Where words matter

A tree planted for Wislawa Szymborska in Krakow. Photo: Getty Images
A tree planted for Wislawa Szymborska in Krakow. Photo: Getty Images
This is my last column from Krakow. Hello. I think it's Saturday. And November. Is it? I missed a day somewhere on the dateline, I'm very completely massively liminally overadverbially desynchronised and either still in the air or walking in circles to try to stay awake, writes Liz Breslin.

Liz Breslin
Liz Breslin
I don't think my desynchronosis is purely attributable to jetlag. I've learned, over the past two months, a different layout to the world. For example, I've observed, in Krakow, that if you're going to mount an exhibition, moderate a public talk or make a keynote speech, you definitely want to frame it with quotes from poets. Because the poets are important. And the poems.

Czesfaw Milosz is always a good one to go to, for the framing. The news was brought to the mountains by a unicorn and an echo. Though I haven't heard that line quoted. Though clearly that's one I'd choose. But my go-to Polish poet is another Nobel winner. Not their most recent, though I was lucky enough to listen to Olga Tokarczuk speak at the Conrad Festival last weekend where she totally quoted Milosz about not unicorns but literature vs poetry and said so much more besides and got not one but two standing ovations and an encore callback from the conference room packed more than a thousand deep. Because the writers are important. And the words.

Where was I? Desynchronised. Also, Wislawa Szymborska. My go-to Polish poet. This week I went to her grave in the Rakowicki Cemetery. Read a few of her poems out loud to her and had a bit of a chat. It's a Polish thing. I grew up visiting my uncle, whenever Mum could drag us to the cemetery. He's buried in the same row as Tolkien, so it was pretty social. Other visitors, wandering and a little bit lost, to pay their respects.

The last week of October is a fine time to visit Polish cemeteries, not only for the melancholy mist and the squirrelled carpets of leaves, but for the lead up to November 1st, All Souls Day. Candles, emotions. All that beautiful symbolism that makes me, for a moment, want to forget all the bad things about Catholicism and weep to the lull of the graveside baritone singing Nearer My God to Thee.

Where am I? Liminal. So what I thought I'd do is make like a Krakowian and summarise my experiences with framing quotes by Szymborska. Hopefully she'd approve of the approach as she loved a bit of cut and paste. Worth noting that I lost approximately three hours of oh-my-gosh-this-is-my-last-week-in-Krakow in choosing four short snippets because of the word/time vortex that occurs when I open a book of her poems. Also, it's important to note these scraps are part of poems translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak. Because the translators are important. And the translations.

Here goes:

I prefer the absurdity of writing poems / to the absurdity of not writing poems.

Coming to live in a house full of writers, I was nervous. I'm not gonna lie. I know how unpeaceful it is to live with myself sometimes. So what would a whole lot of us be like? As it turns out, I'm reassured by our separate/collective absurdities. Though we deal in different ways with the need to get out of our headspaces - smoking rollies, baking cakes with mystery vegetables, eating said cakes - there's balance: peace, productivity and support. Punctuated, of course, by coffee. And the municipal leafblower guy in the park who likes to blow hot air from 7am on weekdays as the autumn leaves continue to fall. The hope/absurdity of machines over nature. I feel sure one of us, at least, will write him into a thing.

We are children of our age / it's a political age

Well. That is for sure. I've been much more than leafblown away by the depth and strength of political art and discussion here, both current and historical. Which is fantastic. Until you think - not so fantastic: the current and historical conditions that lead to the creation, to the necessity, of the art.

And big smiles when I say cheese.

Way to take a line out of context. But Polish cheese is amazing. Especially the smoked mountain stuff when it's grilled. Overwhelmingly, the food here in Krakow European Capital of Gastronomy Culture 2019 is far from cabbage-and-potato-stereotypical. Weganski (vegan) options abound. And everything, everything's smacznego (delicious!).

I'm working on the world / revised, improved edition

I'm working. It's working. Here's to the world. And the work. And the opportunities. And the inspiration. Because back home, desynchronosised under Kiwi skies, I know Krakow's going to keep working on me.

 - Liz Breslin has been in Krakow, Poland on a Unesco Cities of Literature writer's residency.



World class literary congruence. Thanks. Enjoyed the columns.

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