A Nest of Quiet: A Notebook

Storks, study, and solitude in a fading life.

by Anna Kamienska

I now exist on the principle of shortsightedness, which demands enhanced attention to the moment. Late wisdom, but close to the wisdom of childhood. A lovely summer day. Color, taste, scent. A squirrel. Cherries. Good tiredness. Cauliflower for supper. Clean house. And always darkness, darkness that spreads around all of it. Everything submerged in awful darkness.

 

 

Certain theologians assure us that the body’s resurrection begins at the moment of death.

They know too much. God had His reasons for keeping death under wraps.

 

 

Inscriptions at the cemetery in Kurozweki:


God sees
Time flees
Death at the gates
Eternity waits
1861

Grant them rest
They labored greatly
So the Last Day
Might wake them brightly.
1929



The inscription rings with a poetry much older than its date.

 

 

I escape into sleep. Sleep is what I’ll miss most when I die.

 

 

For awhile now my calendar’s been swarming with meetings and visits, not work. The human mill: it’s hard to escape when you don’t have a wife.

 

 

Internal conversations in the Gospels. Conversations on a level deeper than linguistic understanding. Those two levels of conversation overlap each other. The people talking to Jesus try to turn the exchange into an ordinary chat. But he decodes what’s left unsaid, and answers questions they haven’t asked.

 

 

—“Do you really believe that Christ sits locked in the tabernacle of that little church?”
—“I do.”
—“How can that be? I’m not saying He’s not there, I’m asking how can you believe it?”

 

 

I’ve learned to value failed conversations, missed connections, confusions. What remains is what’s unsaid, what’s underneath. Understanding on another level of being.

 

 

The sun came out today. But I still ache all over. It made me think of Waclaw Gralewski’s theory: every tumble, bruise, broken leg or arm is the price for disrupting some hidden order. Instant punishment.

 

 

No home anymore. Nowhere to return. My house is a ruin, a cemetery. You may yearn for the grave, but just try living there.

 

 

I have no talent. I’m not talking about the literary marketplace: I mean how I see myself. I write poems for myself, like these notebooks, to think things through, that’s all.

 

 

The soul has two distinct layers. One is the “I”—capricious, fickle, uncertain, it hops from joy to despair. The other, the “soul,” is steady, sure, unwavering, watchful, ready, aware.

 

 

I received the grace of shadows. The grace of remaining in the dark.

 

 

God is the present tense. That’s why it’s so hard to seize the moment. God is the eternal now. We either chase the past or escape into the future, place our whole hope in the future. Whereas faith, hope, and love must ripen in the present. That’s why we ignore time, waste it, kill it. We’re killing God.

 

 

Granddad says that only now, at the age of eighty-six, has he lost his faith. Maybe that’s also grace, to cast off all supports and learn to walk, to keep on even without the gift of faith, in darkness. Since that’s how we have to enter death.

 

 

To write with silence. Iesus autem tacebat. Poetry from stillness. J.* speaks to me only through silence. It’s harder and more eloquent than words.


 

I felt like crying, but I denied myself that pleasure, since Janek* was supposed to come over. But he called to say he couldn’t come because he was washing the dachshund, who was going to see Monika Zeromska’s dog tomorrow. A major event. So I cry, corporeal, not spiritual tears. My voice is swollen on the phone.

“Child!” says Mrs. Z.

 

 

How to write so that the poem is as close as possible to silence? Zen—to play on the lute without strings.


Simplicity—of course. But how? What kind?

 

 

In the human world everything is mixed. No pure states. Even death is life in some sense. Archaeology—eschatology?

 

 

I know a Marxist who wants to raise his son on “metaphysics.” “It’s got more to offer,” he says.

 

 

The tomb is a gate. No one saw Christ rise from the dead. With good reason. Everything on “faith.” God always hides in a cloak of uncertainty.

 

 

My theory of dispersed power is confirmed daily. Power shatters like the mirror in Andersen’s fairy tale, and a splinter sticks in nearly every heart. Teacher—pupil, doctor—patient, sales clerk—customer: all these relations take shape on the plane of power and dependence. It’s a disease of the system. Even the cleaning woman in the courtyard screams at the tenants about throwing trash from their balconies. But those are just the petals dropped from the only tree in the yard.

