Prose from Poetry Magazine

In That Great River: A Notebook

The inner life of one of the great poet-mystics.

by Anna Kamienska

The sunrise observed in a puddle—a great metaphor.

*     *     *

St. Theresa of the Child Jesus: “I choose all.”

*     *     *

Why do I need these landscapes? The image of the sea draws me out of myself, forces all my attention to the surface so that I can cast my thought into the depths once again. As if an imaginative blow were needed for a longer, better-aimed thrust into the depths. Contemplation. The roots of my astonishment at the world cling tight to my inner life, in a tangle of memories, experiences, atavisms from both my own childhood and that of our species.

*     *     *

For fish death takes the shape of the beautiful white gull with widespread wings whose flight we trace with rapture.

*     *     *

I remembered the bombardment and the great light that preceded it. At first it fell from above, that beautiful, blinding, greenish light, so bright that it seemed to illuminate the earth’s every wrinkle. That light illuminates every person, every cell, vein, artery like an x-ray; everything is ready for death. It irradiates and exposes all that is hidden most deeply—terror, the body’s animal terror.

The light unmasks, cruelly, before killing. And that is why after the air raid a person rises ashamed: he hasn’t died, he’s still alive. It’s stripped him bare, to the death; that light has ripped the last confession from his body, but he hasn’t measured up, he couldn’t die. He lives on, duplicitous and frightened.

*     *     *

I don’t write poetry when I wish, I write when I can’t, when my larynx is flooded and my throat is shut.

*     *     *

The poet is a great mute. He wheezes his infirmity, mumbles, stutters, fumbles; his great error is human.

*     *     *

The sky creaks with the plumes of unread poets.

*     *     *

Chekhov’s grave, encountered unexpectedly in a Moscow cemetery. The frost shines like the gleam of his damp pince-nez.

*     *     *

Akhmatova. A thick volume of her collected poems, as if they were written by one person. But after all there were so many—from youth to old age. The elegant, refined lady and the old peasant who roars in pain and beats her forehead against the church floor: “Lord!” The poet thronged by crowds of admirers and snobs, and the old woman: wise, comprehending, like the earth, like a peasant rocking her dead child in her arms.

*     *     *

A whisper.
To speak in a whisper.
To whisper—like the sea.

*     *     *

To describe the home, a room. Its pits and abysses.

*     *     *

In Milaszewski’s play, Don Quixote says that you reach the other world only through the family home.

*     *     *

Better if only the young and beautiful would love.

But love in those aging aspics, those monstrous, flopping bodies, desire housed in the bodies of cripples, the legless, the blind—that is humanity.

*     *     *

“Joy generalizes, pain individuates” (Hebel).

*     *     *

It’s hard to live above the ruins of a house.

*     *     *

Joy in the body.

Joy in objects made of wood, fiber, clay, from materials akin to ours, dear and lovely. The world’s consanguinity.

*     *     *

The paralytic, happy, healed through Christ’s miracle—how reluctantly he parts with his crutches.

*     *     *

Emmanuel Mounier describes the notion of environment poetically. The environment is not everything that surrounds us. It is only that which may become our experience and possesses the power of incarnation.

“Precisely that winding road transforming proximity into incarnation turns the whole human environment, from bodily fluids and blood to the starry heavens above our heads, into the living body of our life. Anything that has not been experienced this way has not yet become a human environment.”

So things, stars, people must become my body in order to exist for me.

The same holds for poetry.

*     *     *

Man is open!

Everything else is closed, impenetrable. You can’t penetrate rain, hail, wind, wood, stone, storm. All things are sealed tight as a coffin lid. Only man is open, open like a great home in which all things, phenomena, events may take up residence, become his body.

*     *     *

The eyes of an insect. Perceiving details through the inability to grasp the whole.

*     *     *

The problem of exile.

Anaximander.

Exile from the fatherland, from faith, from the right to criticism, mourning, revolt, bitterness.

*     *     *

Exile from self itself.

