man in his early sixties, looked at me with curiosity. Or was it my breasts he was staring at? I do not remember exactly.

‘When are you planning to get married and have children?’ he said.

‘I don’t.’

He laughed. ‘A young and beautiful woman like you will surely find a husband very quickly and we will lose a translator when you get pregnant.’

I came home that day and told my mother that I got a job because my boss liked my face and my breasts. She shrugged. ‘What’s wrong with that? You got the job,’ she said.

I admit my looks helped me in the past, but I did not come to London to face the same judgment.

Lesson number two: don’t underestimate your appearance. Learn about the market and your clients. I did not know it then, but in my line of work I can’t emphasise it enough. BPR—behaviour pattern recogni­tion: never act as if you are carrying illicit substances. Who do you think the police are going to suspect first as a marijuana dealer: a woman wear­ing an impeccable suit who works in a well respected company, preferably in the City or Mayfair, or a black guy with the stink of weed about him? That’s right! You already have the answer. Image! Façade of trust and hon­esty. Your biggest asset is the fact you are an attractive woman. Use it! There is more to it than that, but for now that is all the information I am going to give you.

As I said earlier, I was not ready to work among the Westerners. After the first interview in London I cut my long blonde hair, much to my mother’s displeasure. According to her, it was throwing away the biggest asset that could make a difference among the possible suitors for my hand. Abnor­mal, was the word my mother used to describe me, and in the same breath she praised my twin sister’s sensibility. Alicja served as an example I should aspire to, with an established career as a corporate lawyer, and long hair accentuating her femininity, of course.

Polish women make good housewives; a two-course dinner is always ready on time, the house is scrubbed clean, the children are taken care of, and at night we transform into sexually insatiable goddesses. Making a career is the last of our worries, because it is the family, husband and children who always come first. Simply put, a Polish woman is one of the best deals on the matrimonial market.

Much to my mother’s disappointment, I yearned for a childless and mar­riage-free existence, whether in Poland or in England, and with the list of expectations relentlessly drummed into my head since I was a child at school and at home, I felt I had to escape my conventional predicted future. I was terrified by the prospect of ending up like my mother; a faith­ful and devoted housewife. It was not only how she groomed us at home when we were children: weaving ribbons into our plaited hair, buying colourful fabrics on the black market to sew skirts on the Singer sewing machine, knitting pullovers out of pink wool; my childhood was full of my mother’s commanding voice: ‘Don’t splash soup on your blouse’; ‘Stop laughing so loud’; ‘Sit straight with legs together, you are not in a barn.’

Don’t be surprised. My mother is the product of a strict Catholic upbring­ing. And I can tell you now that if you decide to stay here, she will get her hands on you before you know it.

Unfortunately, it did not end with my mother. At primary school, Alicja and I were taught to bake, knit, and make sandwiches, while the boys built birdhouses, learnt about car engines, and assembled radios. I, too, wanted to build birdhouses. At secondary school, my mother made sure Alicja and I attended classes on religion. Catholic religion—it is not like in the UK where you have a chance to learn about other denominations. Here you will learn only about sweet Jesus.

I say, forget about Jesus. There are so many gods to choose from.[/private]




A Grain of Truth (excerpt)

Excerpt from A Grain of Truth by Zygmunt Miłoszewski translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Chapter 2

Thursday, 16 April 2009

For Jews in the diaspora it is the solemnly observed final day of Passover, for Christians it is the fifth day of the Easter Week and for Poles it is the final day of national mourning following the tragic hotel fire. The Polish Army is celebrating Sapper’s Day, actress Alina Janowska her 86th birthday and the Warsaw stock exchange its 18th. In Włocławek the municipal guard picked up a priest and his altar boy, in their vestments, both roaring drunk and aggressive. They turned out to be laymen who had pinched the outfits from one of their mothers, a seamstress. A British firm has found enormous deposits of gas under Poznań, and according to the British press, the piece of music most often played at funerals is Frank Sinatra singing My Way; also high on the list is Highway to Hell by AC/DC. In the second leg of the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup the winners are Dynamo Kiev, Shakhtar Donetsk, Werder Bremen and Hamburg, who face fratricidal encounters in the semi-finals. Sandomierz is outraged by the relocation of its vegetable market, which must vacate its site to make way for a car park serving the new stadium. Whatever their views on this matter, all the citizens have another cold day. The temperature does not rise above 14 degrees, but at least it is sunny, with no rain.

[private]Prosecutor Teodor Szacki did not like cold weather, stupid cases, incom­petent lawyers or provincial courts. That morning he got a triple dose of all of them. He glanced at the calendar: spring. He looked out of the window: spring. He put on his suit and coat, threw his gown over his shoulder and decided to take an invigorating walk to the courthouse. By the time he reached Sokolnicki Street, where he slipped on the frosted cobblestones, he knew it was a bad idea. Somewhere near the Opatowska Gate his ears went numb, at the water tower he had no feeling in his fingers, and when at last he turned into Kościuszko Street and entered the dirty-green courthouse, he had to spend a few minutes recovering, blowing on his frozen hands. It was like the North Pole in this bloody, windswept dump—damn the place, he thought.

The courthouse was ugly. Its solid bulk may have looked modern when it was built in the 1990s, but now it looked like a gypsy palace converted into a public service building. Its steps, chrome railings, green stone and irregular surfaces didn’t suit the surrounding architecture, or even the build­ing itself; there was something apologetic about its green colour, as if it were trying to hide its own ugliness against the cemetery trees. The court­room consistently followed the style of the rest of the block, and the most eye-catching item in this space, which looked like the conference room at a second-rate corporation, were the green, hospital-style vertical blinds.

Scowling and disgusted, Szacki was still mentally bemoaning his surroundings, when he had put on his gown and sat down in the seat reserved for the prosecution. On the other side he had the defendant and his counsel. Hubert Huby was a nice old fellow of 70. He had thick, still-greying hair, horn-rimmed spectacles and a charming, modest smile. The defence counsel, probably a public service lawyer, was the picture of misery and despair. His gown was not done up, his hair was unwashed, his shoes weren’t polished and his moustache hadn’t been trimmed—he prompted the suspicion that he probably smelled bad. Just like the whole case, thought Szacki with rising irritation, but finishing off all his predecessor’s cases had been a condition for getting the job in Sandomierz.

Finally the judge appeared. She was a young lass who looked as if she’d only just graduated from high school, but at least the trial was underway.

“Prosecutor?” said the judge, giving him a nice smile after completing the formalities; no judge in Warsaw ever smiled, or if he did it was out of malice, when he caught someone in ignorance of the regulations. Teodor Szacki stood up and automatically adjusted his gown.

“Your Honour, the prosecution upholds the arguments proposed in the indictment, the defendant has confessed to all the charges, and there is no doubt about his guilt in the light of his own statements and those of the injured parties. I do not wish to prolong the case, I am filing for acknowledgement that the defendant is guilty, that by means of deceit he repeatedly led other individuals to submit to various sexual acts, which covers all the characteristics of the crime described in article 197 paragraph two of the Penal Code, and I am filing for the court to impose a punishment of six months’ imprisonment which, I stress, is the bottom limit of the punishment stipulated by the legislator.”

Szacki sat down. It was an open-and-shut case, and he just wanted to get it over and done with. He had deliberately demanded the lowest possible sentence and had no wish to discuss it. In his thoughts he was endlessly composing a plan for his interrogation of Budnik, juggling topics and questions, changing their order and trying to envisage scenarios for the conversation, to be ready for every possible version. He already knew Budnik was lying about the final evening he had spent with his wife. But then everyone tells lies—it doesn’t make them into murderers. Perhaps he had a lover, maybe they’d had an argument, maybe they’d had a quiet few days, or maybe he’d been drinking with his mates. Back a bit—he should cross out the lover, because if Sobieraj and Wilczur were telling the truth, he was the most infatuated husband on earth. Back again—he couldn’t cross anything out, in case it was a small-town, thick-as-thieves conspiracy, God knows who, why and for what reason he should be told anything. Wilczur did not inspire trust, and Sobieraj was a friend of the family.

