November 27, 2008

Krzystof Kamil Baczynski

Krzystof Kamil Baczyński [Poland]

Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński is regarded by Poles, literary scholars and ordinary readers alike, as one of the greatest Polish poets of the 20th century. Many would rank him alongside Czesław Miłosz, Zbigniew Herbert, and Wisława Szymborska as one of the Polish writers most deserving of a place in the pantheon of world literature. Yet he is virtually unknown to English-language readers; he has rarely appeared in translation, and then only in obscure journals and often in woefully inadequate versions.

Baczyński was born in Warsaw on January 22, 1921. His parents were intellectuals, though of different kinds—his father was a patriot with socialist, even anarchist sympathies who had fought in the legions that won Poland’s independence in 1918; his mother, a practicing Catholic, was a children’s writer with a profound love of poetry who remained a major influence on her son. It has been said that the duality these two represented underpins of many of the tensions in Baczyński’s poetry and also in his life. The young Baczyński began writing poetry at an early age; by the time he was 18 he was producing mature work. In the summer of 1939 he graduated from the elite Stefan Batory Grammar School in Warsaw; a few months later war broke out and Poland was occupied by the Nazis.

In the early years of the war, Baczyński continued to write copiously, and studied Polish literature in the underground university. It was there he met Barbara (Basia) Drapczyńska; they married in June 1942. It is to her that his extraordinary love poems are dedicated. Baczyński published his work in small clandestine editions under the pseudonym “Jan Bugaj.” By 1942 he was already acknowledged as a major poet.

In 1943, Baczyński took the momentous decision to join the Armia Krajowa (Home Army), the Polish resistance. Despite his poor health (he was asthmatic) and the efforts of colleagues who recognized his genius and tired to keep him from the front lines, he insisted on remaining in active service. In spring 1944 he took part in several operations. Then the Warsaw Uprising broke out in August, 1994. Baczyński was involved in the fighting from the beginning. On August 4, he was killed in action. A few days later Basia also perished, still unaware of her husband’s death.

Baczyński’s mother Stefania carefully preserved his manuscripts. Eventually, in 1961 Baczyński’s collected works were published for the first time; they had been gathered and edited by Kazimierz Wyka, a brilliant Kraków critic who had championed the poet’s work even while Baczyński was still alive. The legend of Baczyński grew.
—Bill Johnston


Spiew z pozogi (Warszawa: Wiedza, 1947); Utwory zebrine, ed. by Aniela Kmita-Piorunowa and Kazimierz Wyka (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1961); Utwory wybrane, ed. by Kazimierz Wyka (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1964); Wiersze, ed. by Jan Sochon (Bialystok: Krajowa Agencja Wydawnicza, 1984); Poezje, ed. by Jerzy Swiech (Lublin: Wydawn Lubelskie, 1992).


White Magic and Other Poems, trans. by Bill Johnston (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2005).
[The poems below are from White Magic and Other Poems, a book available here.]
[We welcome suggested corrections and commentary on all author entries.]
Ars Poetica

The poem is in me, evil, alien, evil
and hateful; with scorching fire it burns my nights,
it passes through me crowdlike, hoarse with shouting
like a torchlit procession in the streets.

The poem is evil, hateful, trying to burst
its form (how hard to shackle one who’s free),
and though I drag it from my fiery innards,
its master I will never wholly be.

It twists, shouting and troubled, till it cries out;
becomes then alien, a friend who never was,
stands on the frozen, flaming threshold, crated,
and joins the others in the evening frosts.

—Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston


Elegy: On Summer

O childish eyes of cornflowers,
ripeness of nasturtiums.
Today is like a ship sailing for India,
sailing for Turkey.
In shade from broad baobabs of lindens, the avenues
are dreaming.
With a Bach fugue, the next-door balcony
leads the landscape to the church
and the wheels of sky can be heard—the planets’ creaking.
What then is left?
This: the grave is the earthen layer of recollection,
a lifeless flower with cheeks like a child,
my last poem which I burned to ashes,
from which a small black rose remained.

Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston


Evil Lullaby

The scent of autumn leaves and of your hair,
fear’s broken timepiece ticking. Summer’s candles
blown out; the stars breathe down cold air
while my grief
like some dark beast runs nightly to your hand.