The heart’s homelessness.

*     *     *

Sacred stone,
Sacred roadside stone,
you, who have become hammer and ax and home.
                          And tomb.

*     *     *

I pray:


Our Father, who are not in heaven . . .

We are consumed by rationalism, but yearn for the Great Myth, the Great Archetype, the Great Dream.

*     *     *

“A falling star is God’s eye, drawing closer to earth so as to see it better.”

*     *     *

Stones were honored for their usefulness.

What if we were to honor our tools the same way: the pen, the trowel, the broom? I wrote a poem about this in Summoning the Myth.

*     *     *

Is the earth steeped in wise men’s ashes any wiser?

*     *     *

We don’t realize that we live atop a quagmire of cults.

Every gesture, understood rightly, has its roots in some sacred archetype.

How much of me is that primeval man yearning for heaven, waiting for some sudden opening of the skies and another, true time, in which everything remains and nothing passes?

*     *     *

All words about death are a lie, since all hopes are a lie. Words are futile hopes.

A clump of earth, a stone, a greedy strip of green: these don’t lie.

*     *     *

You left me a bequest: the earth, birds, trees. But I don’t know what to do with them.

*     *     *

Snow falls. A blizzard. It will take the grave from me again.

*     *     *

I dreamed that he tried to leap from the earth as from a bog.

He emerged covered in black and red clay. I heated water and poured it into a basin so that he could wash off that earth, that death.

*     *     *

Prof. W. explained to me that there are weightless things. Gravitation for one. It is not material, yet it exists, we feel its pull. So the dead may likewise still exist. Through what they have left behind, through memory, their influence, and so on.

This is no comfort, though, when you howl, yearning for familiar hands, the chest, the one dear body.

*     *     *

Mute little wooden gods standing in our house.

*     *     *

He always asks: Am I really dead?

*     *     *

I understand Kochanowski’s underrated “First Lament,” with its appeals to Heraclitus and Simonides. Pain must be turned into art. Convention must shape suffering. If only the folk custom, “wringing of hands.” It’s also a convention of pain. Without conventions there is no art.

Still, it’s humiliating, you can’t just speak, scream, sob. It’s not enough.

*     *     *

He wrote: it’s a great art—to fall so as to rise again.
               How will you rise now?

*     *     *

It’s a great art: to love and keep still.

*     *     *

The hell of unwritten poems.

*     *     *

My dreams like candles for the dead.

*     *     *

Those who know paradises of gardens, mountains, valleys, will not enter my heaven between the stove and the brick wall. In the stove there was a niche for a pot of kasha. On a folding bed, in my heaven, I dreamed my life: I dreamed myself and then the dead man’s palm lay on my hair. I was a twelve-year-old widow, who hurried to dream about incomprehensible suffering. Grandmother walked round all our beds at night, pulling up blankets, touching our foreheads.

*     *     *

I dreamed that we were together in some old-fashioned room. I read at the table. On the other side, J. lay on a wide bed, also reading in his favorite position. Through a window directly across from him, the light of the rising sun fell on his body. I buttoned up some kind of white bathrobe and ran to kiss him.

—I greet you with the rising sun! I called out. We never speak like that in life.

In dreams artificial, literary formulas sometimes turn up.

It seems that the dead always appear in our dreams just before we wake. In this way they remain somehow half real.

In my dreams his body is always phosphorescent blue.

*     *     *

To read the earth, clay, stone. To mold your face from clay and darkness.

*     *     *

Art relies on the conversion of even flaws and defects into positive aesthetic values. It is a strange hymn to stupidity.

*     *     *

The curse of man: everything he makes outlives him.

*     *     *

The hospital bed. Bed for dying. Who lies ending there now? Who stands by the bedside? I again. Another I.

*     *     *

Music teaches us the passing of time. It teaches the value of a moment by giving that moment value. And it passes. It’s not afraid to go.

*     *     *

The proximity of distance.

