When Death Came She Was Ready – A Deathbed Poem by Anna Swir

Polish poet Anna Swir (1909-1981)

Tomorrow They Will Carve Me

Death came and stood by me.
I said: I am ready.
I am lying in the surgery clinic in Krakow.
they will carve me.

There is much strength in me. I can live,
can run, dance, and sing.
All that is in me, but if necessary
I will go.

I make account of my life.
I was a sinner,
I was beating my head against earth,
I implored from the earth and the sky

I was pretty and ugly,
wise and stupid,
very happy and very unhappy
often I had wings
and would float in air.

I trod a thousand paths in the sun and in snow,
I danced with my friend under the stars.
I saw love
in many human eyes,
I ate with delight
my slice of happiness.

Now I am lying in the surgery clinic in Krakow.
It stands by me.
they will carve me.
Through the window the trees of May, beautiful like life,
and in me, humility, fear, and peace.

Anna Swir from Talking to My Body, trans. Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan, Copper Canyon Press, 1996

In her much quoted poem When Death Comes, American poet Mary Oliver says: When its over, I don’t want to wonder/ if I have made of my life something particular, and real/ I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,/ or full of argument./ I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world. 

How wonderfully Polish poet, Anna Swir’s poem, written shortly before she died from cancer, speaks to Oliver’s poem. How she, knocking on death’s door and not just imagining it as Oliver does, does not appear frightened or full of argument and for certain she did not end up just visiting this word. She chewed the world down to the bone and it chewed her back. In this way she accepted reality and that included the horrors and difficulties of living through  the Second World war in war-torn Warsaw and suffering later under communist rule.

Milosz in his afterward to Talking to My Body captures this sense of her acceptance of life so evident in her poem above: What I found particularly attractive in her was her calm in accepting reality, whether it brought bliss or suffering. He adds: To have met such a person through her poems has inclined me to faith and optimism. 

I was deliberate in saying that Swir does not appear frightened in her poem.  And I say that in spite of her last line where she says: in me, humility, fear, and peace. What a juxtaposition: fear and peace.  It seems contradictory to me. To be fearful yet at peace.  More than any fear I hear gratitude and the wisdom that can hold opposites in tension and not isolate one or the other: I was pretty and ugly,/wise and stupid,/very happy and very unhappy…

Swir may not be as well known as her celebrated contemporaries like Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert or Wislawa Szymborska but in Milosz’s mind she was no less worthy. I am gald to have met her and her fiercely embodied poetry! And like Milosz I am left with an unexpected sense of faith and optimism.


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