“Prosecutor,” the judge’s strident voice shook him out of his lethargy, and he realized he had only heard every third word of the defence counsel’s speech.

He stood up.

“Yes, Your Honour?”

“Could you take a stance on the position of the defence?”

Bloody hell, he hadn’t the slightest idea what the position of the defence was. In Warsaw, apart from exceptional circumstances, the judge never asked for an opinion, he just got bored listening to both sides, withdrew, passed sentence, job done, next please.

Here in Sandomierz the judge was merciful.

“To change the classification of the crime to article 217, paragraph one?”

The content of the article flashed before Szacki’s eyes. He looked at the defence counsel as if he were a madman.

“I take the position that this has to be a joke. The counsel for the defence should familiarize himself with the basic interpretations and jurisdiction. Article 217 concerns assault and battery, and is properly only applied to minor fights, or when one politician slaps another one in the face. Of course I understand the defence’s intentions—assault and battery is a privately prosecuted indictment, subject to a punishment of one year at most. There is no comparison with sexual abuse, for which the penalty is from six to eight months. But that is the crime your client has committed, sir.”

The defence counsel stood up. He gave the judge an enquiring look, and she nodded.

“I would also like to remind the court that as a result of mediation almost all the injured parties have forgiven my client, which should result in a remission of the sentence.”

Szacki did not wait for permission.

“Once again I say: please read the Code, sir,” he growled. “Firstly, ‘almost’ makes a big difference, and secondly, remission as a result of mediation only applies to crimes subject to up to three years’ imprisonment. The most you can petition for is extraordinary commutation of the sentence, which in any case is ridiculously low, considering your client’s exploits.”

The lawyer smiled and spread his hands in a gesture of surprise. Too many films, too little professional reading, Szacki thought to himself.

“But has anyone been harmed? Did anyone suffer any unpleasantness? Human affairs, involving adults…”

A red curtain fell before Szacki’s eyes. He silently counted to three to calm himself down. He took a deep breath, stood up straight and looked at the judge. She nodded, her curiosity aroused.

“Counsel for the defence, the prosecution is amazed both at your ignorance of the law and of civilized behaviour. I would remind you that for many months the defendant Huby went about houses in Sandomierz county kitted out with a white gown and a medical bag, passing himself off as a doctor. That in itself is a felony. He passed himself off as a specialist in, I quote: ‘palpation mammography’, and suggested prophylactic examination, with the aim of making the women bare their chests and give him access to their charms. Which comes under the definition of rape. And I would also like to remind you that he assured most of his ‘patients’ that their bosoms were in good health, which might not have been true and could have led them to abandon their plans for prophylactic tests, and thus to serious health problems. In any case, that is the main reason why one of the injured parties refused to agree to mediation.”

“But in two of the ladies he felt a lump and prompted them to get treat­ment, which as a consequence saved their lives,” retorted the defence counsel emphatically.

“Then let those ladies fund a reward for him and send parcels. What con­cerns us here is that the defendant committed an illegal act and must bear the consequences, because it is against the law to go about the houses tell­ing lies and fondling women. Just as it is against the law to go about the streets knocking out people’s teeth in the hope that later on at the dentist’s some more serious problems will be discovered and treated.”

He could see that the judge was having to stop herself from snorting with laughter.

“And the case has led to a serious discussion within the province about preventive action and the need for mammograms,” said the relentless defence lawyer.

“But is this a formal motion?” Szacki felt weary.

“These are circumstances that should be taken into consideration.”

“Your Honour?” Szacki looked enquiringly at the amused judge.

“The session is closed. The sentence will be announced on Monday at 10. Mr Prosecutor, would you please come to my office for a moment?”

The judge, whose name, as he discovered from the case list, was Maria Tatarska, had an office as ugly as the rest of the building, equally nas­tily decorated in dirty-green colours, but at least it was spacious. Szacki knocked and was invited to enter just as Judge Tatarska was taking off her gown. An electric kettle was already burbling away on a cabinet.

“Coffee?” she asked, hanging up her court uniform.

As Szacki was on the point of replying yes please, one spoonful, no sugar, lots of milk, Judge Tatarska turned to face him, and he had to concen­trate on making sure no signs of his emotions appeared on his face. And on trying not to swallow his saliva in a theatrical way. Under her gown, Judge Tatarska was a regular sex bomb, with the body of a girl from a cen­trefold, and the amount of cleavage revealed by her purple blouse would have been thought daring in a night club.

“Yes please, one spoonful, no sugar, lots of milk.”

They chatted for a time about the case, while she made them both cof­fee. Small talk, nothing interesting. He imagined she had brought him in here for some purpose. Other than the pleasure of communing with his professional coolness, gaunt figure and ashen face of a guy due to turn forty in a few months’ time, who had spent the winter feeling depressed and neglecting his physical fitness. He knew he looked like a state official. Usually he couldn’t care less, but right now he would have liked to look better. He also would have liked her to get to the point, as he had to leave in the next five minutes.

“I’ve heard a few things about you, about your cases—my colleagues in the capital have told me.” She was looking at him closely. Szacki didn’t answer, but waited for her to continue. What was he supposed to say? That he knew of her by hearsay too? “I won’t say we made any special enquiries when the rumour went round that you were staying on here. You must have realized by now that personnel changes are not an everyday event in the provinces. From your perspective it can’t have been obvious, but in our little world it was a minor sensation.”

He still didn’t know what he was meant to say.

“I also looked in the press, I read about your cases—some of them are first-class crime stories, well known ones. I was intrigued by the murder that happened during Hellinger’s Constellation Therapy.”

Szacki shrugged. Hellinger, devil take it, if not for that case, if not for the affair, if not for the old secret police stories, right now he’d probably be eating boiled eggs in tartare sauce on Solidarność Avenue, and arranging with Weronika for one of them to pick up the child from school. If it weren’t for Hellinger, he’d still have a life now.

“In my time I’ve been very interested in Hellinger. I even went to Kielce for a constellation, but they cancelled it and I didn’t feel like going a second time. You know how it is, a single woman, long evenings, too much thinking. Thinking there might be something wrong with her, maybe she needs therapy. Stupid thoughts.”

Szacki couldn’t believe his own ears. She was trying to pick him up. This sex bomb with legal training was trying to pick him up. He braced himself, the old habit of a married man. He braced himself at the thought of the flirting, the rendezvous, the lying, the text messages sent on the sly, the phone set to silent, and the office hours wasted on meeting up in town.

And he realized the married man’s habit was just that—a habit, second nature, but only that. He was free, he was single, he had a flat with a view of the Vistula. He could make a date with a girl from the provinces and roger her standing up in the kitchen. Simple as that. Without any pangs of conscience, without any scheming, subterfuge, or pussyfooting about innocent friendship.

He had to fly. But he made a date for the evening. Hellinger, of course, that was quite a case, he’d be happy to tell her about it.

Except that he’d have to stand Klara up.[/private]




Saturn (excerpt)

An excerpt from Saturn by Jacek Dehnel translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.

Javier, son of the painter Francisco Goya, can never forgive his father for ruin­ing his mother Pepa’s life. Francisco (known as Paco) sees own his role within the family differently, and when Javier’s wife Gumersinda takes in her cousin Leocadia as a nanny for their son, Marianito, the old painter takes advantage of the young woman’s presence.