“Clean up after your dogs,” she yells at me.
It doesn’t matter that I don’t have dogs. She’s got her shard of power, the right to yell.

 

 

Seneca: “To treat the days like separate lives.”

 

 

Bruno Schultz: “To ripen into childhood.”

 

 

I walk around disguised as an overweight old lady.

 

 

Deafness has seized even my dreams. They’re voiceless, like silent movies. Or when the machine breaks in the theater and the audience suddenly starts stomping.

 

 

We recognize things, as in poetry, through resemblances. Through metaphors. This way we gather them into wider systems so that they don’t dangle alone.

 

 

Tristitia vestra vertetur in gaudium. The alchemy of the inner life.

 

 

Biblical man consists of three parts: nefesh (soul, throat, essence, longing), basar (the body’s envelope, meat, flesh), ruah(spirit, God’s breath).

 

 

I got back from Bulgaria and found out that Irena Kronska died on the sixteenth. Zosia Koreywo was with her to the end. She says she received more than she gave. I’m not afraid of death now, she says, it was a wonderful passage.

They put a crucifix in the coffin, the Gospels with her notes in the margins, photos of her daughter, her husband, and Kafka. Just enough luggage for the afterlife.

 

 

There are beautiful, gleaming beetles that feed on feces.

 

 

The perverse memory of our era resides in the files and archives of the secret police. Sometimes nations should pray for amnesia.

 

 

Never. Never. Never. I could fill a whole notebook with that word.

 

 

Janek calls with important news. Your grandson has a tooth. When they feed little Jakub, it rings against the spoon.

 

 

Holy Never, have mercy on us.

 

 

When I was little, I was always shocked when people said I was an orphan. Now I’m surprised when they call me a widow. He didn’t die, he grew so high alongside me that I can’t reach him.

 

 

John 8: 1–11. About the woman taken in adultery. What did Jesus write on earth? People assume that he wrote down the accusers’ sins. Now why would he do that?

They threatened him with Mosaic law, which says that the adulteress must be stoned. That law was written in stone. The letter, the sign were the first manifestations of the law. But He wanted to show them that the written law is empty if it bears no relation to the living. He wrote his signs in sand, in the dust of stones, which the wind might scatter at any moment. “Here are your laws,” His writing said. The Doctor of both laws. Mosaic law written in stone and the law of love written in sand. It couldn’t be carved into stone without becoming a dead letter. Every stone they meant to throw at that living woman held letters from the smashed stone tablets. People write in stone to make their letters last. God doesn’t hesitate to cast his word on the wind, since he knows it won’t be lost.

 

 

Saint Augustine—Mozart. I like seeing those two names together. The same spiritual expanse.

 

 

Diogenes, living in the barrel, had a bowl for drinking water. One day he saw a boy drinking from his hand. So he smashed his bowl.

 

 


Pain because of Pawel.
Pain because of Janek.
A nasty review in Politics.
And still I walk around smiling.

 

 


I returned
to confirm
there can be no return.

 

 

The dogmatic certainty of unbelief. And the constant uncertainty of faith.

 

 

Smile through a face petrified with grief. Smile at least to the Lord God.

 

 

Simplicity in poetry is humility itself. We know that what we want to say exceeds us, may even lie beyond expression. We can only make simple signs, poor stuttering sentences. Even questions tend towards grandiloquence.

Poetry is not an “act of imagination.” Imagination sins through pride; it can be bribed. It’s coquettish, self-assured. It gestures at creation, but it’s just that, a gesture, usurpation. Imagination is the flirt of poetry.

 

 

There are writers guarded by their wives, rejoicing in their work. Everything matters more to me: laundry, groceries, someone asks me to stop by, Pawel’s* pants need pressing. Then I sit down at my desk and can’t remember how it’s done. Only now and then the lines attack like birds of prey, any time, any place. And demand to be written.

 

 

I call my shadow like a dog. And go.

 

 

For the first time in a long while I’m home alone with my older son. He’s distant and strange. As if I were air. “I don’t know what you want from me,” he says.

 

 

The medicine of words—medicina verbi.

 

 

To hide from old age. To crawl into a crack in the floor.