*     *     *

The priest accompanied the dead girl to her grave. He wanted to wear a white chasuble, but according to church law, white robes are only for children under six. Snow suddenly began to fall during the burial, and the priest walked all in white.

*     *     *

Circles of solitude exist, just like circles of dreams and waking, just like the circles of hell.

*     *     *

I want to be earth. Be earth. To hold you closely in my embrace. Always.

*     *     *

Where do Your fears nest? Do Your hungers enter Your throat? Does the spoon of hunger moan? Your funny hares, Your timid fawns, Your quiet doves, where do they sleep? The planet dropped from Your hands. All Your paths in a single pocket.

*     *     *

Mother whom I never called mother. Mother of the chalk mountain, of the lime pit. Let’s make a pact. I’ll give you Him, dead. You give me His dreams, the child’s cries, the boy’s anxieties.

*     *     *

Somewhere there they wait for unwritten poems like solitary lakes that no one sees.

*     *     *

Mother whom I never called mother
mother known to me only through his face
mother killed for being Jewish
mother of the final sigh
mother who took a bullet to her heart
crying in the poems of her son
and speaking to him through clouds, grass, rain
his mother in the veins of my children
mother full of grace since you gave me him
mother whom he summoned to his bed of pain
and I answer for you—my son
he heard that voice and knew it
and with a soundless twist of his lips he called
ma        ma        ma         a   a
mother do you understand

*     *     *

We cling to words like drowning men to straws. But still we drown, we drown.

*     *     *

There is a God of solitude. He covers me closely, like the air. I study Him blindly, by touch. Only His body is everywhere, elusive, impalpable.

*     *     *

Salomea. The poet’s mother. She bore him. But it’s more like he created her. A startling reversal of nature. The son bears the mother.

*     *     *

How quickly the air shuts out the dead man, his gestures, his rages, senses, loves, dislikes. Space is so perfectly indifferent and time is an exceptionally swift sprinter.

You leave his empty desk in vain, his empty chair, his empty plate on Christmas Eve. They fill themselves only with total absence.

The only place You still dwell is my dreams—those frail homes, like the unmowed grass overgrowing the steppes of our fallow love.

*     *     *

Poets try to be so refined, so sarcastic, ironic, since in our poetic salons that is synonymous with elegance. You must speak ironically of Christ, our unhappy homeland, even yourself. Only then are you bon ton.

*     *     *

Valéry: “Building my work, I built my self.”

*     *     *

Writing down your thoughts is both necessary and harmful. It leads to eccentricity, narcissism, preserves what should be let go. On the other hand, these notes intensify the inner life, which, left unexpressed, slips through your fingers. If only I could find a better kind of journal, humbler, one that would preserve the same thoughts, the same flesh of life, which is worth saving.

Moreover the writer invents himself as a character in this form. He shapes himself from the shards of the everyday, from the truth of that daily life. Which is also a truth not to be scorned.

*     *     *

“The child is intimately familiar with objects. Adults have abandoned their homeland in the realm of objects. They wander about a world that has become strange to them; restless and threatening, like animals seized with fear.

The child senses this and strikes up a friendship with objects, for example, with a large table...” (Jurger Bechelmann, “Notes of a Young Man from a Better Family”)

*     *     *

Did this have the same sense and taste for adults as it did for me—the large water barrel in the entry, a metal dipper hanging by its side? Its water had a metallic scent. It was cold as tin. It reflected the entryway’s darkness.

*     *     *

A state of inner readiness and waiting. I’m open to all annunciations.

*     *     *

One must live and love, and pray, as one writes. In labor and patience, attentively, slowly.

*     *     *

My task is to rebuild the world—after the world’s end.

*     *     *

From my childhood poem:
             “Save us to spite us.”

*     *     *

Just as before a poem is written, one’s consciousness opens and the poem seems to flow from above, as though by grace, so my consciousness suddenly opened to a sense of great communion with all, great compassion. The world seemed washed clean as after a rainfall, things acquired new colors and meanings, as if they were only symbols, reflections of something real. The state was like poetic inspiration.