Javier:

He seemed to me to be getting weaker—he had been deaf since long ago, but gradually he started to lose his sight too, and to squint as he leaned over a copper plate, closely watching the motion of the etching needle. Doctor Arrieta made it plain to me that it wouldn’t be long now. How wrong he was.

He did more and more griping, in fact it was incessant—even my mother lost patience with him. She would come to see me, in the corner room where I used to sit for whole days on end, neatly attired or slovenly, in an old dressing gown, and launch into her litany of complaints about my idleness, about illness, about life in this house being like life in a convent, but at the same time, from under­neath it all, hints of weariness and hesitancy broke through. She never attacked my father directly, but his outbursts of rage, his unfaithfulness and constant grudges against the entire world were well known to all.

[private]Only once did I hear a real grievance from her; I had come to Calle de Valverde, my father wasn’t there, he had gone on a hunting trip, or maybe he was painting somewhere outside Madrid; she was on her second day of the spring cleaning. Yes, it must have been during the spring cleaning, because only then, once a year, did my father agree to his studio being cleaned, though even so you could hear his angry grunts, curses and shrieks for a couple of days after his return when he couldn’t find some brush or etching needle; in fact, it was always hard to find anything in that mess, but after spring cleaning he had someone to blame it on. We were standing in the corridor, by the door into the studio, watching as the maid swept out the dust from in there, the lumps of paint, strips of rag and white powder, which rose from the floor in small cloudlets.

“All because of this,” muttered my mother, “because of this white powder.” I glanced at her and asked: “What’s that? All what?” And she smoothed a wrin­kle from her sleeve and replied: “Well, everything. The little ones’ burials, the miscarriages. Your frailty. And other things I don’t even want to think about. My brother, your uncle Francisco, knew all about it; he was indeed an artist, but he was interested in chemistry, he brought home books, from France even, and explained it to me, and to your father too, he wrote it down for him on bits of paper, because in those days already…it was after he came back from Cadiz, miraculously cured, but deaf…Except that he never did anything about it. Lead white and cinnabar. The cinnabar was only ever in the equivalent of medicinal quantities, but the white, how much of that white came in, arroba after arroba! You can no longer remember how your father used to work on tapestry designs for the king—those were large canvases, six ells wide by four, by five, various sizes; three lads were hired to stretch them, glue, prime and sand them, prime them again, then sand them again…There was powder everywhere, on the shelves in the parlour, inside the drawers, in the kitchen on saucepans and frying pans hanging on the wall, between the plates standing in the dresser, everywhere, eve­rywhere. It went through the corridors and the rooms, it lay wherever it liked, it got into your eyes, your hair, and up your nose, from dawn to dusk you could smell it. At the time I thought it was just another nuisance of living under the same roof as an artist, and in fact I was used to that—when you have three brothers who are painters, you can put up with a painter husband too. Only later did your uncle tell me it was poison, and that people die of sat­urnismo because of it… He told me to throw away all the copper pots in which the solder had worn through, and to hang a wet cloth in the doorway of the studio, but how would your father ever agree to a wet cloth in the doorway, can you imagine? Anyway, he wasn’t work­ing on the tapestries any more, he’d grown bored of those cheerful little scenes with dances, parasols and taverns, he didn’t need such enormous canvases any more.”

She said this as if she were telling me about a troublesome servant from years ago, or about a piece of furniture that squeaked in spite of repairs, a small inconvenience of daily life. And only at the end did her voice falter, when she said: “The house is a woman’s grave. But does it have to be a grave for almost all her children?”—and she seized me by the hand. Me, the only one who had survived the sanding of the canvases by three hired lads.

Francisco:

I never had a life that was idle or empty—always working like a Trojan for my living, I never had the time for fun and games. I had no illusions: life is like a painful enema. And yet, as I approached 70, I realised that whole years had run through my fingers, while I did everything for others, and never had any time for myself, for my own joys; if I went away on a hunting trip, at once I had to come back to paint the portrait of some countess in need of a good poking; as soon as I had pinned

a wench to the wall, at once I had to get on with the painting, because the house costs money, the chamberlain is being insistent, and even if she doesn’t say anything straight out, Pepa is waiting for six yards of brocade for a new dress. My back is aching, I’m pissing one drop at a time, but dog-eared old Paco takes hold of the cart again and pulls, because he has always done the pulling, ever since he was little, since he was a stripling: one school, another school, portraits, tapestries, colour not like that, composition not like that, the dress hasn’t come out ornate enough, the face isn’t pretty enough, though in real life it’s such an ugly mug that I feel like a grave-robbing thief who has opened a coffin and is staring at a rotting corpse…but never mind, I go on painting, I make alterations, I bow and scrape and hold out my hand for some chink; behind my left ear there’s one leech, behind my right ear there’s another, and there are more of them just waiting to latch on. Never mind, old Paco is cut from decent, well-tanned leather, he isn’t worn out yet. But if you’re going to stop old leather from shrivelling up or crumbling to dust, you have to take care of it, you have to polish it and oil it. And nothing does it as much good as a nice bit of puppy fat.

And that’s just what she was: not overweight, not saggy, but padded with pleasant puppy fat here and there, where a woman should have a sweet little roll of it; she had a bottom like a pear, paps like apples, a cunny like a little plum—she was

a fruit-seller’s basket, not a woman! I could bite, suck, and lick her until the juice was dripping down my chin, until I could taste the sweetness on my palate…sin is sin, but let’s admit it: is it really so hard to detect the Hand of God in all this? What were the chances of a rotten old stump, 60-plus, deaf, lustful perhaps, a womanizer—but let’s not fool ourselves, ugly too, for what could be attractive about this swollen, ample body, the white bristles on this chest, this ever receding brow, these ever more drooping lips?—and so what were the chances of an old fart capturing the affections of a lovely, lovely girl, a very young married woman thrown out of the house by her husband, who went crawling from brothel to brothel, and had entirely squandered her nice, decent dowry, and now had the audacity to reproach her for a moment of forgetfulness? What were the chances that this orphan girl brought up in a convent, this terrified little dove, would change at my touch into a she-cat on heat, that she would straddle me, writhe underneath me, scratch me on the back and beg for more? O you stupid fat jeweller! No whore in all Madrid can give you what you had right under your very nose! What were the chances of her having to seek protection and finding it with us, with Gumersinda and Javier, but also with Pepa, and with me, of us clothing and feeding her, of us taking care of her Guillermino, and her taking care of our Marianito, and everyone being pleased and happy? I ask you, can anything evil possibly result from two people, a desperate, ill-treated girl and a life-worn man who works like an ox, finding happiness together, without doing anyone harm—for what’s the harm in it for her vile husband? That sort of harm would be a noble deed, but is that toad capable of caring about anything apart from his own rotten little shop full of gold rings? Or for my dear, forbearing Pepa, who understands perfectly that after almost forty years it is not healthy tupping, but incest? Who in their right mind—and I’m not talking about sex-starved old clerics with wilted little cocks, for they’ve got everything in a hash already—could see Satan, rather than God at work in this?

And how wonderfully she takes care of my Marianito! When she comes to see us with him—for how much time could anyone spend in that house of mildew and despondency?—the four of us are like a new family, like the first peo­ple after the Flood, populating these ravaged lands again: one babe in her arms, another holding her skirt, I paint, she cooks up goodies for me with her own fair hands, while Pepa sits in her room and doesn’t pester us. Can you imagine a happier old age than having a new start in life?