 

 

On the road to Lublin an “animal slaughterhouse”—repulsive words. Some person leads a cow to the slaughterhouse. The cow bows its head low. It knows. It holds a deeply human sorrow. We’ll remain barbarians as long as we feed on the flesh of animals.

You shall not kill—the commandment should be understood inclusively—you shall not kill!
A parliament of storks just past Garwolin. A field full of storks.

 

 

Sorrow—that’s the noblest thing linking us to animals. The sorrow of existence.

 

 

Everything is only a promise. Happiness, love, life itself—what would it all be if only...

Norwid’s “lack,” “want.” “The stain of this globe is privation.”
You shouldn’t look for completion, the promises fulfilled that our hungers demand. The hungers alone must suffice. Hunger is the gift of hunger. Want gives want.




Passerby, tell Poland. The title of a volume I’ll never write.

 

 

[-------] [Censored on the basis of legislation of 7/31/81, On the control of publications and displays, article 2, section 3 (Official Gazette, no. 20, position 99: 1983, Official Gazette, no. 44, position 204)]

 

 

“No oppression would carry weight if there were not those willing to yield to it.”

 

 

In one of his radio talks, Janusz Korczak said: “I escaped from youth the way you flee an insane asylum.”

 

 

Korczak: “When the little wrongs come, it’s not worth crying. When the great wrongs come, you forget to cry.”

 

 

I dream Korczak, I obsess. I meet him daily through his letters and stories about him. I feel his presence like my own dear dead. And only one poem to show for it.

 

 

Korczak (“One on One with God”):



Thank you, Creator, that you created pigs and elephants with long snouts, that you shredded leaves and hearts, that you gave beets their sweetness. Thank you for nightingales and bedbugs. That girls have breasts, that fish breathe air, that we have lightning and cherries. That you commanded us to multiply in most eccentric ways, that you gave thought to stones, seas, and people.

 

 

A conversation with L.R. about staging Korczak’s Senate of Madmen. We choose whatever won’t meet opposition, gray and flat. We’re in our own prison. We don’t pick our values and stick by them, instead we think: Will it get through? What will the censor say? So our hands are tied, and culture dies.





Two weeks before the orphans were deported, they performed Rabindranath Tagore’s Post Office. Little Abrasza played the dying child.

Someone asked Korczak why he’d picked such a sad play. He said they had to learn to receive the Angel of Death properly.

 

 

When I woke up this morning, I didn’t have a face. Just a mask of pain. I wanted to be more than a mother, I wanted to be a friend. But the director calls us to order. You don’t get to pick the role.

 

 

Szczepanski’s beautifully written text on the Parthenon. I hate beautifully written texts.

 

 

During the sleepless hours of the night a thought came to me that seemed important. I got up in the dark and wrote it down. In the morning I read: “I went looking for loneliness. But it found me.”

 

 

Yesterday P. asked: “Do you think the children from Job’s second chance could actually be happy?”

 

 

Man—a reed swaying in the wind. Definition courtesy of a great poet—Jesus of Nazareth.

 

 

Marcus Aurelius: “Things don’t touch the soul: they stand motionless at the gate.”

 

 

Motherhood means doing penance not only for your own sins, but for your children’s too.

 

 

Dreams in the Gospels. Dreams in the Bible. I’ve thought about them for a long time. That they were.

 

 

Letters of the condemned. Last words scratched on a cell’s wall. To write like that.

 

 

Saint Hieronymus: “O solitude, giving birth to the stones that build the Great King’s city.”

 

 

Bereshit bara Elohim et hashamayim ve’et ha’arets.
In the beginning God made heaven and earth.
The holy first words in Hebrew. Almost like touching God himself.

 

 

To suffer. It means God is near. Grace—like a scalpel without anaesthesia.

 

 

Yes, she’d been everything, just like in the old Bible song. The whole house was in her keeping, she bore sons, she spun, she wove, she made the meals, she washed and sewed, she clothed them all and fed them. She endured betrayals and departures.

And now she sits on the doorstep of an empty house. The song of praise was written long ago. And she thinks:
—No, I won’t survive this.
The burden had been her freedom.

 

 

The Bible is the origin, the source. But each beginning is also within us, each of us holds our own Bible, our own Ecclesiastes and Revelation.

