To some, writing and reading poetry amidst the ruthless violence in the Middle East, the trials of the Church at home, and the general anxiety of our time, may seem cutely whimsical at best, and shamefully detached from reality at worst. But, I maintain, it can be quite the opposite.
Anna Kamienska (1920-1986) was a Polish poet who wrote in the midst of the brutal German occupation of Poland, the subsequent atrocities, the large-scale post-war turmoil, and then, once the country was thoroughly spent, the thick and heavy and relentless oppression of communism. “My literary generation didn’t enter poetry accompanied by fanfares of critics,” Kamienska wrote understatedly of herself and her group of fellow poets, which included Czes?aw Mi?osz, “We were learning to write amidst the rat-tat of firing squads and bomb explosions.” Intimacy with suffering marked these writers’ work with a sense of the tragic and a concern for the existential, while simultaneously stripping it of the easy comfort of sentimentality. Kamienska’s work, in particular, has been described as “almost ascetic,” stubbornly “anti-poetic” poetry, with a refreshing rejection of ironic distance and allusion in favor of a kind of raw, jarring simplicity. The death of her husband pushed her toward the Bible, the ancient classics, and the major religious thinkers of the twentieth century. Her “one creative dream” became to translate the Psalms, which she came to admire as “verse free but exact,” the “ultimate poetry.” But even as her concerns become more metaphysical, Kamienska’s poetry often took recourse in the ordinary and retained a gentle humor. And always, always, there was a stubborn sense of wonder.
Here is one my favorites, taken from Astonishments, a book of Kamienska’s poetry that has been translated into English:
Lack of Faith
Even when I don’t believe
There is a place in me
Inaccessible to unbelief
A patch of wild grace
A stubborn preserve
Pain untouched by the sleeping body
Music that builds its nest in silence
“A patch of wild grace.” I love that thought; “impenetrable.” As the Church faces its crises in this country and abroad, and the darkness threatens to overtake the light, let us turn this poem over in our hearts. And, I might add, let us read more poetry.