Javier:

I remember very little, so even that I see blurred, as if through fog: interrupted scenes, isolated conversations. I no longer know what I noticed first: the envy and dislike with which Gumersinda began to speak of her cousin, her peer, with whom she had spent so many pleasant times in childhood, and who until now had apparently taken such splendid care of Marianito? My father’s elation? The fact that suddenly he almost entirely stopped coming to visit us, and if he did, it was only for half an hour, at best an hour, most of which time he spent with Leocadia, and then took her off to Calle de Valverde, saying he had “great need of her there, and she’s sure to be happy to help Pepa”? Or perhaps it was that my mother became even quieter, even greyer, even more invisible, a shadow of herself from years ago, when she was strong, fertile, and stood firmly on the ground? Maybe it was the new confidence with which Leocadia, until now intimidated and afraid of her own shadow, began to voice her opinion, whether asked or not, on any topic at all; maybe it was the first quarrel, when she felt strong support behind her, or maybe the fact that this small, though stocky little figure, crowned with rampant ringlets cascading onto her shoulders, who until now had gener­ally kept to the kitchen and the nursery, began to make more and more frequent appearances in the main rooms, stretching out on sofas and in armchairs, and adopting alluring poses with a little book “exquisitely” positioned in her hand, a finger between the pages, which she did not read; and also that one was more likely to see her dressing up than taking care of the little boy? I don’t know.

But I do know that it was she who killed my mother.

Francisco:

At this age every man should be prepared for what the good Lord has allotted us. That was what Pepa believed. She had chosen herself a place at San Mar­tín’s, and we had written a joint will—she was buried just as she wished, in a tertiary’s habit, without pomp. In any case, who would have thought of pomp in such times—wondering how many candles and what sort of ornaments to have on the catafalque, when Wellington was standing at the gates? According to the testament, we ordered twenty masses for the salvation of her soul, and some other money went on buying back prisoners and charitable deeds in the Holy Land. If anyone had asked me, it was like pouring money down the drain, but so be it, if it mattered to her.[/private]




Mercedes-Benz (excerpt)

Excerpt from Mercedes-Benz by Paweł Huelle translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

One spring morning less than two months later a vast, colourful sphere came into bloom on the green behind the factory…

“Please slow down at once,” said Miss Ciwle, raising an eyebrow, “or we won’t have a chance to chat. So your grandfather’s next car was a Mercedes-Benz?” she asked, just as if our last conversation had only ended yesterday. “Was it really better than the cit­ron?” “To be precise,” I said, slowing down to 60, “not his next, but his next few cars, because at the time Mercedes was the first company to introduce a one-year system, based on the idea that after 12 months you could take back a used car and, for a supplement of 500 zlotys, drive a brand new car out of their garage.” “Their garage?” wondered Miss Ciwle. “That’s what it was called in those days,” I said, not let­ting her interrupt, “because in those days the word “salon” didn’t refer to a hairdresser’s for example, a shoe shop or a laundry, like today; in that era a salon was still exclu­sively for various forms of social intercourse, making music, drinking wine, perhaps a game of bridge. So every year,” I went on, “Grandfather Karol drove out of the Mercedes garage in a brand new car, but it was always exactly the same model, with the same moss-green body colour to boot, and if Grandfather was so very fond of the 170, it must have been because he was the undisputed winner of the fox hunt in it every single year.” [private]“Never,” said Miss Ciwle, signalling that at the Kościuszko roundabout I should turn left into Slowacki Street, “now you’re talking through your hat—fox hunting’s an equestrian sport. How could you chase someone with a tied-on fox’s brush across the fields and open ground on four wheels? It doesn’t make sense, not even if the fox were motorised, and that’s impossible anyway. What a lot of stories you must cook up! Please do it well so I can’t feel it at all, clutch, change gear,” she instructed me, “let’s go up the hill in a lower gear!” As we zig-zagged up the moraine towards the airport a suburban scent of lilac and mown grass floated through the open car window, along with the cool shade of the beech woods, gloomy even in spring.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “but you don’t appreciate the inventiveness of the pre-war engineers. One day some balloon races were held in Mościce for the first time ever, no less than the national heats for the Gordon Bennett Cup, so when the engineers gathered at the club that evening, thrilled by the marvellous, fairytale sight of those spherical shapes in the sky, one of them came up with a revelation, the truly Wagnerian notion of combining their favourite sport of motoring, to which they were entirely devoted, with the sport of ballooning from now on. And in this simple way,” I said, looking deep into Miss Ciwle’s eyes, “the idea for a completely new kind of fox hunt was born, a revolutionary, democratic form of the sport, because after all,” I calmly explained, “just like his colleagues, Grandfather Karol might be invited by Prince Sanguszko to go shooting, for instance, or even to the spring ball at Gumniska, but to be asked to go fox hunting on horseback was not so likely—that was in the realm of the Alma­nach de Gotha; without at least seven batons on your crest, without sashes and maces, portraits too, in short, without high enough birth you were not comme il faut. So straightaway my grandfather and Engineer Krynicki devised the rules and regula­tions of the game, straightaway a collection was organised to cover all the costs of the races, above all to pay for the balloon which was to be the fox. One spring morning less than two months later a vast, colourful sphere came into bloom on the green behind the factory, and at twenty-one minutes past ten local time it flew off into the ether. Steering it from the gondola hanging underneath was Mr Szuber from Sanok, who was an expert in aeronautics as well as being an ensign in an airborne regiment. So just imagine the excitement of the assembled motorists,” I said, looking Miss Ciwle in the eyes again, “when half an hour later they were given the signal to jump into their cars and go their separate ways in search of the wind-driven sphere. But before they cranked up their starters, before the pilots unfolded the maps, first they tried to make visual contact through binoculars, because of course they needed to know in which direction the balloon was gliding, whether to go north after it to Szczucin, or the exact opposite, towards Zbylitowska Hill. So that was more or less the scene,” I went on. “Mr Mierzejewski jumped into his enormous Packard, in which he usually transported eight children, Mr Nartowski slammed the door of his Hanza, Mr Hennel was ready to roll in his beautiful Tatra, Mr Kubiśnski was on the starting line, revving up his two-stroke DKW, and Jerzy Giorgiades, whom everyone took for an Armenian, but who was actually a Greek, was there to chase the balloon-fox in a fabulous Chevrolet, with Mr Jasilkowski in a Buick, whereas Engineer Hobbler drove a two-door BMW, as opposed to Engineer Wojnarski, who raced in a four-door Opel Olympia. Naturally, that wasn’t all—here I should add Mr Zbigniew Krystek in his Opel Kapitän, Mrżaba in his Fiat 504, Mr Mrowec in his Fiat 1100, Mr Krynicki in his Steyr, Mr Zachariewicz in his old Ford, and Mrs Kszyszkowska in her Adler Junior. And as for Mercedes-Benzes,” I said as we drove out onto the plateau where at last I could change gear and accelerate, “there were three in Mościce; Dr Świerczyśnski and Engineer Śledziśnski both drove the same make as my grandfather, but both their models were two-door 170s, while Grandfather was steadfastly loyal to the four-door version. Motorcyclists entered the race as well, on Ariels, BMWs, Zundapps, BSAs, Victorias, Indianas and Harley-Davidsons.”