 

 

Saint Catherine’s memoirs (1922–23):


And I went up the hill and asked the Lord what to do. And the Lord answered me: Overflow like pure water, smooth and still, and reflect me in yourself.

 

 

To praise Him in His absence and His presence. His absence is only the scales on our eyes.

 

 

Niobe. Niobe—that’s me. That’s every abandoned mother.

 

 

To remember always the kind of rescue that Pawel and I mastered through those long, hard years. Take yourself to a new level, higher, intellectual. Those years with my son were important to me. I thought it was true friendship, complete understanding, no galoshes on the soul.

But that’s just what it looked like. In one instant he turned and left, following his bride, as the Bible commands. Now just brief, formulaic meetings, a peck on the cheek.

 

 

A twentieth-century bon mot: “Those thirty years passed like the slap of a knout.”

 

 

I remembered the searchlights that the bombers used to illuminate the earth and people’s hearts—as targets. It wasn’t light. It was bright darkness. Bright darkness—in me. Bright darkness of death. Bright darkness of loneliness.

 

 

“I exist, therefore I will not be.” (Slobodnik)

 

 

My way of the cross, my winter’s way. To his dead hands. I knew I would lose them and I drew them lying on the blanket that last day. Lovely, delicate hands. Why did I draw them? How did I know?

 

 

Of two wise men the wisest is he who says least.

 

 

Zosia K.’s husband is dying. He never saw the world, but he’s enthralled by falling snow. He asked them to open the windows. Snow and death entered together.

 

 

God’s book of life grew from the longing to escape from anonymity, the masses. May God at least see us and remember.

 

 

You shall not take a person in possession. It should rank among the first commandments.

 

 

A good conversation with Z. The world of biology. “Future life,” he says, “will be just the same as now, but everything will be lifted up. God will illuminate it with his vision, will draw it to him.”

The male moth as a rule lacks an alimentary canal. He doesn’t need it. The cluster of nerves on his head leads him unfailingly to the female through sense of smell. He can recognize the scent at twelve kilometers. He fertilizes her and then dies. That’s the high point of his life. It’s his life’s time. Biology determines the time of every living creature. Time equals the time of every individual life and anatomical structure.
Humans also move inexorably toward their goal—toward death. In it they are fulfilled. Only, unlike the moth, they stumble en route.

 

 

Z. left the same day. He gets scared when I talk about the ruin of my house. It frightens him the way other people are terrified by the word itself—death.

 

 

A collective poetry reading at the Union. Thirty poets with Slonimski at their helm. From Ludmila Marjanska’s poem I remembered “The dying man is not the one who was born.” Strange: the recurring motif of meat in their work. Maybe because there’s none in the stores?

 

 

Misfortune, personal disaster stops our inner time short. Objective time moves on—but we spin in place like straws in water.

 

 

My work is best seen as a variety of orphan poetry.

 

 

Again about dreams in the Bible. Dreams are my specialty. The Bible as humankind’s dream.

 

 

Since morning, despair lifts its head like a faithful animal.

 

 

This morning I suddenly catch myself: I’m not there, I’m so lost in thought, I don’t know what’s going on around me. Can you think yourself to death?

 

 

Where your pain is, there your heart lies also.

 

 

The Hebrew language. I kiss it like a sacred book. Time is scrolled in its letters. Saul and David walk here, the exiled poet weeps. Even silence speaks in Hebrew. God is silent in this speech.

 

 

How do animals tolerate solitude? While we were going to Poznan, Wislawa Szymborska told me about how her hedgehog, all alone, fell in love with a broom. Am I becoming a self-delusive hedgehog? I don’t want to fall for a broom, whatever it’s called. I want to be free from that. Free from solitude? That’s the riddle I keep asking myself. Freedom demands solitude, but solitude becomes bondage. I bang my head against the wall with thinking.

 

 

Talking too much about yourself is like wearing your clothes inside out.

 

 

Rabbi Eliezer: “If all the seas were ink, all the reeds were quills, heaven and earth were scrolls, and every person a scribe, they could still never write down what I learned from the Torah.”

 

 

Just think: your last dream can’t be written down or told!

 

 

A. absolutely lacks a sense of humor. Deadly earnest, mortally engaged, always the great words. He rolls like a tank over flies, the irritating, buzzing flies of life.