*     *     *

I pray in words. I pray in poems. I want to learn to pray through breathing, through dreams and sleeplessness, through love and renunciation.

I pray through snow that falls outside the window.

I pray with the tears that do not end.

*     *     *

I have the words of that Litany in my head. “Desire for the everlasting hills”—that’s how I’ll begin my final book of poems. Poems always outstrip experience. My poems knew about the death of my dear one before it happened.

All this time I’ve felt the “desire for the everlasting hills,” or at least their poetics, their aesthetics, which I ascribed to my mother in my poems. And suddenly that “desire for the everlasting hills” became something more than poetry, became a prayer, a quest for the road from darkness into light. Desire—is love. And the “everlasting hills”—are undying beauty, the Always that does not deceive.

*     *     *

The sense of loneliness is an error. We are and move in a great crowd of those who are now, were, and will be.

In that great river.

*     *     *

Father J. tells me about his theory. Every time he has an inner question, it is always answered unexpectedly by someone entering the room, by an overheard conversation.

*     *     *

The experience of faith, so like poetic inspiration, is self-sufficient. It needs no expression beyond the experience itself, it needs no words. What wants and seeks for words is the uncertainty of our faith.

This is why true poetry is always ambivalent, made up equally of “signs of confidence” (Jan Twardowski) and question marks.

*     *     *

Pascal’s reed is Jesus’s reed, the “reed shaken with the wind” (Matthew 11:7).

*     *     *

Christ’s most beautiful miracle is the multiplying bread and the next is the calming of the storm at sea. The immanent element in miracles is the faith of those who acknowledge them.

*     *     *

I like Simone Weil’s idea that writing is actually the translation of a text we already carry within us. That notion makes a heavy task lighter.

In fact, though, writing is the backbreaking work of hacking a footpath, as in a coal mine; in total darkness, beneath the earth. In poetry there are moments of illumination. A streak of light falls in the dark corridor, then the darkness slams shut overhead once more.

In prose the darknesses are even thicker, the black clods even harder.

*     *     *

So a little spring prays to the ocean, so the beating heart prays to the heart of the universe, so the little word prays to the great Logos, so a dust speck prays to the earth, so the earth prays to the cosmos, so the one prays to the billion, so human love prays to God’s love, so always prays to never, so the moment prays to eternity, so the snowflake prays to winter, so the frightened beast prays to the forest silence, so uncertainty prays to beauty itself.

And all these prayers are heard.

*     *     *

Things are not what they once were to me. What a terrible realization!

My poems no longer hold “ripe objects, satisfying things, rich substance.” But they did. They were.

*     *     *

Collecting pebbles for a new mosaic of a world that I could love.

*     *     *

Poems—letters to friends and enemies, to the dead, maybe to one living person.

*     *     *

Someone in a wheelchair moving so heavily, so slowly. Like me in my poems.

*     *     *

The dead crowd around my dream. They’re all there. Even Mickiewicz—imposing, his arms across his stomach, he has dark palms, soft, unpleasant to the touch. I don’t like such soft hands in men.

Grandma’s there, Mama, Grandma Lipska in the corner, my father approaches, of course he doesn’t know me,

Aunt Basia, who calls me Szandzia. And Janek is always beside me. He says:

—Let’s not get up today. Let’s take a rest after all that (after life? after death? after parting?)

My dead always surround me. I walk in an invisible crowd.

*     *     *

My house long since lies in rubble. I keep on rebuilding it and reality keeps tearing it down. Maybe it’s better to make peace with the ruins?

*     *     *

I’m moved by everything broken and crippled. Since that’s how we really are.

*     *     *

Plutarch: “People learn to speak from people, to be silent—from the gods.”

*     *     *

A body wrapped in memory’s pure cloth.

*     *     *

My poems are more my silence than my speech. Just as music is a kind of quiet. Sounds are needed only to unveil the various layers of silence.

*     *     *

I sought a dead man and found God.