“Not bad,” said Miss Ciwle, interrupting this litany. “Please turn round at this forest road, because we’re not going to the airport. By the way, it’s practically impossible to interrupt you. So was that Mercedes really the best?” she asked, smiling so sweetly that I almost let go of the steering wheel. “You know, I don’t mean the make, but that particular model—you said yourself how much it constantly needed doing to it every 500 kilometres.” “They were all like that in those days,” I immediately cut in. “It was down to modern technology, not any specific make or model, so the four-door 170 never failed to bring my grandfather good luck in the races, helped, of course, by Grandmother Maria as the pilot. For several evenings in a row before setting off on the balloon hunt, my grandfather would listen to the weather forecast on the radio, and go out onto the roof at night to observe the sky and the clouds, the configuration of the planets too. Then he’d sit over a map in his office, tracing the balloon’s probable trajectory in all possible directions and at every likely wind speed. Finally he’d reckon it all up and jot it down in his notebook in the form of tables and graphs, and that must have been why he always succeeded in winning, he always cap­tured the trophy, because as soon as they’d taken the balloon’s bearings at the very start, Grandmother Maria would glance at the tables and say: ‘In three quarters of an hour it’ll be over Zakliczyn, route number 13, version one, left at the second junction to Zgłobice.’ So Grandfather rushed straight for the goal by the shortest route, and if the direction or speed of the wind changed abruptly he’d stop the car for a moment, and there by the roadside, quick as lightning he’d set up an instrument he’d con­structed himself, a little windmill on an extendible pole; Grandmother would take a precise reading from it and instantly enter the data into the tables, then off they’d go in hot pursuit again, equipped with a navigational variable that with the help of logarithms and integrals infallibly determined the new position of the balloon, and they always succeeded in catching up with the airborne fox before the rest, wherever it had gone. Just imagine what a beautiful scene—” by now we were at the bottom of Słowacki Street, near the Prussian bar­racks—“Grandfather Karol stops the Mercedes on the roadside verge and runs across the meadow, to conform with the regulations by getting as close as possible to the spot beneath the gondola, then he takes out a bugle and plays a hunting call, at the sound of which Ensign Aeronaut Szuber is immediately obliged to cut short his flight by switching off the gas fire that heats the air. By now they can see each other, now they’re waving at each other, and Ensign Szuber is throwing down the anchor line with the fox’s brush attached, my grandfa­ther grabs hold of it, and every single time it’s the happiest moment in his life. Now his wife is running across the meadow towards him, and they hug each other, they kiss, sing and dance. Ensign Szuber takes the regulation bottle of champagne and three crystal glasses from a wooden box, and they drink to their victory, while other cars and motorbikes start coming down the road. It must have been a really fantastic feeling to win that sort of race,” I finished my tale at the roundabout where Grunwaldzka Avenue meets Kościuszko Street, “when you consider that according to their regulations only one competitor and his pilot could triumph—there was no second or third place, just like hunting on horseback, where only one rider tears off the brush and rakes in all the honour, and he’s the rightful, one and only king when everyone drinks his health at the club that evening.” “Was the prize a big one?” asked Miss Ciwle, taking a roll-up from her sil­ver cigarette case and lighting it with the car lighter. “Was it bigger than the reward given to engine driver Hnatiuk for ram­ming the Citroën?” “What on earth do you mean?” I said, moving smoothly into the middle lane. “Mr Hnatiuk didn’t get his reward for destroying anything but for promoting the locomotives made at Chrzanów. As far as I remember he got 1,500 zlotys, a lot for those days, considering a Polish Fiat cost around five thousand then, and a gold Omega on top engraved with a dedication: To a Hero of the Polish State Railways from the Management. So no, the prize for winning the race was purely honorary—it was a bronze badge shaped like a fox, inscribed Mościce Balloon Hunt, with the date; what’s more the winner always stood the first three rounds at the club, so from the empirical side of things, on top of the honour and glamour of winning he had to pay extra.” “Not like nowadays,” sighed Miss Ciwle, “these days people try to make money out of anything at all—it’s reached a point where if they could sell their own shit no one would be put off by the stink.” “Now you’re exaggerating, surely,” I cried. “It’s true dialectical materialism has changed into materialism of the practical kind, but is that a reason to see it all that way?” “You don’t know what I’m talking about,” she said, taking another drag at her roll-up and blowing out a thin stream of acrid smoke. “Have you ever heard of Doctor Elephant?”

Moments later, when I had answered in the negative, in a subdued tone Miss Ciwle began her tale, and I can tell you, my dear Mr Hrabal, shivers went down my spine at the thought that I might have been ill like Jarek, I too could have ended up in the clutches of Doctor Elephant, who was indeed an expert at removing aneurisms from the brain, but was even better at reducing his patients to ruin by demanding bribes, firstly for a hospital bed, then for endless consultations, and finally for the operation itself, which he went through with even when it was a foregone conclusion and he knew perfectly well the patient was bound to die, and even in cases where the operation wasn’t necessary; for Doctor Elephant was a past master at making money disappear and always knew how to squeeze it out of desperate people, who to save their loved ones were willing to sell literally everything and get into debt too. Such was the case of Jarek and his sister: first of all, to get a place at the clinic and pay for the operation they had sold their flat, then it turned out the diagnosis was wrong, there would be no operation, the illness was atypical, requiring further, longterm treatment, so at that point Miss Ciwle had made her way into Doctor Elephant’s consulting room and demanded her money back, at least the cost of the operation, at which Doctor Elephant had coldly declared that he would call the police at once and have her prosecuted, because this was provocation, it was an outrage, how dare she accuse him of fraud right there, in his own consulting room—where, when and who had seen her give him such a large sum of money? “The son of a bitch just threw me out,” said Miss Ciwle with tears in her eyes. “The flat our parents left us has gone to the devil, was immediately discharged from hospital, and in no time at all I had to turn the allotment shed into something habitable for the winter, because otherwise we’d have had to sleep at the station, and it’s pure luck that our parents left us that worker’s allotment too. I can assure you,” she said, stubbing out her cigarette in the ashtray lid, “our case isn’t at all exceptional, and now I’m taking Jarek to various miracleworkers, who even if they can’t cure him at least won’t rob us, because they never take more than for a visit to the dentist, and besides they pay for their own consulting rooms and some sort of taxes, unlike Doctor Elephant whose research, consulting room and equipment we suckers finance out of our own purses.” “It’s outrageous,” I cried. “Can’t someone catch him out?” “How could they?” said Miss Ciwle, wiping her nose on her handkerchief. “Let’s change the subject—did your grandfather’s Mercedes have overhead or side valves?[/private]




Mother Departs (excerpt)

Excerpt from Mother Departs by Tadeusz Różewicz translated by Barbara Bogoczek

polishwoman_ zakwitnij

now

now, as I write these words, my mother’s eyes rest on me. The eyes, mindful and tender, are silently asking, “what’s troubling you, my darling…?” With a smile I reply, “nothing…everything’s fine Mummy, really,” “but tell me,’ Mother says, “what’s the matter?” I turn my head away, look through the window…

Mother’s eyes which can see everything watch the birth watch throughout life and watch after death from the “other world”. Even if they turned her son into a killing machine or a beast a murderer mother’s eyes are looking at him with love…looking.

[private]When a mother turns her eyes away, her child starts to stray, becomes lost

in a world stripped of love and warmth.

Tomorrow’s Mother’s Day. I don’t remember if when I was a child there was

an official day like that…When I was a child every day was Mother’s day. Every morning Mother’s day. And noon and evening and night.

You know Mummy, I can tell it only to you in my old age, and I can tell you now because I’m already older than you…I didn’t dare tell you when you were alive. I’m a Poet. It’s a word that frightened me, I never spoke it to Father…I didn’t know if it was decent to say something like that.