 

 

My study of Hebrew moves along. Sometimes I get the impression that the language isn’t real, it’s some fantastic construct to which I’ve been admitted, like a palace in a dream. This comes from the complete disinterestedness of my labors, since only the Lord God himself would chat with me in Hebrew.





Junipers in the forests outside Warsaw. I didn’t know that junipers like sand. They stand, huddled, like secret, silent figures in hoods. They walk behind us. I turn to look. They stop in their tracks, like monks.

 

 

Title for my notebooks—“Hieroglyphs.”

 

 

A conversation with Father J. in Powazki. Bright day, almost warm. Children zigzag through the soldiers’ graves. The military section already flickering with flames of little lamps. We talk about body and soul. We blame everything bad on the body. It’s time to give the body a break. It’s not its fault. The body, a glutton, just wants cutlets. The soul, the subtle soul, wants much worse things—power, glory. “In dreams,” Father J. says, “the body resembles the soul.”

We’ve been walking through the graves for a decade now.

 

 

Sculptors have heads that look sculpted. Deep furrows carved in their faces. Our preoccupations and passions make their marks, leave abbreviations.

 

 

Ninetieth birthday of my granddad, Stanislaw Szypillo. He’s still youthful, striking, with a large white moustache. He maintains his military bearing and plays his schoolboy pranks. He just got back from the sanatorium in Naleczowa. He charmed the nurses of course. He found out who’d be seated at his table before he arrived, and he told each of his neighbors that the other one was deaf. So they all started shouting as soon as they sat down. To Granddad’s joy. The signs on the walls inspired him: “Silence heals.”

 

 

The Song of Songs is a glorious love poem: the indecency comes from reducing it to an allegory. The Scripture’s strength is its literalness. And inscribed inside its literal sense is a mystery. But our grubby hands can’t touch it.

 

 

I can’t stand symmetry. Krysia and Ludwik ask me over with another widow.

Pawel and Helena bought tickets for both of us mothers.
I feel annihilated by it.

 

 

Musil (about Rilke): “To be linked by the smallest things to the greatest.”

 

 

Does your body still rise from the dead if you don’t want it?

 

 

Deafness isn’t silence. It’s the endless, wretched rattling of my blood.

 

 

There can be no lack of blessings in the hand of him who blesses; there can be no lack of blessings in the storehouses of space.





Grass—the earth’s fleece. These tiny plants bind the earth’s depths to the great expanse of space.

 

 

Chinese aphorism: “Can the swallow or sparrow grasp the great ideas of the crane?”

 

 

J.’s “new poem”:


In your hair sleep sways to music,
In your palms fruits speak in human tongues.


It’s about me. What more do I want?!


Heart of my mother, don’t bear witness against me

—From Word and Fears


The suffering in that poetry still clutches at my throat.


Return as you are, in the tatters of rivers,
Bitten by the marshes’ beaks...


That’s the malaria, it tortured him long after he got back to Poland.


Return, rinsed by fiery lice...
Return, in the barbed scales of charred cartridges.

—From Anna


Anna” was his great Song of Songs. The only kind imaginable after the sufferings of war, wandering, his parents’ death, his own near-starvation.

“We’ve taken each other in remembrance,” J. said.

 

 

Talmud: the dream is its own explanation.

 

 

There are things better left untouched by words (blunt instruments).

 

 

A dream about an azure sea and elephants. A kind female elephant retrieves my lost glasses from the water.

 

 

He emerged green as a grasshopper from a tiny red car.

 

 

Caesar Vespasian, before his death: “Awful. I sense I’m about to become a god.”

 

 

A conversation in Powazki. The kingdom of God isn’t just another utopia, it’s a scattered reality. Wherever Truth and Goodness appear, the space of the heavenly kingdom opens too. Thy kingdom come.

 

 

Ending a story with the hero’s death is too easy. Death is the simplest solution for tragedies and conflicts, cutting the knot instead of untying it. But most writers couldn’t get by without death.

 

 

I’ve liked boxes since childhood. I kept my wretched treasures in them, scraps, bits of glass. Then letters, family keepsakes. But now there’s nothing good enough. Can you fit love into a box? Even the final box can’t hold a person.