Do you know how to sleep? Dead alder trees
weep, howling long into the dome of night.
Without a goal, we roam on portless seas;
you know so well how sorrow lurks in wait.
The kindly dragon; now is the sleep of ghosts
frozen; night’s lofty monument is waning.
Only a phantom cries, on pitchfork hoist,
only the mewling cats the moon is drowning.
Do you know how to sleep? The crazy poet
has hanged himself amid the pines’ dark baying,
while rain drags by the hair a dead wax puppet
through endless streets, to windblown music playing.

all’s quiet now.
the night rains on the windows, gathering power;
blinded like me, the wind kneels at our home.
Who stole from us this carefree time of ours,
my little one?

—Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston

(Night of September 10-11, 1940)



In the concert hall rows of expiring chairs burn their last. There’d be
a welter of gowns and tuxedos from a few days before.
Now only the stars through the window explain themselves hazily,
sprinkling a dry light in droplets of copperplate gore.
More curiously now the chairs fix the broad stares of their backs
on the stage of changes-without-changes, like eyes that are open
after death: in the center, reflecting the night’s varnished mask,
on feet dead from fear the piano stands still for a moment.
Weary legs of chairs, tucked like animals’ legs, are alert,
and the echo a lullaby, plaintive as a carol; they’ve faith
in the ranks of violinists and flautists that now are dispersed,
and the conductor’s imagined baton at the music-stand raised.


Yet the moment time, cut in half, stumbles
on the broken clock, amid parabolas, green
ellipses and circles, figures tumble
down the sky’s inclined plane.
July evenings will beckon,
the cellos’ liquid silver will fall
on the soaring lanes of the organ,
and will fall still by the wall.
While the tall conductor has summoned
to the ceiling the French horn’s brass,
amid the circling bees of the trumpets
his hands grown ever more monstrous.
The torches of violins burned
no more; grasslike the hall ripples slowly
strewn to the brink of the day
with melodies in withered bands.
The tall conductor wept to the ceiling
fading into the refrain ever more.
All at once the scene fell, like a head
dripping with streams red and warm.

Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston

(February 5, 1941)

The Poets’ Autumn Walk
for Jerzy K. W.

The trees like barbarians’ ruddy heads
were absorbed in the veins of yellow rivers.
Immersed in water, the city’s edge
lay whitely down in the ash of plaster.

Across the rumbling bridge they strode
as if on a rim of fragile glass;
beneath a pensive tomb of cloud
through leaves like bloody tears they passed.

And one was saying: “This is the song
that strikes against the eyelids’ vault.”
While the other was saying: “You’re wrong,
This is death which my green word forethought.”

Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston

(October 1941)

With the Crib*

White horses wreathed the steaming way
in clouds as they passed overhead;
aflame with stars, the Christmas hay
quietly creaked.
From over the hills, or form the heavens
came the white angel? the frost that bit?
the old men to the sky a-bending?
A white angel bore the crib.


In this was irony—within
a small star-whitened roof confined
and inside four pasteboard walls
the flame of ages and of mankind;
confined within two figures—one
black, one white, from afar it seemed,
the bones of epochs trampled on,
and the flesh burned up with greed


Into storms’ taut crossbows did
the white angel bear the crib.


And the figures, in agonies
dying, weakened, faded fast
into the brilliant starlit skies
and to pasteboard ashes passed.

At their resistance, not their sin,
the angel smiled, seeing them alone
though great in numbers was their tribe.


The white angel bore the crib.


Till his light foot like rock and mist
touched upon the frozen ground
and he saw a crooked body, transfixed
in earth, that hunger had cut down,
the ribs’ black arches, the clasped and twisted
spades of hands, the belly swollen
like the drum of life, a belly
livid, a belling like a piston,
and he turned back. Into the drip-
ping sky he bore the blackened crib.

—Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston

(December 2, 1941)

*In this case the crib is a box-sized representation of the Nativity scene which carol singers carry with them as they go from house to house during the Advent period before Christmas.

White Magic

Barbara stands at the mirror
of silence, and her hands reach
to her hair; in her body of glass
she pours silver droplets of speech.

