Building the Barricade
Translated by Piotr Florczyk
Calypso Editions, 2011
Amid the blood and guts rebellion of every war against oppression that there has ever been, you will always find the courage and devotion of the poet. In as much as an historian records the factual account of the circumstances of the ravages of war, the poet internalizes the individual experience of armed conflict, thus preserving the humanity lost in the debris of brutality. It was in such an atmosphere of upheaval and suffering that Polish poet Anna Swir collected her own images.
Anna Swir was born in Warsaw Poland in 1909. Her early life was marked by poverty but also by a nurturing and artistic home environment, conducive to her poetic nature of self reflection. During the turbulent years of the war she utilized her writing ability to further the cause of the Polish Resistance by writing for underground publications. Anna also dedicated herself to caring for the wounded as a military nurse, an occupation that inspired some of her most emotionally profound poetry concerning the impact of human suffering and its partner despair. Ultimately it is her feminine perspective that transcends this darkness, through the need to understand at the deepest level that which can only be interpreted by the heart; lending emotional credence to each and every line written. If the conveyance is harsh, it is due to the purposeful and direct use of literal language rather than flowery and vague metaphors. With these poems Anna Swir has attempted to take us on a trip to a type of hell only known in war, with an immediacy that is startling.
In Building the Barricade and other poems, Anna Swir has certainly accomplished this feat. Initially published in 1974, it has been impeccably translated by Piotr Florczyk from the original Polish into English and recently released by Calypso Editions. In this collection, Anna Swir displays the immediacy and concise reportage of a journalist coupled with the intuition and compassion of an artist, rendering her readers as helpless as those immersed in the horror she so accurately details in verse. A searing and moving portrait is created, culled from the experiences of one of the most important feminist writers of her era. It is no surprise that Anna herself faced her own execution by firing squad and it is this same fearless determination that is the hallmark of this text. Her talent looms large with each page turned. Her deft observation of her surroundings becomes a type of alchemy for converting words into mental images that you feel bone deep. Each poem stands on its own merit; a snapshot and a graphic account of a moment in time, one single remnant that when woven together with the others evolves into one of the most honest portraits of the collective suffering of those caught in the snare of violence.
In the poem “Conversations Through The Door”, she inhabits the anguish of a mother whose son, a soldier is dying, likening it to the pain of childbirth: “Behind the door/the wife begins to scream/as if she were in labor.”
In “Said The Major”, the sacrifice of life for the cause of freedom is so palpable you can feel the absence of the beating of a youthful heart: “Five messenger girls went out/one made it/the order was delivered within the hour.”
Anna’s perceptive understanding of the instinctive survival through defense is potent and nakedly self analytical in the title poem “Building the Barricade”: “Although no one forced us/we built the barricade/under fire.” In another poem, Ms. Swir hearkens back to the theme of femininity in “The Child Lives One More Hour”: “She brings back three spoons of milk/The child lives/one more hour” —an aching depiction of the extreme risks that a mother will take to extend the life of the child she has brought into the world.
This magnificent work of art has been released at a time that is particularly relevant given the atmosphere of war and suffering at play internationally. Perhaps it is time to revisit this past horror through Anna Swir’s poetry with an eye to re-examining our own response to the price we pay for turning away from suffering that is always the inevitable consequence of war. This book has found a home on the bookshelf next to my copy of The Diary of Anne Frank, such is my respect and admiration for Anna Swir’s talent. I cannot give it a higher recommendation than this.