I entered the world of poetry as if into the light and now I’m preparing to exit, into darkness…I trekked across the landscape of poetry and have seen it with the eye of a fish a mole a bird a child a grown man and an old man; why is

it so difficult to utter these words: ‘I’m a poet’, you search for synonyms to help you come out to the world. To Mother. Of course, Mother knows. But to say something like that to my father was unthinkable…So I never did tell Father “Dad…Father…I’m a poet”. I don’t know if my father would even have noticed…he’d be so remote…he’d have said (while he read the paper, ate, dressed, polished his shoes…) “what’s that you’re saying (Tadziu)?” After all it was just silly “what’s that again?” but of course I couldn’t repeat it, let alone louder, “Dad, Father,

I am a poet”…Father might have looked up from his plate, his paper…looking surprised or perhaps not looking but nodding and saying “good…good” or saying nothing at all. I wrote a poem called “Father” (in 1954) “Walking through my heart goes/my old father…” I never knew if Father read that poem, he never said a word…anyway I never read it to Father either…now it’s 1999…and my voice is so quiet that my Parents can’t hear my words “Mum, Dad, I’m a poet”…”I know, Darling” Mother says “I’ve always known.” “Speak up” says Father “I can’t hear a thing”…

a poet’s promises

For years I used to promise my Mum three things: that I’d invite her to Kraków, that I’d show her Zakopane and the mountains, that I’d take her to the seaside. Mum never got to see Kraków. She got to see neither Kraków nor the mountains (with Lake Morskie Oko in the middle) nor the sea. I didn’t keep my promises…It’s been nearly half a century since Mum’s death…(anyway, clocks, calendars, I’m losing interest). Why didn’t I take her to Kraków and show her the Sukiennice, Saint Mary’s Church, Wawel Castle, the Vistula.

Oh yes. Her son lived in Kraków…and the young “promising” poet…a poet who wrote so many poems for his mother and so many poems for all mothers…didn’t bring Mum to Kraków not in 1947 nor 1949…She never insisted, never reproached me.

Mum never saw Warsaw. Mum never flew in an aeroplane, sailed on a ship. I never went with Mum to a café, restaurant, florist, theatre, opera…Or a con­cert…I was a poet…I wrote a poem “A Tale of Old Women”, I wrote a poem “An Old Peasant Woman Walks Along The Beach”…I didn’t take Mum to the seaside…I didn’t sit with her on the beach, I didn’t bring her a seashell or a bit of amber. Nothing…and she never will see the sea…and I’ll never see her face and eyes and smile as she looks at the sea…a poet. Is a poet a man who writes lamentations dry-eyed, so that he can see the form clearly? Who must put all his heart into making sure the form’s “perfect”…? A poet: a man without a heart? And now the wailing in front of an audience at a book fair, the poetic indulgences, the Literary Stock Exchange. I can’t even fool myself that “in the other world” Mum is strolling through the Planty Gardens, through Kraków, to Wawel…Is there a beach in “heaven” where our Mothers can sit in their poor old fur stoles, coats, slippers and hats…? But even now I’m writing—dry-eyed—and “correcting” these beggarly lamentations of mine…

in the midst of life

It is now 60 years since World War II broke out.

I’m 77, 78 years old. I am a poet. At the start of the road I couldn’t believe in the miracle…that one day I’d become a poet, sometimes at night woken by nightmares and spectres I clutched at the thought “I shall be a poet” I shall drive away spectres darkness death…I shall enter the light of poetry, the music of poetry, the Silence.

Now as I write these words, Mother’s quiet mindful eyes are on me. She watches me from the “other world” the other side I do not believe in. In this world another war is raging. One of the hundred that have raged continuously from the end of world war II until today…

My world that I tried to build for half a century is crumbling into fragments under the rubble of houses hospitals and temples man and god are dying, man and hope are dying, man and love.

Once, a long time ago in 1955, I wrote a poem “In the Midst of Life”…

After the end of the worldafter death
I found myself in the midst of life
creating myself
building life
people animals landscapes
this is a table I said
this is a table
on the table there is bread a knife
the knife is for cutting the bread
bread feeds people
man must be loved
I was learning night and day
what must be loved
man I answered

a poet! He grew old he stands on death’s doorstep and still he hasn’t under­stood that a knife is for hacking heads off hacking off noses and ears what is a knife for? for cutting heads off…some place over there, far? near? what else is a knife for? for cutting out tongues that speak in foreign tongues and for cutting open the bellies of pregnant women cutting off the breasts of nursing mothers cutting off genitals gouging out eyes…and what else can we look at on televi­sion? read in the papers? hear on the radio?

what is a knife for
it’s for cutting off the heads of enemies
it’s for cutting off the heads of
women children old people
(That’s what they’ve been writing in the papers
for a century…)

now as I write these words mother’s quiet eyes are on me on my hand on these maimed blinded words. our mothers’ eyes that penetrate hearts and thoughts are our conscience they judge us and love

full of love and anxiety

mother’s eyes

Mother watches her son as he takes his first steps and then as he seeks his way, her eyes watch as the son leaves, they take in the whole life and death of her son

possibly my words will reach mothers who abandoned their children on a rub­bish dump or reach children who have forgotten their parents in the hospitals and the old people’s homes

I remember Mother saying
to us, only once probably…I was five…only once in her life she said to us “I shall leave you…you’re so naughty…I shall

go and won’t ever

come back”…three small naughty boys…I have remembered

all through

my life the fear and dark despair that we three felt…

I remember my heart bleeding (oh yes “my heart was bleeding”) I found myself in emptiness and darkness…Mum only said

it once

and today I still remember my tears and despair…
but mum didn’t go away she was with us and she will be…
now as I write these words…mother’s searching eyes are on me

I lift my head, open my eyes…can’t find my way, fall, get up, words filled with hatred ptomaine explode rip love faith and hope apart…I open my mouth to say something “people must be loved” not Poles Germans Serbs Albanians Italians Jews Greeks…people must be loved…white black red yellow I know my beggarly wailings lack good taste…

and I know that of all worldly things what survives is…

what?!

The great ludicrous genius Norwid said:

Of all worldly things only two survive,
Two only: poetry and goodness…and nothing else…
Oh Don Quixote, it’s the Nothing that’s survived! And if we do not begin to use our heads at last, do not get some grip on this vast expanding Nothing, then…then what? speak up, don’t look so petrified! what’s about to happen…we shall make such a hell on earth for ourselves that Lucifer will look like an angel, oh a fallen angel yes but not absolutely without a soul, prone to hubris yet at least dense with longing for a lost heaven dense with melancholy with sor­row…and politics will turn into kitsch, love into pornography, music into pandemonium, sport into prostitution, religion into science, science into faith.[/private]




Illegal Liaisons (excerpt)

Excerpt from Illegal Liaisons by Grażyna Plebanek translated by Danusia Stok.

Jonathan’s thoughts rarely turned to the first time he had met Andrea. The moments in which they later immersed themselves occupied more space in his memory; and they had leapt into something more intense—they insisted—than ever before.

Jonathan’s memory turned out to be a clever device that didn’t prompt comparisons, at least not when he was with Andrea. She was his goal, his oxygen and his delicacy; he mounted her, lived by her breath, eagerly licked the nipples adorning the olive-skinned spheres of her breasts. Images of the bodies of women with whom he had been in the past, including the pale recollection of his wife’s body, lay forgotten at the bot­tom of his memory.

[private]Jonathan set out to climax with Andrea carrying no burdens, only his ego, which never physically let him down—something that filled him with pride. When later they lay side by side—and these were limited minutes of pure happiness, which disappeared as soon as they parted—Andrea, as women are wont to do, would say something like, “I remember the first time I saw you”. In her post-coital stupefaction, she could think of nothing else. She, so intelligent, witty, wise, wanted to whisper only about them. And so Jonathan, who had a similar vacuum in his head, hid behind the smoke of his cigarette and murmured, “Yes, yes, I remember”.

The truth came out when it turned out that “when I first saw you” meant something different to him and to her. Andrea counted their days together from their first meeting, he from their first lovemaking.