 

 

Splendid occupations: making jam, sewing, darning. Darning holes in nothingness, scrubbing up the abyss, stitching painful opposites together.

Women do this humming.

 

 


black river pervades me
black river surrounds me
black river seizes me
black river flows to the black sea
tosses me onto black sand

 

 

—“Your life is a number,” says time, being a Pythagorean.
—“My life frees itself from you at every moment.”
—“It realizes me, proves, fulfills, affirms.”
—“I am that which lies beyond time. Like a melody, which sounds completely only after the last note is played.”
—“Time and music. I’m both at once. I don’t know myself how it happens. Music is written into time, but gives it a value beyond numbers.”

 

 

Little Jakub, a technological child, sees the world as a great machine, a computer on which he presses buttons.

He asks: “Who turned off the storm?”

 

 

“Night of the Senses”: St. John of the Cross. No poetry, since poetry needs things, the ladder of things along which the angels of poems ascend and descend.

 

 

Freud thought that each person possessed a fixed stock of affection. So if you love someone else, you love yourself less.

Freud’s wrong. Love doesn’t run out. It’s the miracle of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. The more we love another person, the more we love ourselves, and everything else, and the world.

 

 

The mental illness known as writer’s block.

 

 

Heidegger: “A question is the piety of thought” (lecture on technology).

 

 

P.S. asks me why I’m learning Hebrew. Why do I live, walk, get up in the morning, eat, sleep...?

 

 

Hölderlin: “What remains of the poet in times of woe?”

Heidegger: “For the Greeks being and beauty were synonyms. Now beauty is the business of the pastry chef.”

Hölderlin: “Still, whatever endures was made by poets.”





Wise saying from St. John of the Cross: “the habit of imperfection.”

 

 

I learn to look at my literary failures through St. John’s eyes: “To enter the path means leaving your own road.”

 

 

Four-year-old Jakub at his great-grandmother’s grave. He tells his grandma (other one) that he left flowers on someone’s table, it made the cemetery happy.

 

 

Ania tells Jakub going past the department store:

—“You can buy everything in that big store.”
—“Where can you just buy one thing?” he asks.

 

 

Little Ruta is two weeks old. They put her in a onesie for the first time.


Lulla lulla little bough, lulla lulla lu
In the ragged hungers of creation


Her grandfather might have written it for little Ruta all those years ago. Maciej Majewski read it on the radio today. Also: “O best beloved...”

 

 

When I go to midnight mass the sky is clear. Full moon. Stars. When I come home, rusty clouds sweep across the sky, driven by the wind, as if the wind were chasing the moon and stars. It’s warm. God is born.

 

 

Abraham Heschel: “What seems to be a stone is a drama. What looks natural is miraculous. There are no lofty facts, just the works of God.” 

 

 

Jedrzej Jan—that’s the name of the newborn. As a triple grandmother, I am apparently obliged to buy blindingly bright blouses. I comply.

 

 

Wild strawberries are best for mental shock.
Wild strawberries are best for the world’s end.

 

 

Dream. A mailbox like a shriveled apple, resembling a human face. I have the key. I put it in the slot that looks like a mouth—nothing. I put it in the eye slits. The box is empty. Someone’s laughing at my need for letters.

 

 

I dream that I want to take a bath. I get in the tub, but it’s full of books, not water. You can’t scrub up with books.

 

 

Janka’s mother is sick. One lung doesn’t work. She’s so weak, but she stands before the high mountain of dying.

 

 

“Great things happen when people meet with mountains.” (An old Buddhist proverb found in Stanislaw Vincenz.) I want to add immediately: also applies to the sea.

 

 

Mickiewicz to Goszczynski (1839): “The calendar and the breviary: those are a person’s most important books.”

 

 

The deaf pray with silence in vain. The blind yearn for true darkness.

 

 

To express the truth. With a chisel. A word. With silence. With life.

 

 

A tree split by a bolt of lightning. Open and always green like God.

 

 

When I think about Christ, I’m always stopped short by a clause in parentheses: he was fully human (except for sin). That “except for sin” rubs me the wrong way. I remember all Christ’s moments of weakness in the Gospels. Maybe something almost like sin lurks in those dark moments? Like the slightly overwrought anger when he drives the moneylenders from the temple? Sometimes I’d like to have Christ as a brother in sin, not just in suffering. Although I know his being sinless was the sign of his divinity.

