5 Poems


The Drafting Teacher  

I’ll tell you all a story about three pencils.

The first pencil went to war.
Sketched tanks and ravens on the battlefields.

The second stayed in town on Roundup Street.
Slight and short, it snuck into a hiding place.

The third was carried in a pocket to a meadow.
There it drew wildflowers, weeds.

And then what, then what, dear teacher?

The three pencils never met up again.
The three pencils, what a sweet refrain.
The three pencils. With no erasers to be had,
the pictures they created will remain.

But where? Teacher, tell us where.

 

Addresses

Mostowa 19.
A bare bulb beams
in the heatwave.

Plac Nowy 27.
That striped gooseberry,
an underlit
tart lantern,
marks a holy day
that passes unnoticed.

Miodowa 72.
Suspended
at the synagogue’s entrance:
violet stalk
of the Kaddish.

Thoughts of you
soothe
like a shade
against the glare
of those blinding
addresses.

 

Empathy

Let’s meditate
on God’s suffering, the rabbi suggests
at the Holocaust conference.
Let’s do that instead of trying to explain
how it could happen.

Cinnamon cookies
with slivered almonds
are served.

Near the camp
children dig up
the shattered head of a Madonna
from a local church.
The plaster body’s some ways off.

In the crematorium
a tourist poses for a photo.
Let’s share in God’s suffering, the rabbi urges.
In ten minutes we’ll meet back
at the bus, the tour guide says.
We’ve got to keep to the schedule.

 

Hiding Place

He went missing.
Maybe he was kidnapped.
Though I had my suspicions

I was not allowed to look for him.

Once I heard
human voices from behind the curtain.
I felt that someone was hiding there.

I took advantage of the commotion
when they broke the Christmas wafer
and exchanged wishes at the table.

I slipped in through
a narrow window.
Tense, I glanced around.

Then I gathered my courage
and lifted the curtain
to the ark of the Torah.
In the niche—

curled up—
he lay there
sleeping.

I lowered
the faded parochet
and fled
down the spiral staircase.

 

They’ll decide

The little gate
to the Remuh Graveyard
has a handle
only on the inside.

So the dead will decide
whom they’ll let in.

prose_section_divider

NAUCZYCIEL ROBÓT RĘCZNYCH

Opowiem wam bajkę o trzech ołówkach.

Pierwszy ołówek poszedł na wojnę.
Rysował czołgi i kruki na pobojowiskach.

Drugi został w mieście, na ulicy Łapanka.
Wąski i mały, przemknął się do kryjówki.

Trzeci zaniesiono w kieszeni na łąkę.
Tam rysował polne kwiaty, chwasty.

I co dalej, co dalej, panie profesorze?

Trzy ołówki nigdy już się nie spotkały.
Trzy ołówki, jaki to miły refren.
Trzy ołówki. Zabrakło gumek do mazania.
Obrazy, jakie stworzyły, zostaną.

Ale gdzie? Panie profesorze, prosimy jaśniej?

 

ADRESY

Mostowa 19.
Świeci się naga
żarówka w upał.

Plac Nowy 27.
Agrest w paski,
podświetlony,
kwaskowy lampion
na niezapamiętane
święto.

Miodowa 72.
U wejścia do bożnicy
zawieszono
fioletową szypułkę
kadiszu.

Myśl o Tobie
działa
jak kojący abażur
na jaskrawych,
oślepiających
adresach.

 

EMPATIA

Kontemplujmy
cierpiącego Boga, zaproponował
rabin na konferencji o Zagładzie.
Róbmy tak, zamiast wyjaśniać,
dlaczego do tego doszło.

Podano ciasteczka
z cynamonem
i płatkami migdałów.

Dzieci wykopały
z terenu przy obozie
pogruchotaną główkę Madonny
z pobliskiego kościoła.
Gipsowy korpus osobno.

W krematorium
turystka pozuje do zdjęcia.

Dzielmy mękę Boga, ciągnął rabin.

Za dziesięć minut zbiórka
przy autokarze, woła przewodnik.
Musimy zmieścić się w programie.

 

KRYJÓWKA

Zaginął.
Może został porwany.
Nie wolno mi go było szukać.

Miałam swoje podejrzenia.

Kiedyś usłyszałam
ludzkie głosy za zasłoną.
Czułam, że ktoś się tam ukrywa.

Skorzystałam z zamieszania,
gdy przy stole
łamano się opłatkiem.

Wczołgałam się
przez wąskie okno.
Rozglądałam się nerwowo.