“Two different calendars!” shouted Andrea, knitting her dark brows. Did they have anything in common whatsoever? She was angry but a moment later forgave him, and Jonathan suspected that the abyss which proved his masculine lack of sensitivity in some way excited her.

Jonathan did, in fact, remember the first time he saw Andrea but he didn’t tell her because he didn’t want her to have any power over him. He had already realised that she could be cruel when she caught a whiff of blind attachment. He didn’t want her to wave a sheet stained with blood, his blood, in front of his nose, so he let her refresh this “forgo_en” memory for him.

Each time she spoke about the first time, Andrea added something new, some element she had previously overlooked. In this way she constructed their mythical beginning. Jonathan, meanwhile, silently struggled to hold on to his own. Frankly, he was afraid of her myth. He sensed that in repeating her story, his lover was spreading her web around him. And he was scared of it, just as every man is scared when he suspects he’s being trapped, even though all she tied him with was the thread of a story.

When he thought about his first meeting with Andrea, Jonathan tried to recall facts: the well-kept apartment with its stained-glass window over the stairwell and enormous hall ending in a garden. As always, the size of living areas in Brussels staggered him. Unfortunately, the large room reminded him of a toilet bowl festooned with dried turds and Jonathan would readily have scoured the knick-knacks and growths of souvenirs with steel wool.

He took a glass of champagne from the tray offered by a waiter and merged in with the crowd. People stood in groups in the middle of the room, some dressed in suits, others in jeans, yet Jonathan sensed that they were not quite as at ease as they pretended to be. He was just about to share his thoughts with Megi, who had come up to him with a glass, when she grabbed him by the arm and pulled him towards the nearest gathering.

“This is my husband, Jonathan,” she introduced him.

“Delighted…” Jonathan shook hands with the slim man.

“This is Ian who looks after European parliamentary relations in the organ­isation of employers.”

“My pleasure…”

“This is my husband, Jonathan. Jonathan, meet Peter. Peter is the spokes­man for…”

“Aha…”

“I’m Megi and this is my husband, Jonathan. We’ve been in Brussels for over a month. No, we haven’t seen the Atomium yet. Jonathan? Have you met Margit? She is deputy spokesman for…”

“For?”

“At the European Commission.”

“In the European Commission…”

“From the Commission…”

“Excuse me a moment, I’ve an urgent call.” Retreating, Jonathan reached into the pocket of his jacket.

He leaned against a table laden with snacks, mown down by social apathy. A private apartment and waiters, people in jeans but on stiff legs, a host with the handshake of a wet fish and a hostess with the face of Cinderella’s sister. Were they having a good time here, or working?

He grabbed a carrot and nibbled it quickly.

“You’re not from the Commission?| The question sounded like an affirmation.

Next to him stood a woman he didn’t know.

“It’s that obvious, is it?” he sighed.

She laughed and held out her hand.

“Andrea.”

Much later, he noticed that her hands were different from the rest of her body; they were wide, as if older, which she tried to disguise with a neat manicure. He hadn’t noticed at the time because Andrea was only just emerging from a haze of unfamiliarity. Tall and slim, she turned to take a canapé. Her but­tocks were small and so round that he wanted to knead them.

“And don’t worry about those people.” She smiled, pointing at the undu­lating human circle. “Look, those on the outer circle are trainees…”

Jonathan looked at the twentysomethings whose faces were turned towards the centre of the circle.

“…those closer to the centre are higher-ranking officials. See the bald one on the right?|

“The bullet head?”

“He’s sharpening his teeth for the position of minister’s adviser. While the fat one with a muff of hair is angling for the still warm place of a colleague who was promoted to another department.”

“And the man everyone’s looking at?” asked Jonathan, indicating the centre where a tall, slim, grey-haired man was standing. The charisma emanating from him could be felt even at a distance.

“He’s the head of cabinet for the Justice Commissioner.” Andrea smiled.

“He’s boss of them all?” Jonathan was lost.

“He’s their god.”

The circle shuffled as the head of cabinet for the Commissioner retreated, shaking the outstretched hands as he went.

Andrea glanced at her watch.

“It was nice to meet you,” she said.

Jonathan felt an unexpected wrench within, a child’s voice screaming, “I want!” Perhaps it was the trace of a Swedish accent in her practically perfect English?

“What do you do?” he asked in desperation.

“I work for Swedish television. And you?”

“I write.”

“Articles?”

“Books.”

“Ohhh!”

Jonathan slipped his hands into his pockets. He loved this sort of reaction. He knew from experience that he ought to enjoy it to the full because it generally preceded another, less desirable one which began with the question: “And what do you write?”

“Fairy tales.”

He usually bore the phase of “losing face” manfully but this time he added equivocally, “I was recently offered a job to run a course in creative writing in Brussels.”

“Ohhh!”

“But for financial reasons I suppose I ought to try for a place in the Commission…”

“Your course sounds more interesting.”

“You don’t want to know how much they pay.”

“You wouldn’t want to do what you don’t like.”

He squinted at Andrea and saw more of her: brown hair and beautifully sculpted lips.

“Look at that pâté,” she said and he reluctantly turned his eyes to the table. “Some people love it.”

“It’s foie gras.”

“I think you’d feel like those overstuffed geese in the Commission.”

He turned his eyes from the pâté and looked at her again. Final promises to phone were being exchanged among the group of officials but he was suddenly short of words. The silence between them grew thick.

“Are you…” Jonathan began but right then somebody stopped short beside them.

They both turned. It was the head of cabinet for the Commissioner.

“Simon, meet Jonathan” A professional smile appeared on Andrea’s face. “Jonathan is a writer and a lecturer in creative writing. Jonathan, this is Simon…”

The man’s handshake was energetic. Although Jonathan knew nothing about male beauty, he immediately knew that this man, although over fifty, put most men in the shade. And that his high rank had little to do with it.

“Andrea, we should be going,” the man said in excellent English.

“An Englishman, from Eton,” Jonathan quickly surmised.

“…Simon,” Andrea finished, “my partner.”

That night, Jonathan reached for Megi but he didn’t like the taste of her lips. They ended swiftly; Jonathan got up and went out on to the terrace for a cigarette.

He gazed at the clouds rolling over the dark mass of sky. He had immedi­ately taken to the weather in Brussels, warm with an undertone of damp.

He loathed southern climates, the vertical sun and blind stubbornness of heat.

“Simon, my partner.” There was not a single woman at that strange party—and that included Megi—who had not stared at the man. Jonathan stubbed out his cigarette. Childish unease signalled its presence again, the tiresome ‘I want’, just as when Andrea had been leaving with Simon and Jonathan had taken the chance to look at her beautiful backside again. And now the sway of her hips was irking him like the hook on which a stupid pike—Jonathan—had let itself be caught.

Daily life slotted back into its course. Jonathan unpacked more cardboard boxes until he felt the days themselves had become rectangular. Reach for a box, open, pull out the contents…

Finally, the vision of a trip to IKEA acquired the exotic taste of escape and Swedish meatballs offered an opening into the wider world. Sitting at a plastic table, he savoured the thought of the jaws of their home in Brus­sels, hungry for equipment and objects, snapping at a safe distance.

On the way home, he stopped off to buy some bread rolls. Megi couldn’t get used to croissants and preferred ordinary bread, while the children loved the little rolls with a slit down the middle which they had immedi­ately called ‘bums’. Jonathan asked for six bums and a take-away coffee.

He was just leaving the counter when he started. He had “met” Andrea a few times since their first meeting—running across the road, glancing at her watch, getting off a tram. But it was never her. He didn’t blow the impression she had made on him out of proportion; he often allowed him­self to fantasise about women he hardly knew, rewrote scripts for which in real life he had neither time nor courage. It was one thing for his cock to dive into the hole of an appetising thirty-year-old, another to wrestle with questions about whether the sex would lead anywhere.

