Biała magia

October 31, 2014 § Leave a comment

Barbara stands at the mirror
of silence, and her hands reach
to her hair; in her body of glass
she pours silver droplets of speech.

And then like a water pitcher
she fills with light, and soon
she has taken the stars within her
and the pale white dust of the moon.

–from “Biała magia,” Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński

A film was recently made of the life of the Polish poet Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński, who died during the Warsaw uprising in August 1944. He isn’t as well known in English translation as other Polish poets such as Czesław Miłosz or Wisława Szymborska. I only know of one book of his poems in English, a selection called White Magic and Other Poems, translated by Bill Johnston (Green Integer 138). This is a dual-language edition. The trailer to the film (with English subtitles) can be found here. I haven’t been able to find a complete version of the film with English subtitles, although I’ve watched the full version in Polish (admittedly, my one night course in Polish many years ago and the Polish grandfather I never had the luck to know didn’t help me much to understand what was going on, beyond the simplest of words — proszę, dziękuję, but all very polite of course).

Baczyński was born in Warsaw in 1921. He wrote love poems, as in the one above, “White Magic”, dedicated to his wife Basia (pronounced “Basha”) and he wrote poems about his experiences in the Polish Resistance, which he joined in 1943 at the age of 21.

Clare Cavanagh has argued, in Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics that Miłosz’s poem “Dedication” (“You whom I could not save/Listen to me…What strengthened me, for you was lethal./You mixed up farewell to an epoch with the beginning of a new one,/Inspiration of hatred with lyrical beauty,/Blind force with accomplished shape.”) is in fact addressed to a single person, “who perished in the Uprising, a person with whom the speaker is on familiar terms” — the single person being possibly Baczyński:

“The ‘good poetry’ whose ‘salutary aim’ he discovers late has been his salvation…while the poetry of this dead friend, driven by social passions and national mythologies alone, proved to be his, and not only his, ruin. Both Forche and Des Pres celebrate a ‘poetry of extremity’ ‘rooted in direct response to political pressure, which is to say in despair and resistance, in ruin and recovery’; it sounds perilously close, at least potentially, to the ‘lethal’ poetry that Miłosz describes in ‘Dedication.'” p.253

The full-length movie is perhaps tapping in to this nationalistic vein. It includes dramatised, somewhat romanticized segments from Baczyński’s life in the resistance, intercut with interviews from people who knew and fought side by side with him in his last days, and a modern day poetry slam which (I’m guessing, not speaking Polish) offers interpretations or versions of Baczyński’s poems.

The Warsaw uprising began at the beginning of August 1944. Baczyński took part, and died a few days later on 4 August. His wife, Barbara Stanisława Drapczyńska, (Basia,) had not yet learned of his death when she also died, 1 September 1944, from a head wound caused by a splinter of glass.* She was pregnant at the time.


* I take this detail from the wikipedia entry for Barbara Stanisława Drapczyńska.



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