 

 

We don’t want immortality for ourselves: too scary. We just need it for our family, our loved ones.

 

 

Overheard: she lived like a dove and she died like one.

 

 

Jozio Kosinski tells me about the composition topic his twin daughters got in school: what good are the elderly to us? Apparently it’s fixed in the curriculum.

 

 

Elias Canetti: “Perhaps the soul of every man must be incarnated at least once as a Jew.”

 

 

An elderly craftsman, a blacksmith, tells me:


You have to respect the iron. That means knowing what to do with it. The blacksmith’s music is the song of angels to me. Lady, you have no idea how great the iron smells!

 

 

No one says anymore that he writes poems, articles, essays. Everybody writes texts. And that’s exactly what comes out: texts.

 

 

Octavio Paz and his splendid essay “Twilight of Revolution” (1974):



The twilight of revolution arises from a crisis of linear time. The collapse of the future. Youth movements spring up in defense of the present. An explosion of sensuality—the body is the present. The crisis of the avant-garde in art. The avant-garde seeks perpetual novelty and turns it into the tyranny of the new. All revolutions degenerate into regimes....There is no art that doesn’t create style and there is no style that doesn’t annihilate art in the end....What remains? Above all the defense of dying mortals—humor.

 

 

Poem—a pebble tossed in the abyss.
Rock beneath my head—Jacob’s stone.

 

 

The space of loneliness. A slit in space. The eye of the abyss. The abyss is an overblown concept. No getting around it.

 

 

All sounds fused—silence.

All colors fused—white.

 

 

Silence has gone gray. Not hair, silence.

 

 

Sometimes I reread my last note as if it were really the last. What would it sound like then?

At times I think I jot down these scraps of thoughts and emotions just waiting for that last sentence, the sentence that will reveal all.

 

 

Ania tells me that Jedrzej (eighteen months) went on his first merry-go-round. He was not enthusiastic, but bore it with dignity.

 

 

Szymon tells me that he has enough scholarly materials piled up for three lifetimes.

I answer him in the words of the Talmud: “Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor. Finishing the job is not your problem.”

 

 

All lights combined to make this darkness.

 

 

Mrs. M. says: “Right here, sitting at this table, I pitted thirteen pounds of gooseberries. Only to find out I didn’t have to. But I told myself: you survived the uprising, you were wounded, you’ll get through this too.”

 

 

Granddad says he makes the sign of the cross over all his beloved photographs: Mura (my mother), my father, J. He’s saying goodbye. He thinks about the accountant Mizeracki, who died suddenly, a motorcycle accident, he thinks about those who have wronged him. Then he starts thinking about those he’s wronged, who should forgive him. He met an old lady who had trouble walking. He took her arm and they circled the garden twice. And he realized that he never used to think about helping people, he’d seen people walk slowly so many times.

The night hours pass, and he takes stock of his life. He swallows another sleeping pill. He falls asleep at one, wakes up at four. He performs his morning rituals. He doesn’t throw out the wilted flowers, because I brought them. I’ll probably do the same. Here at the home, there’s a father whose daughter comes to see him. She takes him for a walk, her face radiates joy...Love is when you don’t have anyone so you can be good to everyone.

 

 

A biblical bestiary. I’d still like to write it.

 

 

How many times have I crossed out the conjunction “and” while writing poems. Even that seems too chatty.

 

 

I slowly withdraw from my body.

 

 

I went to see Granddad the day before I left on my trip. I found him lying in bed. He put his shirt on this morning, but didn’t have strength to get dressed. He lies in a dark corner of the musty little room. I made him lemonade—the only thing he consumes all day. He told me one more time about seeing Albrecht Radziwill in Nieswiez, and it wore him out. I put a piece of amber in a little scapular for him. I left fresh flowers. And I had to go. Now he’s at the mercy of the understaffed home and its nasty director. On the way back I prayed in spirit to Mama. I asked her to do something. But she can act only through me. She asks for my help.

 

 

The poems deluged me. They came at me like wild bees.

 

 

The word “zmich” means something like cud. The digested contents of a cow’s stomach. During the famine in Russia, they pulled it out and cooked it.

