Sitting in the garden, she sorts through seeds
of well-known plants, maybe animals,
though just as easily she could dream up
all these species,
and we’d accept that they exist.
Even with fingers gnarled as branches,
she pulls, sorts, and weaves
abundant threads, life forms, sequins,
Suddenly she recalls a poem from primary school,
then a second, a third, and proud, she declaims in a flash,
grabs the slick tongue of memory,
“You see? I remember.”
In her voice, the opening to Pan Tadeusz gets written anew,
every text takes on fresh colors, her gabbing gives off sparks
—maybe that’s the source of grandma’s feral
mottled skin, mimic
Her freckled arms snuggle a whole hemisphere,
her healing hands marshal a meal:
“Smear it with butter, not a knife!” Abracadabra—
and unhealthy turns into something
Steady as a fieldstone in the sun,
“Someone knocked on the window again at night,
so somebody died. But not me!
I’m right here, after all, I’m talking, and there’s still
so much to do.” She sits in the garden on a stool
as if in a trance. Murmurs covert counting-rhymes. Pulls
from the earth lengthy, lengthy, never-ending reins.
This isn’t the first poem in which my Grandma Stasia has appeared. Staying with her in her village I realized that I have this persistent, iconic image of her in my head, while in fact, she is ever changing, especially since she turned eighty. And even though she’s still energetic, has a playful spark in her eyes, and jokes around, she is quickly shrinking, and it’s as if her spirit is detaching from her body. She doesn’t always hear us. We see the change most in terms of her memory—we repeat various things to her, and she forgets that we’ve already talked about them. Or we see it in her hands, which want to accomplish so many things, yet they’re turning into “wood.”
I’ve written about moments in which “grandma suddenly remembers,” and in a flash of illumination, she pulls from a deep well a true vividness, the fluidity of the world, as if she were bringing back that former order and feeling of safety. “Hey, it’s not the end!” . . . Who is this person, present through my entire life, who has influenced so many other lives?
I’m so proud of her. I imagine someday she’ll turn into an enduring tree that will talk to us and continue to shelter us.
he handed me a revised version
of my love poem
asking with surprise
what the word katyush was doing
in a love poem
I responded with surprise
that I didn’t understand
he asked with a smile
what I meant to imply
by the word
I responded with a smile
that it’s like
a drop of fire
derived from the melting
Could it be—he asked with a smile—
that a typo slipped in
since for instance
is a Soviet rocket launcher
also known as
the Organs of Stalin
I answered with a smile—
what a strange situation, I thought
how in a poem
between the description of you
and my declaration
the word katyush appeared
did that love
have anything in common
with war or collapse
I thought quite long about the word
but I couldn’t find any
to replace it
I walked a long while
I remembered the way
but everything in that poem
made sense after all
Gdańsk, back in 2006. It was winter and cold as hell. From the shitty neighborhood Dolny Wrzeszcz, I arrived in the Old Town and pretty soon I was walking down the steps to one of the underground restaurants they have over there.
I felt awkward. I wasn’t a peasant, but I had never met anyone in a restaurant to talk about poetry either. However, a well-known poet—Antoni Pawlak—had invited me for drinks. That didn’t feel normal, either. I mean, once before he’d invited me to his house to talk over a bottle of whisky. That sounded nice, and I accepted. At the end of that meeting, he decided that my poetry should be seen. And so, I published my first group of poems in Migotania, Przejasnienia (Flickering, brightening).
Back to the restaurant. It was still that wonderful period when you were able to smoke inside, so we greeted each other, sat down, and lit up. Antoni began to look through the poems I had sent him earlier by email. The waiter brought us whiskey and beer. I was feeling confident—a young punk like me, I had a publication to my credit!
Antoni looked through the new work and at one point he paused. “It’s a great piece about love but are you sure there isn’t a typo with that katyush?” he asked.
April like a lovely flame this year
wants to save us with forsythia prayers
and plucks the heavens as lightly as strings.
To our wounds it presses tiny leaves.
This is the body's season, fragile, unholy,
trembling before each crush of air,
each ghost that capers in the distance.
Spring is killing us—
it kisses us on the lips.
As a child, I felt wounded by early spring. The season had an obvious delicacy and allure, but in a way that intensified instead of diminished its agony, especially in my native Warmia—a northerly Baltic territory known for its penetrating cold and its constant, merciless wind. Even though everything seemed to grow back, to spring to new life, death held sway: called us by our name, haunted body and spirit, grabbed us by our throats. Not for nothing, our ancestors had their feast of the dead in the spring. And now, of course, it's when Holy Week occurs for Christians, when the overwhelming silence and empty tomb are meant to offer proof of resurrection. This poem appears in my book Teraz i zawsze (Now and forever) (Instytut Mikołajewski, 2022).
Do you know the plant sorrowbalm?
When fire stifles every trace
of the word you (for you, with you, because of you),
smoke spurs the germination of its seeds.
Its blossoms hang heavy as a black peony’s,
yet its drooping petals are light.
Its roots penetrate the beginnings
of a story that’s come to an end.
Its thorns sear. But a tea or compress
from its leaves can heal.
Its fruit can be habit-forming,
cause nausea. Forgotten in a pocket,
it becomes a rattle beating
a frantic rhythm with every step.
For the I, barely breathing, its scent galls.
Wait, here comes a sneeze.
To clear the head at last.
In London's Kew Gardens I saw flowers from southern Africa, a region often devastated by wildfires. The plants attempting to survive there have become so savvy that the fire is not able to destroy them entirely; some of them form root systems that allow them to grow back even after having been burned. For other species, the smoke spurs the germination of seeds and hastens their growth. Reading about this, I knew that the information had the force of metaphor, but I didn't foresee the events that would give rise to this poem.
This translation originally appeared in the journal Nimrod .
On the far side of the lake, the shattered pane of an ice floe,
closer in waves like soft streaks, one by one
docking near the shore,
then setting out from shore.
Later I watched as a heron skimmed over that icy pane,
both real and reflected,
reflected and real:
that day I did nothing,
yet I did everything necessary.
The poem is pretty self-evident. Let readers take it in and figure out what’s going on. But beneath what’s universal in it, there’s something more prosaic and individual. When, for a long period, I was unable to finish a book of poems, another poet encouraged me—since I had a fellowship to Berlin—to work on poetry there instead of prose. I had always believed that poems come when they want to, but this time it was a matter of attitude, of making a habit of observing reality. In a month’s time, I had more than a dozen poems, including this one, and that Berlin notebook filled out my collection Najdziwniejsze (The strangest).
instead of flowers I got seeds
without pots, soil, or light.
I set aside money, bought a garret:
the sun lit up the windowsill,
left the rest of the room dark.
I found help online:
unwittingly I found myself in a community of gardeners.
standing in line once, talking,
I was accused of carelessness,
as I was smoking, and with flowers nearby!
I'm not smoking, only
smog has crept through the window
and flutters its wings.
months later, I've emerged from the shadows
and just now have noticed
the sun lights up more than the windowsill,
and in the flowerpot the lemons are bursting with juice.
I wrote this poem in a smoky room on one of those evenings when you look in vain for the light and hold on to the one bright spot in whichever corner with the hope that it will get bigger. The words of Greg Dulli's song came to me: "Step into the light, baby." And so, through the music and the haze, with feet dirty from the soil, I stepped into the light. Sosnowski wrote, “A poem leaves the house and never returns.” Read this one, and then create your own story.