Anna Świrszczyńska, poet, yoga practitioner, vegetarian, liberated woman – whose outstanding work and powerful personality left an indelible mark on 20th-century Polish poetry, including causing a feminist awakening of sorts in the patriarchal Czesław Miłosz – was born in 1909, in Warsaw, to an artistic though impoverished family. She worked from an early age, supporting herself while she attended university. In the 1930s, she worked for a teachers’ association, served as an editor, and began publishing poetry. The outbreak of World War II interrupted her literary career. Świrszczyńska joined the Resistance and worked as a military nurse during the Warsaw Uprising. That experience, as she said later, made her into another person. She witnessed the brutal extermination of her city, forced to contend with war at its most cruel and inhumane. At one point she came within an hour of being executed before she was spared. After the war, she moved to Kraków where she lived until her death in 1984.
Świrszczyńska’s reputation in literary circles was not very strong until the publication of two seminal collections in the early 1970s: Jestem baba (1972; I am a Woman) and Budowałam barykadę (1974; Building the Barricade). Poems from these two books won her numerous admirers, including, as already mentioned, Czesław Miłosz, who translated some of Świrszczyńska’s poetry into English, and published an extended essay devoted to her poetic achievement, in which he attempted to come to terms with her unchecked celebration of mature female eroticism, a very direct treatment of the body and a powerful sense of intimacy. Of Jestem baba he wrote: “The just evaluation of this volume requires of us that we get rid of many (masculine) habits and reconcile ourselves with the fact that this poetry is new, unlike what is referred to as ‘feminine poetry.’ And if it is feminist, it is so only in a very special sense of the word.”
While one may argue with Miłosz’s reading of Świrszczyńska’s femininity, it is impossible to disagree with what he said about her poems from the Warsaw Uprising, hailing her as one of the most antiheroic poets of Polish traumatic history. It took Świrszczyńska 30 years to write about her war experiences, and she did so in a way that makes it impossible to incorporate her account into the mainstream Polish historical narrative. She shows suffering without anesthesia. She does not mystify. She refuses to turn her eyes away from piles of dead bodies, or to cover up the traumatic truth of war with stories of unmatched Polish bravery and patriotism. In direct, lucid, yet penetrating phrases, she demands (in Piotr Florczyk’s brilliant translation): “Those who gave the first order to fight/ let them now count corpses.” This is a simple juxtaposition of two sides of the same historical event. On the one hand, there is politics, military strategy, the ideology of heroism. On the other – the raw reality of senseless death.
Humans struggling to survive find unlikely companions in centipedes and lice. Like those disliked creatures, they also want to live, reduced by fear to this most fundamental desire. Świrszczyńska writes about those little living organisms with compassion if not tenderness. “Warm lice” offer their movement on the speaker’s chest as a sign of hope in a city otherwise immobilized by death. Bodily vulnerability provides the grounds for a communion of sorts between a human being and the lowliest of animals, a communion that cannot last because when the danger passes, the speaker will assume the position of superiority again in order to remain human.
According to some reports, there was a spontaneous matriarchy among the civilians in the ruined city during the Uprising. Women, especially mothers, were the leaders – the one and only aim was to survive and to protect others. In telling the story of unadorned human and more-than-human suffering, Świrszczyńska’s poetry undertakes a feminine revision of one of the most tragic events in Polish history. But her words should be heard by those in power today. When violence finally breaks out, will you count our corpses?