Jonathan’s principles, too, acted like a bucket of cold water. He was too young for a bit on the side; that was fine for old men needing to invigor­ate themselves or bores with the mentality of old age pensioners. Women found him attractive; he’d had quite a few before Megi and knew he could have one at any time. And even though monogamy wasn’t easy, when fan­tasies of other women—or the women themselves—became too pressing, he repeated Stefan’s maxim: ‘If you can’t knock her up, forget her’. In his case, ‘can’t’ had meant ‘didn’t choose to’.

As for an honourable attitude to a woman who belonged to another man, he had to admit that abstract male honour stood on a par with the fear of catching HIV.

When he saw Andrea, real in the light of day, he assured himself it was the sight of a familiar face that made him happy. As a seasoned traveller, he believed that a new place only became home when you bumped into people you knew on the street. And there—a few weeks and he was already meeting someone!

She noticed him, stopped hesitantly.

“Jonathan,” he jogged her memory. “We met…”

“I remember. Fairy tales—and a creative writing course.”

She was wearing a pale blouse and a skirt with a slit that aroused his imagination.

“A croissant, please.” She leant over to the salesgirl.

“A croissant at twelve?” he asked. “Isn’t it time for something more substantial?”

“I’m just off to lunch. I’ve got to eat something before.”

“You must be going to lunch with dwarves if you’ve got to eat first.”

“There you go, you’re already writing fairy tales!” Tiny wrinkles appeared around her eyes and disappeared. Jonathan thought he would like to gaze at that smile for longer. There was something exciting about her face, both sexy and intelligent.

“I’ll write one if you promise you won’t touch the poisoned apple on the way,” he muttered.

Andrea glanced at the croissant with suspicion. Her blouse was covered with crumbs as she bit into the pastry; a few fell down her neckline.

“I’ve got some rolls for a rainy day should anything happen.” He lifted the bag of “bums”. “Would you like one to take with you in case the dwarves serve in-flight portions?”

She shook her head.

“My dwarf’s from the Commission. I want to get him on my programme. I don’t eat much when talking business.”

“I get angry when I don’t eat.”

“That’s incredible, I’m just the same! Other people seem to cope with hun­ger in a civilised way but I get livid. I’ve even got a complex about it.”

“You shouldn’t,” Jonathan reassured her. “After all, we’re beasts of prey. The skin of a lamb but beneath lurks a wolf.”

“Sounds like a disease,” she grimaced.

“Homo homini lupus in Latin.”

She smiled again and he remembered the coffee he was holding. He drank a little without taking his eyes off Andrea. She pushed the hair from her forehead with a gesture that told him she didn’t mind his gaze.

“Do you live nearby?” she asked.

“A few streets away.”

“How’s your creative writing course going?”

“I’m working on a survival course at the moment. I mean, we’ve just moved.” He indicated the jeans in which he had knelt to assemble the wardrobes, beds and shelves.

“And you’re no longer looking for a job in the Commission?”

“I haven’t even started. Since you said I’d feel like a goose…”

This time she didn’t smile, as if the joke had run off track and was bouncing over a road full of potholes.

“I’ve got to dash,” she said, glancing at her watch.

I’ve overdone it, he thought.

And then something happened which made the hairs on his hands stand on end. Andrea pulled herself upright, shook the croissant crumbs from her blouse and walked up to him to say goodbye, kissing him in the French manner on both cheeks. But Jonathan forgot how many times they kissed in Belgium and after two kisses leaned over for a third; she, disorientated, paused as she turned her head and, instead of offering her cheek, touched his lips with hers. Jonathan’s reflex was to move his lips a centimetre (some­thing shouted silently in him, ‘I want!’) and their lips joined, quiv­ered with warmth and moisture and started to search for each other.[/private]




Litro #126: Poland – Letter from the Editor

Read the issue here.

litro126_poland_singlePolish is now, after English, the second most widely-spoken language in England. But how many Polish books and authors have you read?

When I talk about Polish books people often tell me they are depressing, and assume they are mostly about the Second World War. And there’s a grain of truth in that reaction. Poles, with their turbulent and often tragic history, have not had an easy ride. The recent presidential plane crash, in which all 96 people on board were killed, was another powerful blow. Poland’s accession to the European Union in May 2004 resulted in a mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of Poles which kicked off the ‘Stay With Us’ campaign back in Poland to counteract the brain drain of young and educated Poles. But Poland is a nation of proud and resilient people, of people who forge new paths with surprising ease, a land of contradictions.In preparation for this issue Litro launched a short story competition inspired by the Polish writer Bruno Schulz, in association with the Polish Cultural Institute in London. I had the great pleasure of working with one of the judges of this competition—Tasja Dorkofikis.

This month’s Polish issue brings a fascinating collection of diverse texts from authors who live in both Poland and abroad, each offering a glimpse of a very different and unforgettable world. One of the most exciting aspects of the pieces included in this issue are the intriguing new ways Polish authors engage with the vastness of human experience in the context of the past and, unsurprisingly, the new migrant existence.

Tadeusz Różewicz is considered one of the greatest, most innovative Polish authors. His Mother Departs, devoted to his dying mother Stefania, won the NIKE Prize, often called the Polish Booker, in 2000. What makes a poet? What is the meaning of life and death?—these are the questions Różewicz ponders.

Novelist Zygmunt Miłoszewski is the new star in Polish crime fiction and the prosecutor Teodor Szacki’s relentless pursuit of the killer in A Grain of Truth will keep you awake at night. Miłoszewski is also a double winner of the High Calibre Award for the Best Polish Crime Novel. Be scared. Be very scared!

Paweł Huelle tells the absorbing story of his family through their cars in the very witty Mercedes-Benz. Illustrated with personal photographs, Huelle packs this short book with funny and tender stories. Mercedes-Benz will stay with you long after you have read it.

The beautifully crafted poetry of Wioletta Grzegorzewska mesmerises with its observations of the human spirit. The poetess, who settled on the Isle of Wight, navigates her existence between Poland and her new home in the UK.

Grażyna Plebanek’s tantalising Illegal Liaisons breaks down barriers with its thrilling descriptions of sex and acute observations of life in Brussels where the author resides. A father, husband and a writer caught in a relationship with two women. Need I say more?

Jacek Dehnel’s fictionalised version of the lives of Francisco Goya, his son Javier and grandson Mariano reveals a fascinating portrait of one of the greatest artists of the late 18th and early 19th century. Here’s a story of hate, jealousy and manipulation between a genius father and his son.

A poet’s confession, gruesome crime, the perseverance of human spirit, illicit sex, family history and a glimpse at the underworld of cannabis production—a collection of texts that will surprise and, I hope, delight you, from a land of astonishing contradictions. Enjoy!

A.M. Bakalar, Guest Editor, June 2013

Read the issue here.



Litro #126: Poland

Cover Art: Snail, Animation Still, by Kasia Depta-Garapich

Letter from the Editor
A.M. Bakalar

Mother Departs (excerpt) by Tadeusz Różewicz translated by Barbara Bogoczek

A Grain of Truth (excerpt) by Zygmunt Miłoszewski translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Saturn (excerpt) by Jacek Dehnel translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Mercedes-Benz (excerpt) by Paweł Huelle translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Poetry Collection by Wioletta Grzegorzewska translated by Marek Kazmierski

Madame Mephisto (excerpt) by A.M. Bakalar

Illegal Liaisons (excerpt) by Grażyna Plebanek translated by Danusia Stok

This is only a taster of our Poland issue. Become a Litro Member to read the whole issue.