An Alphabet of Poets – K is for Kamienska


I don’t trust the truth of memories
because what leaves us
departs forever
There’s only one current of this sacred river
but I still want to remain faithful
to my first astonishments
to recognize as wisdom the child’s wonder
and to carry in myself until the end a path
in the woods of my childhood
dappled with patches of sunlight
to search for it everywhere
in museums in the shades of churches
this path on which I ran unaware
a six-year old
toward my primary mysterious aloneness.

Anna Kamienska from Astonishments, Selected Poems of Anna Kamienska, edited and trans. by Grazyna Drabik and David Curzon, Paraclete Press, 2007

I still want to remain faithful/ to my first astonishments!
Yes!  And when I read these words and others of the Polish poet Anna Kamienska (1920-1986) I am astonished at her layered clarity, her fearlessness, her language, slimmed down to the essentials, each word burned to its only essence, like her, in some refiner’s fire. Touch her words and poems: dare to burn. Dare to swim.


Let me suffer a lot
and then let me die.

Allow me to walk through silence
Let nothing not even fear linger after me

Make the world go on as it always has
let the sea continue to kiss the shore

Let grass still remain green
so a little frog could find shelter in it

and someone could bury his face
and weep his heart out

Make a day dawn so bright
it seems there is no more suffering

And let my poem be transparent as a windowpane
against which a straying bee hits its head.

from Astonishments
And speaking of astonishments, this poem so surprised me when I first discovered it. So simple and declarative, although the declarations are shocking (Let me suffer a lot/ then let me die) as the poem begins but then it ends so surprisingly, so surrealistically with the last two lines I still grapple with. But a wonderful grappling that the best poems provide.

And soon after I read this poem I was delighted to discover a response by another poet, the American, Jane Hirschfield. Wonderful conversations poets can have with each other:

This Much Is Promised

Anna Kimienska, when you prayed
for what you were sure would be granted, you prayed for this:
a life of much suffering.

Reading your words, why do the heart’s scales shift?

It is not the gladness of chickens, content to enter the night-coop.

Rather the shocked happiness
of the child who wakes one morning alone, knowing herself abandoned,
and makes breakfast, dresses neatly, sets out for school.
Learns to forge notes from home.

It goes on this way for weeks.

And though they will take her back,
find in another city a lost great-aunt or older cousin,
she does not forget.

Let others imagine those hours as frightened, as lonely.
Asked, she says nothing.

That child’s silence, Anna Kamienska, calm as unmined iron,
I offer you here, next to your own.
I set it beside your trapped bumblebee, your untranslatable window.

Jane Hirschfield, from After, Harper Collins,  2006

Poland is noted for its fine poets including among many, two Nobel Prize Laureates , Wislawa Szymborska and Czeslaw Milosz. Kamienska, who wrote 20 poetry books, is not so well known but is a poet whose works stands with the best of theirs. In particular, her faith expressed and rooted in simple images, the things of everyday, shines through in her work; and her acceptance, her gratitude in spite of heart-breaking hardships; hardships that perhaps, paradoxically brought her to a devout faith in mid-life. That faith resonates in her selected poems:


Those who carry grand pianos
to the tenth floor wardrobe and coffins
the old man with a bundle of wood hobbling toward the horizon
the lady with a hump of nettles
the madwoman pushing her baby carriage
full of empty vodka bottles
they will all be raised up
like the seagull’s feather likea dry leaf
like an eggshell a scrap of newspaper on the street

Blessed are those who carry
for they will be raised. 


Here is what I consider her signature poem, or should I say her signature prayer:


The Other World


I don’t believe in the other world

But I don’t believe in this world either
if its not penetrated by light

I believe in the body of a woman
hit by a car on the street

I believe in bodies
stopped in a rush
in mid-gesture in reaching out
as if something long awaited
was just about to happen
as if in a minute
meaning was to raise up
its index finger

I believe in the blind eye
in the deaf ear
in the lame leg
in the wrinkle on the forehead
in the red flush on a cheek

I believe in bodies lying
in the trust of sleep
in the patience of old age
in the frailty of the unborn

I believe in a hair of the dead
left on a brown beret

I believe that radiance
spreads splendidly on all things
even on a beetle
which struggles on its back
helpless as a pup

I believe that the rain
stitches together heaven and earth
and that with this rain angels
visibly descend
like winged frogs

I don’t believe in this world
like a railway station in the morning
when all the trains have left
for the other world

the world is one
especially when it wakes up covered in
and God walks among the bushes
of animal and human dreams.

Kamienska has not only left us her poems but also her aphorisms collected in her notebooks.


Here are a few:


I started to write a poem. Immediately, the poem began to write me.


One must live and love, and pray, as one writes in labour and patience , attentively, slowly.


I pray in words. I pray in poems. I want to learn to pray through breathing, through dreams and sleeplessness, through love and renunciation.

    I pray through snow that falls outside the window.

    I pray with the tears that do not end.


Perhaps my task as a poet is to describe the language of loneliness. Poetry is a remedy against the ease and deluge of words.


Poems flooded me. Fell on me like wild bees.


A poet is a great mute. You wheeze out your impotence, you mumble, stammer, go in circles; your enormous mistake is human.

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