*     *     *

Cemetery: a landscape of the past.

*     *     *

Simone Weil: Physical work is “time that permeates the body.” This also holds for imaginative or intellectual labor. Time enters into us and transforms us.

*     *     *

When we don’t work, time flows by us, we don’t assimilate it through ourselves.

Even rest should be creative, so that time doesn’t flow around us, but through us. This is art.

*     *     *

In recording these thoughts I also have a sense of assimilated time, its duration within me. Even if I don’t return to these poor notes—within me they are the assimilated material of time. In this sense they are my real life, more real than whatever might occur in daylight.

*     *     *

The ethics of renunciation, so difficult to understand. But in art, after all, we always create difficulties for ourselves, constricted throats. Only that is good which comes from hardship.  Even simplicity must be difficult. The analogy between art and the inner life. Creating one’s self.

*     *     *

What I had thought most certain shook within me. Doubt itself.

But it’s reckless: to build a world on doubt.

*     *     *

Labor and inspiration—in art.

Work and grace—in spiritual life.

The analogy speaks to anyone who knows the torment of waiting for “inspiration,” that peculiar opening of thought and the imagination when it seems as though somebody writes for us. That state can’t be faked or imitated. It either is or it isn’t.

*     *     *

Poetry is a foretaste of truth. It is the vestibule of faith. It is contemporary poets who have turned it into smoke and mirrors.

*     *     *

The zone of silence. The zone of loneliness. The zone of love. For me it is the only zone.

*     *     *

For all my inner struggles, I know that as a writer I ended on exactly the 22nd of December, 1967. Now it’s just convulsions.

*     *     *

The heart—a scorned word, the shame of poets.

*     *     *

We create eternity from scraps of time.

*     *     *

St. Paul in the Letter to the Romans: “O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?” The “pottery” theme in the Bible.

*     *     *

Earlier there had been Rome. I saw Rome as if with new eyes. In Rome I was moved by an old priest genuflecting by the Polish confessional in St. Peter’s Basilica. He held a cane like a pilgrim’s staff. He reminded me of Mickiewicz. And then, perhaps for the first time, I heard the summons, the temptation, to follow after him, to repeat his gestures, bend my knees. I knelt in every church in Rome, but prayed only to sculptures, paintings, and mosaics.

*     *     *

From the start I had a great desire to change the language, for example, to replace the word “grace” with something else. I was annoyed by the word “humility” and many other words, which I hadn’t used in a long while. It seemed to me that “faith” was also a matter for the dictionary. Of course, language is a system of metaphors and contains the whole experience of farming communities, migrant peoples, various social orders, monarchy, slavery, serfdom. We’ve grown used to many words, forgetting that they’re only metaphors, though in their own time they were actively metaphoric, new discoveries. I thought that ceaseless linguistic invention was required even in the realm of faith. Thinkers must be poets.

I’m slowly relinquishing my claims in linguistic matters, though, and I humbly return to faith and to humility, since these are word-vessels so saturated with content through ages of thought and use that to abandon them would be the act of a heedless parvenu.

*     *     *

We always receive more than we desire. We receive what we ask for, but sometimes in a different currency, a currency that turns out to be of greater worth.

*     *     *

Bernanos: “The miracle of our empty hands.”

*     *     *

Anxiety is creative.

Confusion is not creative.

The beautiful greeting “Peace be with you” arose in times when every stranger might be an enemy with a weapon in his hand.

Peace be with you! Silence be with you!

All day I’ve been searching in myself for the silence that begins the dialogue with God.

*     *     *

Our homes overgrown with junk, papers, knickknacks. Shelves piled with the clothing of the dead and of the children who have grown, and so are also dead.

Desks full of mementos and faded letters. To live in such a domestic graveyard. That’s how I live.

Time flies, and sleep opens ever greater chasms in time. Time becomes a second graveyard, a graveyard in the depths of consciousness.

To throw it all out would mean to die. So now a third graveyard, the one that waits.
I live in three cemeteries.

