Anna Świrszczyńska (1909-1984) was born in Warsaw, Poland, to a lower-class family of artists; she was published as a poet at a young age and continued writing poetry and works for children through her adult life. During the Nazi invasion in World War II, Świrszczyńska joined the resistance and wrote for underground political publications, and remained a part of the Polish literary scene. During the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, Świrszczyńska assisted the resistance and was a military nurse for wounded fighters. Świrszczyńska’s poetry is characterized by its intensely compressed and direct language, and by a deceptive simplicity that belies the poems’ nuanced and layered release of information and meaning.
Her poetry first, and primarily, reached the international community through the translations of her contemporary and friend, eminent Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, who had broken with the Polish government after World War II and “established himself in the West as a translator, essayist, and promoter of Polish culture” (Rosenthal 62). In comparison to Anna Akhmatova, Świrszczyńska has not attained quite the same level of national or international fame; at the time of Milosz’s first translations of her work, “she was only moderately known in Poland, mostly for her directly political poems about fighting in the Warsaw Uprising during the war (Rosenthal 66). Much of her later poetry orbited around her experiences of the war, and her poem “I Knocked My Head Against the Wall” makes reference to the moment she was made to wait for her execution for an hour–an autobiographical detail that, as Rosenthal points out, Milosz included in all three introductions for the different versions of the translated Happy As a Dog’s Tail (Rosenthal 70). As Rosenthal writes in her fascinating exploration of Milosz’s multiple translations into English of Świrszczyńska’s work as it crossed and recrossed between Poland and the West, at the time of the initial dissemination of Milosz’s translations of Anna Swir, as he abbreviated her, “Polish writers were clearly situated in and drawing from an historical and political context the likes of which American writers had never suffered and thus could never claim. It was a bittersweet envy that led to a heightened interest in Polish poetry” (64).
This concept of a Polish literary canon that was based largely in experiences of trauma and war was a significant part of Milosz’s initial, pre-1989 approach to translating Świrszczyńska; as Rosenthal writes, his “intended audience is very much an American community that views Polish poetry as having a unique understanding of the potentiality of annihilation, and he describes her feminism as part and parcel of the ability ‘to start from scratch’ after total devastation” (67). This emphasis on war as the defining characteristic or experience of her poetry is a more limited view of her work, though certainly one that is in tune with her Western audience. Unlike Kenyon’s disruptive approach to the original rhyme and meter of Akhmatova’s Russian, Milosz may not have made as many formal departures from Świrszczyńska’s original Polish verse, but he did reorient her work in terms of its new, Western audience. (Of course, among many other differences in the translator-translated dynamic, Kenyon also never knew Akhmatova personally, while Milosz and Świrszczyńska were Polish contemporaries.) As Rosenthal explains, other translators including Margaret Marshment have managed to present and preserve the feministic moments of Świrszczyńska’s poems in their own right, not necessarily as emanating from or within her survival of the war. Milosz’s positionality and identity play into this complicated power dynamic of translation, certainly. From Rosenthal’s research, we can infer that although Milosz, as a “gatekeeper” and ambassador of Polish letters to the West, gave Świrszczyńska’s work an international platform for the first time through his translations, he also had a vested interest in presenting her work as falling into a particular, albeit flattening pattern that would make sense to a Western audience. In this way, Milosz did not merely “import” values from Polish culture to the target culture, but rather adjusted or reframed a Polish writer’s work to fit a target audience.
Keeping this context in mind, it is generative to contrast Akhmatova’s general posture towards embodiment in her early work with Świrszczyńska’s famously direct approach to embodiment. In Akhmatova’s early work, embodiment seems to be addressed mainly through proxy, as images of the external and natural world stand in for the speaker’s interiority, and bodies are oftentimes more hinted at than actually seen or addressed in the poems. Anna Świrszczyńska’s poetry is a wonderful contrast to that approach, as her poems, particularly those in her collection Talking to My Body (translated by Milosz), most directly and explicitly deal with embodiment, as the title suggests. Świrszczyńska tends to directly and strikingly address the body as a separate entity, alternately lovingly or bitterly. In several of her poems, i.e. “I Starve My Belly for a Sublime Purpose” and “What is a Pineal Gland,” the female speaker goes so far as to isolate specific organs and address them directly as stand-ins for the concepts of materiality and embodiment.
Rosenthal, Mira. “Revising Anna Świrszczyńska: The Shifting Stance of Czesław Miłosz’s English Translations.” Canadian Slavonic Papers / Revue Canadienne Des Slavistes, vol. 52, no. 1/2, Mar. 2010, pp. 59–78. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40871516.
Świrszczyńska, Anna, et al. Talking to My Body. Copper Canyon Press, 1996.