Anna Swir: Poet, Resistance Fighter and Military Nurse
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Voices is an affiliate of Amazon. A percentage of your purchase of books and other products sold by Amazon is given to Voices. Always go to Amazon by first opening your browser at Voice
Anna Swir (Świrszczyńska) was born in Warsaw, Poland, to an artistic though impoverished family. She worked from an early age, supporting herself while she attended university to study medieval Polish literature. In the 1930s she worked for a teachers’ association, served as an editor, and began publishing poetry. Swir joined the Resistance during World War II and worked as a military nurse during the Warsaw Uprising; at one point she came within an hour of being executed before she was spared. In addition to poetry, Swir wrote plays and stories for children and directed a children’s theater. She lived in Krakow from 1945 until her death from cancer in 1984.
Her poems have been collected in English translation in Building the Barricade (1974), Happy as a Dog’s Tail (1985), fat like the sun (1986), and Talking to My Body,(1996), translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan.
Swir’s poems about war and death use direct, simple language. In Building the Barricade she includes a section called “Poems about My Father and My Mother,” which affectionately describes scenes of her parents. Swir also wrote candidly and passionately about the female body; in his introduction to Talking to My Body, Milosz identified her central theme as “Flesh. Flesh in love and ecstasy, in pain, in terror, flesh afraid of loneliness, giving birth, resting, feeling the flow of time or reducing time to one instant.” Eva Hoffman, reviewing Happy as a Dog’s Tail for the New York Times, commented on Swir’s adept depictions of erotic love: “The quick, decisive strokes in which she registers moments of meeting, coupling or parting are almost abstract in their lack of surface detail, but they give us glimpses of a turbulent, even ferocious internal life.”
I worked as an orderly at the hospital without medicine and water. I carried bedpans filled with pus, blood and feces.
I loved pus, blood and feces— they were alive like life, and there was less and less life around.
When the world was dying, I was only two hands, handing the wounded a bedpan.
Thoughts of a Fourteen-Year-Old Nurse
If all the bullets in the world hit me, then they couldn’t hit anybody else.
And let me die as many times as there are people in the world, so that they wouldn’t have to die, even the Germans.
And let nobody know that I died for them, so that they wouldn’t be sad.
The Rats Remain
In this city there are no more people. Sometimes a cat with burnt eyes crawls out from an alley to die.
Or a rat scuttles to the other side of the street.
Or the wind moves a page in a book on the pavement and knocks the window with the glinting shard of glass.
Myself and My Person BY ANNA SWIR There are moments when I feel more clearly than ever that I am in the company of my own person. This comforts and reassures me, this heartens me, just as my tridimensional body is heartened by my own authentic shadow.
There are moments when I really feel more clearly than ever that I am in the company of my own person.
I stop at a street corner to turn left and I wonder what would happen if my own person walked to the right.
Until now that has not happened but it does not settle the question.
As a child I put my finger in the fire to become a saint.
As a teenager every day I would knock my head against the wall.
As a young girl I went out through a window of a garret to the roof in order to jump.
As a woman I had lice all over my body. They cracked when I was ironing my sweater.
I waited sixty minutes to be executed. I was hungry for six years.
Then I bore a child, they were carving me without putting me to sleep.
Then a thunderbolt killed me three times and I had to rise from the dead three times without anyone’s help.
Now I am resting after three resurrections.
Anna Swir, “I Knocked My Head against the Wall” from Talking to My Body, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan. www.coppercanyonpress.org.
The Ghetto: A Mother
Cuddling in the arms her half-asphyxiated baby, howling, she ran up the staircase of the apartment building that was set ablaze. From the first floor to the second. From the second to the third. From the third to the fourth.
Until she had jumped onto the roof. There, having choked with air, clinging to the chimney, she looked down from where she could hear the crackle of flames which were reaching higher and higher.
And then she became motionless and silent. She kept silent to the end, till the moment at which she suddenly clenched her eyelids, stepped to the roof edge and, throwing forward her arms, she dropped her baby down.
The Voices Education Project offers tools, philosophies, and learning methods that will help young people understand the roots of conflict and the trauma of war, confront the pain and fear at the heart of conflict, and help to build healthy human communities in the wake of war. We use the arts and education to transform the consciousness of young people, give teachers and students a way to explore the most important and terrifying issues of our day, and create a dialogue in which all voices can be heard, and all points of view included, without engendering fear, hatred, or anger.