Zebrałam się na odwagę
i uchyliłam zasłonę
Aron ha-kodesz.

We wnęce –
zwinięty w kłębek –
był tam.
Spał.

Zasunęłam
spłowiały parochet
i uciekłam
spiralnymi schodami.

 

DECYDUJĄ

Furtka prowadząca
na kirkut Remu
ma klamkę tylko
od wewnątrz.

To umarli decydują,
kogo wpuścić.

Translator’s Note

We often think of translation as a one-way street, moving from the source to the target language. But for Ewa Elżbieta Nowakowska, the highway of writing—and translation—moves in at least two directions. She has brought fifteen books into Polish, including a novel by Alice Munro and a book of essays and poems by Thomas Merton, and she has co-translated into English a volume of Ewa Lipska’s poetry with Robin Davidson. In fact, I first encountered Nowakowska through her translations of Lipska, seven of which I included in Scattering the Dark, an anthology of Polish women poets that White Pine Press issued in 2016.

But this summer I delved more deeply into Nowakowska’s own work, particularly Trzy ołówki (Austeria, 2013), where the five originals in this selection first appeared, and an earlier work, Merton Linneusz Artaud (Forma, 2012). In both books, Nowakowska’s taut, resonant language allows her to spotlight people, places, or relics from a disappeared past. Her fragmented syntax and short line put each phrase, each word under pressure. As I tried to replicate that intensity in English, I remembered Peter Constantine’s brilliant translation of Isaac Babel’s story, “Guy de Maupassant,” which itself happens to be about bringing a work from one language into another: “When a phrase is born. . . [t]he secret of its success rests in a crux that is barely discernible. One’s fingertips must grasp the key, gently warming it. And then the key must be turned once, not twice.”

Trzy ołówki [The Three Pencils] is dedicated to the Margel family, Kraków Jews imprisoned in the city’s ghetto and in the local concentration camp, Płaszów, during World War II, who had been close neighbors of the poet’s great-grandparents before the war. Much of the book catalogues images from the past and present of the Kazimierz district, where synagogues stand close to Gothic churches. In “Addresses,” for instance, we get the names of streets still extant in Kraków: Mostowa [Bridge], Miodowa [Honey], and Plac Nowy [New Square]. Like those addresses, Nowakowska is alert to other traces—a striped gooseberry resembling a lantern, the “violet stalk” of the Kaddish—organic images that still live.

But other poems in the collection move beyond Jewish Kraków to contemplate Polish Galicia, a multicultural part of the country under Austrian control from the late eighteenth century through World War I, which was home to a large Jewish population. “The Drafting Teacher” refers to a parable that the writer Bruno Schulz is said to have told his students when he was working as a shop teacher in the Galician village of Drohobycz before World War II. By personifying the three pencils, Nowakowska suggests some of the different fates that Polish Jews and Catholics met during the war and also the ability of art to preserve vestiges of the past. Movingly, she also hints at the limits of art—how it freezes the past at a certain moment, after which, bound by the span of human life, it cannot follow.

Reading these lyrics by Ewa Elżbieta Nowakowska, you might experience what I did: returning to my own world, I felt transformed by the most ordinary things—a pencil, a lamp.

Karen KovacikKaren Kovacik has published translations of contemporary Polish poetry in American Poetry Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Boston Review, Crazyhorse, Colorado Review, West Branch, Mid-American Review, and Southern Review. In 2011, she received a fellowship in literary translation from the National Endowment for the Arts for her translations of Agnieszka Kuciak’s work. In 2013, White Pine issued her translation of Kuciak’s Distant Lands: An Anthology of Poets Who Don’t Exist, long-listed for ALTA’s National Translation Award. She is editor of an anthology of Polish women poets, Scattering the Dark (White Pine, 2016); author of the poetry collections Metropolis Burning, Beyond the Velvet Curtain, and Nixon and I; and recipient of, among other awards, the Charity Randall Citation from the International Poetry Forum.

Ewa Elżbieta Nowakowska is a poet and translator (of Alice Munro, Thomas Merton, Ewa Lipska, among others). She has been awarded the Baczyński Prize for her work, and has published four collections of poetry, most recently Trzy ołówki (Three pencils) from which these poems have been excerpted. Her previous collection Merton Linnaeus Artaud features a conversation among those three thinkers. She lives and works in Kraków. With Robin Davidson, she translated Ewa Lipska’s The New Century (Northwestern, 2009). (Photo credit: Jan Wertz)