Bitter poem

Czesław Miłosz on Jan Darowski’s “Postmortem"


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Jan Darowski


Descended into our land with their Stars of David,

they’ve poisoned the air with the dioxide of deadly Psalms,

that we, the witnesses of slaughter, should suffocate,

slouching through history, holding the hangman’s other hand.

Alcohol’s no help. Our hypocrisy gushes to the surface

in oily crimson. The monuments, the fact that we were,

like them, unarmed - no help. Not everyone cast a sad eye

on the sword that sliced our Gordian knot,

on the sword that split the two lives of our nation.

Alcohol’s no help, Lethe of cowards and fools.

A murderer can give his white-gloved hand

to those who saved him,

he can say, Look how clean

my right hand is, it didn’t know

what the left was doing.

And the thoughtful Yay-I’m-a-Christian,

tapping the ash from his cigar into the Atlantic,

could just as well say he saw the hand and sign

but at the time didn’t have his glasses on him.

But we were the conspiracy’s elders,

not even obliged by silence,

we broke our bread and drank

in equal measure, and their hands touched us,

the bloodless hands of Biblical tailors.


These hands are the wind outside the window.

They tear at the wreath’s red shame.

They tear at memory.

Translated from the Polish by Benjamin Paloff

There has never been a poem as bitter, as brutal, as this written in Poland. I found it in Bohdan Czaykowski’s Anthology of Polish Poetry Abroad, published in 2002 by Czytelnik and the Polish Publishing Fund in Canada. The book went largely unnoticed, probably owing to its capricious organisation and lack of an index.

The poem’s author is Jan Darowski, who was born in Silesia in 1926 and conscripted into the Wehrmacht during the war; in Normandy he defected to the Allies and joined the Polish Army. He later settled in London, where he became a printer and belonged to the group of young Polish poets called “Kontynenty." He worked with a great many publications as a poet, literary critic, and translator of Polish poetry into English, and vice-versa. He published two collections of poems: Tree of Argument (London, 1969) and The Unexpected Lives (London, 1990).

And then there’s the poem “Postmortem."

We can read this poem as an operation conducted on the collective unconscious, which then demands the question of whether such a collective unconscious exists in the first place. But the Nazis’ murder of Polish Jews is so weighty and enduring a historical fact that one cannot help but wonder what kinds of traces it has left in our psyche.

Who knows - perhaps it would be worth performing a line-by-line analysis in the interest of polemicising with the sense of guilt the poem expresses? This work is also significant in no small measure for the very fact that such words could pass through a Polish poet’s throat at all.

And what does it tell us that such a poem was written outside of Poland? What manners of censorship, internal and external, have prevented poets in Poland from taking up similar themes?

The Anthology of Polish Poetry Abroad is very rich, and it is a shame that Jan Darowski, as well as many other poets writing in Polish beyond our borders, remain unknown to our readers.

This text appeared in Tygodnik Powszechny No. 37/03 as part of Czesław Miłosz’s “Spiżarnia Literacka" [A Literary Larder] collection.

Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004) was a Polish poet, essayist, novelist, and translator. From 1961 to 1998 he was a professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1980, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. For many years he was a contributor to Tygodnik Powszechny.

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Artykuł pochodzi z numeru TP 13/2010

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