exactly the forehead, exactly the lips, exactly the hands
with the same dirty stain at the fingernail
with little plaits
in a georgette dress
with a dahlia at the cheek, a strawberry to the mouth
in that blue-grey band in the hair
(and: would ashes bloom?)
What—exactly—is happening in the first line of this poem? Why does the line insist on exactness and yet breaks off, three times, unable to formulate the whole thought? Does the speaker study her own forehead, lips and hands, or does she look intensely at someone else? Does “exactly” emphasise the patience of her visual and tactile exploration? Or does this qualifier confirm some similarity, traced carefully in a mirror, a photograph, life? Is the speaker’s insistence on exactness her recognition of inadequacy, a difficulty with recording what can be seen, experienced and remembered?
I ask myself these questions each time I read this poem. As a translator of Krystyna Miłobędzka’s poetry, which coaxes the Polish language out of its syntactic ruts, I am intrigued by the open spaces created in her texts—the places which invite me to enter the writing and to respond to the poet’s turns of thought, unexpected word order, unconventional syntax. I know that for Miłobędzka as a person engaged in the process of writing such encounters are important—she encourages her readers to add their own thoughts and words to her poems: “How else could we communicate? Why should I assume that I know life better than others, those who listen to me or read me?”
Krystyna Miłobędzka always prepares carefully for conversations with her readers. She writes down her thoughts in texts that I call scripts for poetry evenings. Four such scripts have been published as I vanish I am—their title equates being with vanishing and expresses a belief fundamental to Miłobędzka’s thinking and writing. It acknowledges the incessant movement of our life, its fleetingness and changeability. “If a record, a text, wants to be as close to life as possible, it has to be imperfect, it has to be a rough draft,” explains the poet in “lost along the way,” one of the four scripts. “Life is not perfect, my life is not perfect, and the writing me cannot, does not know how to, record life. Language is not perfect in expressing that which is the most important; it cannot name feelings and thoughts we want to pass on to one another.”
This imperfection, both of life and language, is one of the reasons why the poem’s opening falters on “exactly,” counter-intuitively admitting the inaptitude of its own investigation, yet, at the same time, enacting the roughness of the record, its sketchiness and imprecision. Through such jotted-down scraps of thought, bits of images, broken phrases, the poem grows closer to life as it is lived by us.
The poem’s second line seems to refine my search for possible answers to the questions posed by its hesitant, or approximative, opening. To me, the phrase “with the same dirty stain” registers not only recognition, but also similarity. But what exactly has been identified? What about the stain itself: is it the stain that has always marked the speaker or is it the stain that has proven her connection to another person? Together with her, I am looking closely at the finger, possibly part of the hand mentioned in the previous line. The stain may be a blemish, but it also signals an imperfection as a vital sign of life. It deserves to be studied. In the space created by the stanza break I have time for longer observation; in the visual silence Miłobędzka has inserted for me as her reader, I can contemplate now the dirtiness of the stain, this trace of some activity which confirms our engagement in living.
I emerge from the silence to encounter another preposition “with” at the start of the second stanza. This repetition, instrumental (grammatically, Polish needs the instrumental case here) in outlining the characteristics of the person or persons observed by the speaker and me, establishes the pattern for this section of the poem. Here Miłobędzka collects five studies, each concentrated on one small detail, chosen to identify their subject as a girl who grows into a woman. Here time is embodied in five gestures and it elapses between braiding the hair and decorating the hair with “that blue-grey band.”
I can still see the hand, or the hands: interweaving the strands of the hair, readjusting the band, but also straightening the georgette dress, stroking the cheek with the dahlia, putting the strawberry to the mouth. The hands introduce other parts of the body into the picture. “If there’s something more perfect than words, it’s gestures, a smile, a glance—our body,” remarks Miłobędzka in “lost along the way.” “I dream about the word extended instead of the hand, and the hand instead of the word. That’s why I’m interested in theatre, the art of theatre which articulates thoughts and desires by means of the body, without the help of words. Theatre which has lost words, taciturn theatre of few words, theatre not from here.”
Reading Miłobędzka’s second stanza I attend to her mime. I interpret the gestures to reconfigure their relation to some bigger scenarios. I try to make them fit some larger whole. Yet the poet warns me that such wholeness cannot be attained. Instead, Miłobędzka invites me to see the wholeness as “wondering, entering a labyrinth,” because “the wholeness of the world is indescribable; there are no words for the wholeness.” When I accept this kind of thinking, I can reconcile myself to the swift turns of the lines in this part of the poem, I can appreciate—without the anxiety about their fragmentariness—the fleeting presences they sketch.
I need this moment of reconciliation with the fractured nature of our lives and our memories, because, with the last turn of her poem, Miłobędzka asks me to contemplate a very fragile possibility. So fragile that it is cupped between two unexpected parentheses as if between two hands:
(and: would ashes bloom?)
The silence that surrounds this tentative question never fails to stop me in my tracks. I am trying not to gasp at what emerges from this silence, but each time I am astonished at this thought, phrased almost as an afterthought because of the timidly added “and,” the poem’s only conjunction. This thought is daring, ridiculous, fascinating in its surreal simplicity. It embraces our human transience and yet looks beyond our temporariness—not with certainty, but with imaginative inquisitiveness. It both supports and queries Krystyna Miłobędzka’s conviction that “[l]osing is in the nature of language and in the nature of my relationships with others, with the world.”
Krystyna Miłobędzka, “lost along the way,” I vanish I am (Biuro Literackie, 2010) 45-53.
Krystyna Miłobędzka (b.1932) is one of the most innovative Polish poets. She has also written plays for children as well as a monograph and a volume of essays on children’s theatre. She is the author of twelve books of poetry. Her collected Zbierane. 1960-2005 (Gathered: 1960-2005) appeared in 2006, and zbierane, gubione (gathered, lost) in 2010. Recipient of numerous awards, she was nominated for the NIKE Prize (the most prestigious Polish literary award) in 2006 and won the Silesius Award in 2009. In 2013 she was awarded the Silesius for Lifetime Achievement. She lives in Puszczykowo near Poznań, Poland.
Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese is a translator and writer. Her translations of contemporary Polish poetry appear regularly in journals and anthologies; in 2011 they featured on the London Underground. Nothing More (Arc, 2013) is her selection from Krystyna Miłobędzka; Salt Monody (Zephyr Press, 2006) presents Marzanna Kielar. She has co-edited Carnivorous Boy Carnivorous Bird: Poetry from Poland (Zephyr Press, 2004) and co-written Metropoetica. Poetry and Urban Space: Women Writing Cities (Seren, 2013). As a Fulbright scholar, she examined Elizabeth Bishop’s archives, which resulted in Cognitive Poetic Readings in Elizabeth Bishop: Portrait of a Mind Thinking (Mouton de Gruyter, 2010). She lives in Copenhagen.
Krystyna Miłobędzka, “exactly the forehead…,” Nothing More (Arc, 2013), trans. Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese, introduced by Robert Minhinnick.