*     *     *

Z’s story about the village geese during the autumn migration, who, following some atavistic instinct, waddle up the hillside and fall down, trying to fly after the wild geese, whose call they hear from the sky.

*     *     *

I open wardrobes and desk drawers full of dead letters, swollen with dead words. Do you think that it doesn’t all leak out, disperse, contaminate? The poison seeps into your dreams, paralyzing you with seeming laziness. In fact, you are sick unto death. The death of your house.

The worst of it is that you don’t want to be cured, you don’t believe in the remedy. You can only offer this self-diagnosis.

You would have to be born again—to a new home, a new love...Hence to a new cemetery. It took you such long, hard work, such commitment, to build this one.

*     *     *

Not only my house, the whole world is such a densely-packed trash heap of things and cultures. How to escape? Into death? But death has its own macabre and cowardly aesthetic—it threatens us with flowers and a tasteful tombstone.

The dangerous passion for absolute purity. To evaporate with the atom. Wake up!

*     *     *

I can offer You nothing
but the offering brings me comfort
since it is a gesture of love
Accept it
There is love too in the gesture
of accepting gifts

*     *     *

“The sacrament of a moment”—Mauriac

*     *     *

The feet of Christ in the Cathedral’s entry. Kissed down to the pink wood.

*     *     *

Cleanse us with the waters of all rivers and seas.


 

Originally Published: June 1, 2010

Selected and translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh

COMMENTS (8)

On June 4, 2010 at 11:08am Robin A Miller wrote:
Is this Notebook available in published form?

On June 18, 2010 at 2:43pm carolyn adkins wrote:
Ms. Kamienska

I love you style of putting words on paper.

But words are building blocks for a lifestyle.
Words begin in the mind. Where the mind goes energy goes unless you fight that energy your physical body will follow.

Thank you,
Carolyn Adkins

On June 19, 2010 at 10:11am rob goldman wrote:
too long. who can read it. maybe make 20 poems out of it.

On June 21, 2010 at 2:19pm quixoticle wrote:
this reminds me, in some instances, of
Pessoa's "Book of Disquiet", but not as
good. there are some beautiful things
here, but was it really worth publishing all
of this? who is having the great thoughts
of "our time"? keep looking.

On June 29, 2010 at 7:07pm Jane Smith wrote:
It is a very tricky business, translating anything that tends towards "the mystical" from one language to another. This is especially so when the target language happens to be one that bristles with cynicism. Given the pitfalls, I'd say this is a job exceedingly well done.

On July 15, 2010 at 6:54pm Vincent Palmieri wrote:
Her notes read as that of the very dreams she refers to, surreal yet containing genuine insight into the pervasive feelings of loss, fear, and yet some reassurance drawn from love; indeed, the intractable conflict with which we grapple in futility. There is a grim honesty in this but there is comfort in this honesty.

On September 21, 2010 at 4:33am sanjam pal wrote:
loved these utterances . comes from the core . these are beyond realism ,beyond senses . my respect to this great heart .

On May 9, 2012 at 6:44pm Ernie Raskauskas wrote:
Rcently I discovered Anna through Poetry magazine and promptly bought "Ashtonishments" her selected poems in English. What a treasure. Poetry that is both lyrical and intelligble, and the reflections in her notes are ammazing.

POST A COMMENT

Poetryfoundation.org welcomes comments that foster dialogue and cultivate an open community on the site. Comments on articles must be approved by the site moderators before they appear on the site. By submitting a comment, you give the Poetry Foundation the right to publish it. Please note: We require comments to include a name and e-mail address. Read more about our privacy policy.

MORE FROM THIS ISSUE

This prose originally appeared in the June 2010 issue of Poetry magazine

June 2010

Related

Audio Article Events
 Anna  Kamienska

Biography

Anna Kamienska was a poet, translator, critic, essayist, and editor. She published numerous collections of her own work and translated poetry from several Slavic languages, as well as sacred texts from Hebrew and Greek.

Continue reading this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.