 

 

“‘Sed contra’—as Thomas of Aquinas used to say.”—Milosz.

 

 

“Spending time with the Bible every day doesn’t go unpunished—you can’t get away.” —Milosz.

 

 

Beneath the skull, a nest of quiet.

 

 

Granddad is dying, but he still gets dressed every day and lies on his bedspread in sandals, not slippers. He wants to die in readiness, as he lived. Can he?...I leave while he’s sleeping. I stroke his gaunt hands to say goodbye, it doesn’t wake him.

Dying—it’s a task on a human scale, but it exceeds us, like every other human task. Animals manage it better.

 

 

A cold day, but sunny. Blue sky, gold in the autumn air. I’m returning from Granddad. He lies sick, alone, like Job. As I leave, great tears spill down my face. He says: “Maybe God will have mercy and take me to Him.”


He, who was strong as an oak and never showed his feelings...The teary dark eyes of an old dog.

 

 

I hurry home, to the book that waits on my desk. Mauriac, “Bloc-notes”:



For those who love Christ old age doesn’t really exist, since Grace gives us once and for all the age we will have for eternity. A person in a state of Grace is at every moment the age of his soul.


These words were written for me, waiting for me. Mauriac wrote them on December 17, 1966. He was eighty-one years old.

 

 

Granddad arrives at that moment when all concepts turn inside out. I say: “Sleep.” He says: “Eternal rest.” I say: “Hope.” He says: “Death.” I say: “Nice weather.” He says: “Emptiness. What’s weather?”

 

 

I want to buy some fish for dinner. A mile-long line in front of the store. I go to the drugstore for medicine. It’s closed. I want to buy butter—out of stock.

After a string of such experiences a person goes numb.
Granddad asks, like a child, for marmalade. But of course there’s no marmalade either.

 

 

First thing, even before dawn, I unlocked the door to his room. It was completely dark. I turned on the light. I prayed for a long moment before the shape covered in a white sheet. His presence filled the entire room. It was very quiet even in my deaf ears.

If I ever fell short in what I owed him, I made up for it now with my legs, trotting across the boggy paths to arrange for the funeral.
Funeral, December 21, Friday. And then on Saturday, the twelfth anniversary for J.
I stare amazed at the people buzzing around with their baskets full of sausages and herring, swarming in holiday lines.

 

 

In the cigarette box, where he kept his “treasures”—I found just two scraps of paper: his certificate and a note from the prison in Leczyca in 1946. Yellow papers, barely stuck together with a strip of brown tape. Here, in these two scraps, hides the secret of his fate. That provincial storyteller, whose rich, vital stories, full of concrete details and names, went to sleep along with him, never told the important things about himself. He always talked about other people.

He knew everyone at the home, and could tell the story of every life.
Good, deaf Mrs. K. dreamed today, not knowing he had died, that he came to her, took her hand, and his hands were cold.
—“How on earth did your hands get so cold, they’re always warm...”And then she woke up and found out. She’d kept a blessed candle for his last road. But she was too late. We all are.

 

 

Where does the soul go after death? Jacob Boehme said: “It doesn’t have to go anywhere.”

 

 

We buried Granddad in the holy yellow earth of the cemetery at Skolimow, near the forest. He lived ninety-two years.

 

 

I ran around today decorating all the graves: J., Lec, Pietak, Edzia, Mama (my father, and Grandma, and Uncle Geniek are there too).

Afternoon. Holy Mass for the souls of J. and Granddad.
And then I force myself back to all the living.

 

 

The last day of the year. Fine weather spreads across a vast underground mirror of pain and tears.

* J. Kamienska's late husband, poet Jan Spiewak.

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* Kamienska's son.

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Originally Published: May 1, 2012

Translated by Clare Cavanagh

COMMENTS (3)

On May 1, 2012 at 5:04pm JoAnne Braley wrote:
I enjoyed all of "A Nest of Quiet: A Notebook."
Brava.

On May 7, 2012 at 5:16pm nb wrote:
These are really great, and true.

On May 13, 2012 at 4:47pm Grace wrote:
"There are things better left untouched by words (blunt
instruments)."

This is one. I felt it. Thank you.

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This prose originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Poetry magazine

May 2012

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 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.

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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