Great humility fills me, / great purity fills me, / I make love with my dear / as if I made love dying / as if I made love praying, / tears pour / over my arms and his arms./ I don’t know whether this is joy / or sadness, I don’t understand / what I feel, I’m crying,/ I’m crying, it’s humility / as if I were dead / grattitude, I thank you, my fate,/ I’m unworthy, how beautiful / my life.
Translated from Polish by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan, from A BOOK OF LUMINOUS THINGS, edited by Czeslaw Milosz.
FRAME OF REFERENCE There is something about the poem or painting or song that offers itself to all. … There is the intimate solitude but because it is offered to all, there is aesthetic communication, there is something of the spread of the universal about it all. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, p. 92.
The lyric tradition has few more popular examples than Catullus’s couplet starting “I hate and I love.” The paradox of passion is an essential figure of the love lyric. The Polish poet Anna Swir (1909-1984) explores that paradox in “Thank you my fate.” At a time when lyric is the subject of debate Anna Swir may suggest new possibilities, especially regarding the self of the poet, which, as readers of Denise Riley and Geoffrey Hill, to name two British practitioners, know, is an open topic. And the polyvocalism of Sasha Dugdale’s DEFORMATIONS is getting a lot of attention. One of her lyrics is voiced by “water”; which reminds one of Oswald’s “Nobody.” And so on.
Swir could get lost in all this. There’s a desperate note of defiance in Swir’s voice. But it’s as hopeful as anything. Is it recognizable as a “feminist” voice? Does the total self-absorption of the poet raise too many issues for such a categorical question?
We’ve seen in these “investigations” that lyric often exposes issues about how we can define our language in lyric using tropes like simile, metaphor, and analogy. Reconsidering the Wittgensteinian “rules” of language use seems to be natural to lyric, natural because lyric appeals to something more original than poetic convention, namely raw feeling, or the intimate not the conceptual universal of the philosophers.
Swir’s conceptual promiscuity — humility, purity, dying, praying — characterizes the opening setting. Equivocation “fills” the mysterious moment with a con-fusion of concepts. The narrative after that becomes more sharply dialectical: I don’t know, I don’t know. The effort to know is frustrated by the fullness and the more-ness.
Finally the great analogy with dying appears justified. And yet it’s a grateful dying, a fullness of being that has reframed the participants: not the lover whose arms are bathed in her tears but her “fate” is love’s other. She confesses herself to be unworthy of such a beautiful fate.
Today the lyric is often used for extended suites that explore logical constructions, historical circumstances, and the antinomies of social values in a time of nihilism. That’s a good start at understanding the sonnets of Shakespeare, too. Swir’s focus on the inability of the self to grasp its experience conceptually yields both a good poem and a new picture — well, new-old picture— of the self in extremis. The FRAME OF REFERENCE suggest the widest possible lens for this picture of joyous chaos. The paradoxical solitude of ecstasy as communicated by the poem embraces an ontological wholeness that is no whole but an over-whole, expressing the more of the original experience.
I guess that’s why I love this poem. The over-wholeness of it. Swir’s book in English, TALKING TO MY BODY (Copper Canyon), is widely available thanks to Milosz and Nathan.