And then like a water pitcher
she fills with light, and soon
she has taken the stars within her
and the pale white dust of the moon.

Through her body’s trembling prism
white sparks of music leap
while ermine will creep through her
like the downy leaves of sleep.

Bears are rimed in its hoarfrost
with polar starlight imbued
and a stream of mice pours through it
in a clamorous multitude.

Till slowly she drifts into sleep,
filled all with milky white,
while time melodiously settles
deep down, in a tumble of light.

So Barbara’s body is silver.
The ermine of silence within
arches its white back softly
at the touch of a hand unseen

—Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston

(January 4, 1942)

Love Poem

In your hair’s torrent, your mouth’s river, in
the forest dark as evening
a vain summoning,
a plash in vain.

I’ll enwrap yet in dusk, in night’s rose-flower
and as branch, scrap, or gesture, the world will turn,
then it will mutely stagger,
pass through the eyes like a blur
and I’ll say: not being—I am.

Flowing into you still, and bearing your reflection
in pupils, or like a tear from eyelids hanging,
I’ll hear in your silver seas etched by a dolphin,
like sleep inside the shell of your body ringing.

Or in a grove, where you are
a birch tree, pure white air
and the milk of daylight,
a huge barbarian,
bearing a thousand centuries
I’ll burst with the copse’s noise
into your branches, birdlike.

one day—and a whole age in which to long,
one gesture—and endless storms at once come crashing,
one step—and here you are, and you alone
each time—a spirit waiting in the ashes.

To my darling Basia – Krzysztof

—Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston

(February 2, 1942)

The Ice-Rink

Stopping, I see a column of air,
frozen from evil exhalations,
as which cold stars of watching gazes
and endless fears of passing are.

Human vessels, terrible, broken,
dark serpents, bodies with no conscience;
when I turn round, in the mirror of ice
behind me, the eyes of terror tauten.

And before the fiery word explodes
like a tree of birds into the sky,
their bodies sway in back of me
and a voice like a fearful leaf is heard.

And before I trace the clouds’ pathways
with my hand raised to the skies,
I see those evil, portentous eyes
and that ropelike watching gaze.

And the serpentine battlefields
covered with darkling words like ants,
and the sky’s frozen expanse.
And there, the slippery, glassy road.

But still I see the landscapes rising
like houses that are now unseen
after those explosions—and in
the landscapes are cold faces hiding.

And, frozen fast, I feel each hand,
one with a flame in heavenly reaches,
the other in earth, devoid of speech.
like a fallen star lodged in the ground.

—Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston

(February 28, 1943)

From the Woods

By night the woods grown like murmuring lakes.
The road is cradled in moss, in moss.
Heavy columns of twilight ascend. A cry,
lofty and evil, is frightened from the night
as from a dream, by the hollow abyss.

Below, a torrent of men and wagons
and guns rattling in mist, in mist.
From underfoot, like a sea terror-swollen
the unsubjugated earth uprises
and in the expanses lie dark voices
like the evil, alien thing that waits.

Slim forms of soldiers. Their small bright faces,
while the dark forces chafe and batter;
gold crumbles, continents are shattered
and it seems earth’s too-tight carapace
splits and bursts open, booming, booming.

Their small bright faces! On the horizons
armies like pincers bend and maul.
My lads, how can we redeem whole worlds
with a single lacerated soul?

To love, but that seems not enough;
to perish is but to give rein to weakness,
for the boyish body cannot keep up,
and the darkness stands there, booming, booming.

By night the woods grow. Sucking and imbibing,
the colossal maw of the abyss
opens. It’s like a child that is dying,
and like a father who must live on.
They’re gone now; just choking smoke-clouds remain,
and a lofty cry in mist, in mist.

—Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston

(June 27, 1944)



“Ars Poetics,” “Elegy: On Summer,” “Evil Lullaby,” “Concert,” “The Poets’ Autumn Walk,” “With the Crib,” “White Magic,” “Love Poem,” “The Ice-Rink,” and “From the Woods”
Reprinted from White Magic and Other Poems, trans. by Bill Johnston (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2005). Copyright ©2005 by Bill Johnston. Reprinted by permission of Green Integer.

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