“I sought a dead man and found God.” With this enigmatic entry from 1970, the poet Anna Kamienska summarizes the narrative thread that inadvertently gave shape to the first volume of her Notebook, containing entries from 1965–1972. The Notebook, she warns her Polish readers, is “not a memoir or diary by any stretch of the imagination.”
“I sought a dead man and found God.” With this enigmatic entry from 1970, the poet Anna Kamienska summarizes the narrative thread that inadvertently gave shape to the first volume of her Notebook, containing entries from 1965–1972. The Notebook, she warns her Polish readers, is “not a memoir or diary by any stretch of the imagination.” It grew, she explains,
from my poetic rough drafts, from my habit of jotting down observations, thoughts, snatches of poetry. I’ve also always taken notes from my reading, quotations, ideas. Both these streams converged and grew into a sui generis account of my inner life, written in shorthand, often in those approximations of sentences called thoughts.
In her introduction, Kamienska refuses to identify the crisis leading to the hardwon faith that is the subject of so many later entries. The Notebook’s first part, she comments noncommitally, “was written by a nonbeliever. But an intellectual and spiritual turning point is followed by the drama of an ever-changing, always embattled faith.” The transformation was in fact triggered by the sudden death of her husband, the poet Jan Spiewak, who died of cancer on December 22, 1967. This is the J. or Janek who appears in several of the entries translated here. Kamienska had always been “a soul in revolt, a spiritual quester” who “experienced every wrong the world committed intensely” from the start, as her childhood friend, the poet Julia Hartwig, recalls. The trauma of her husband’s death turned this quest into the purpose of both her poetry and her life.
The fascination with mysticism of all shapes, with archaic religions and folk cultures, that her earlier writing betrays becomes explicitly Christian in the later work, though it never takes a settled, comfortable shape. The intellectual breadth, relentless self-testing, and passionate introspection that mark her Notebook make her one of the great poet-mystics of postwar Poland. They may also explain why she never achieved the popularity of her close friend, the far more accessible poet Father Jan Twardowski, who appears in many of her entries. Her beloved husband remained her muse until her own death in 1986. In one late entry she recalls her many visits to his grave with Twardowski:
We’ve been walking among these graves for ten years now. Father Jan put a bunch of lilacs on Janek’s grave. I was surprised that lilacs still exist. We come and go, but the flowers remain the same and continue to bear the same names.
Scholar and translator Clare Cavanagh is the author of Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russia, Poland, and the West (2010), winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism. Other works of scholarship include Osip Mandelstam and the Modernist Creation of Tradition (1995), which received the AATSEEL Prize for Outstanding...