22 December 2014

Poem of the Week 2014/52

Christmas Eve

A Christmas Eve for three of us.
Mother has washed the floors,
Father lights up the Christmas tree.
A wafer, a herring.

Mother is crying.
She sings the carol "Sleep well, sweet Jesus"
in the soprano of Miss Stasia,
a beauty
from the town of Ostroleka.

Beyond the window: night and frost and fear.
How good it is we're here,
we three.

Anna Swir, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan

We'll close out this year with another one by Polish poet Anna Swir. This comes from a posthumously published sequence of autobiographical poems about her childhood. She was born in Warsaw in 1909. Her father was a painter and the family was extremely poor. Her language is clear and simple, yet its very directness creates a whole world through implication. In the very first line, we find out that it is Christmas Eve but father, mother, and child are alone together – do they have extended families? are they perhaps estranged from them? "Mother has washed the floors" indicates that they are too poor to have any help around the house (back when that was more common than it is now) and maybe also that the household is a bit bohemian – cleaning the floors is something worthy of note, a special-occasion thing. The father lights the candles on the Christmas tree. Preparations made, the three of them share a version of the traditional Polish Christmas Eve dinner. It's one of the biggest feasts in that largely Catholic country, but here, no doubt due to money problems, the traditionally lavish meal is pared down to two basic elements: "A wafer, a herring." The wafer referred to would be the oplatek, a thin unleavened flatbread similar to a Communion host and stamped with sacred images related to the Nativity. Christmas Eve was a fast day so the feast, though lavish, centered on fish rather than flesh. Herring is traditional, but usually there are other, fancier fish like carp – probably herring is all this family can afford. But these two remnants of the usual spread – the communion-like wafer, the fish – add overtones of sacredness and tradition to the little family gathering.

The mother sings them a carol "in the soprano of Miss Stasia, / a beauty / from the town of Ostroleka." An earlier poem in the sequence tells us that the mother is (or was, before her marriage) herself the beautiful singer Miss Stasia. She was engaged to "handsome Mr Raczynski" but breaks it off: "He despaired. / The Lord will punish you for me. / And the Lord punished her. / She married a madman." Her father seems to have been possessed by his painting, though never financially successful. Later in the sequence, we are told again of the mother singing, "after many years," in the "young soprano of Miss Stasia"; this time, she sings to her granddaughter. But before she sings, we are told that she is crying. With sorrow, with joy, with memories of handsome Mr Raczynski, with thoughts of her madman husband, with regrets or pleasures or all of these things? A whole history of complexity is implicit in "Mother is crying."

"Beyond the window" – that is, right outside their dwelling, and able to see in as they are able to see out – Swir lists three things: night and frost and fear. Night is to be expected, since the Christmas Eve celebrations don't start until sundown, and the candle have been lit on the tree; frost is also to be expected, given the time of year. But both of these familiar things can also be threatening and dangerous – hence the third thing this little girl, a child of poverty and bohemia, sees lying just outside: fear. Beyond the hazards outside and the complicated emotions inside, there is still a feeling of warmth and comfort from being with the two people she loves most, her father and mother; and however they are feeling about each other, she finds solace and cheer in being with both of them, all three together: "How good it is we're here / we three."

I took this from Talking to My Body by Anna Swir, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan.

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