A Legend of Polish literature


Suppose you’ve had that once-in-a-blue-moon bliss,
another’s body and the entire earth,
and end with just a photograph like this,
this – so this is all it’s worth...

 The 9th of July 2015 was a beautiful day in Manchester, which was half way through the International Festival.   It was also the day that marked the 70th anniversary of the death of a great Polish poet, Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska, who spent the War years in England and lies buried at Manchester Southern cemetery.  On that sunny afternoon I paid a visit to the grave, accompanied by some friends, to lay flowers and to read Maria’s poems in her honour.  She’s a legend in Poland and she’s waiting to be discovered by the English speaking world. 

Who was Maria? Czesław Miłosz called her the “Polish Sappho” – both in her life and creativity she sought to experience and express love’s full spectrum, to reach fulfilment through love.  Her poetry is philosophical, contemplating from the very outset transience and fate.  It muses on human existence’s inextricable link with nature, and the inevitable deterioration of the human body.  Above all, it expresses Maria’s own spiritual personality.  With time and experience her philosophy evolved: initially full of vitality and humour, later it grows more serious and austere.  
She was born into an artistic family, the Kossaks– both her father and grandfather were famous painters. She had adoring parents and an almost idyllic childhood. Almost – because it was marred by some health problems. But she was growing up amidst artists in an atmosphere of wonderful intellectual and spiritual freedom.  Her mother – “a stern golden-haired angel carrying a switch, but an amazing sense of humour too”, as her sister Magdalena wrote – was in charge of the family home, which was widely known as the “Kossakówka”. It was visited by the great personalities of the time when Kraków was becoming the capital of the Polish avant-garde.  Maria studied at home, learning foreign languages, exploring philosophy, natural sciences and literature. She painted watercolours and spent a year at Kraków Art Academy.   But she was also inspired by her everyday contacts with nannies and servants who spun thrilling stories of ghosts and witches that left an indelible impact on the imagination of a poet in the making. Add to that Lilka’s – they called her Lilka at home – constant communion with the forces of nature, in which Kossakówka was immersed, and we see where poems like this one come from:     


I pledge you lifelong love: belladonna,
the dark Valencienne lace of the elderflower,
the crow, new moon, hemlock’s grey bell,
tobacco flowering in the night,
the toad, hyena, and the eagle owl.
I, a witch without a broomstick
but with a burnt heart, lovesick
for some poor distant demon, gazing clear
into the world like a crystal ball,
I press you to my soul and love you all.
You are the witch’s kindred –
feared, beloved...

In her adult life she looked for all-encompassing love. She had many affairs, three of which led to marriage.  The first one was annulled, the second ended with a divorce.   She found true comfort and support in her third husband – Stefan Jasnorzewski, a captain of the Polish Airforce and rather younger than her.  Maria had a penchant for airmen. Before meeting Stefan, in 1928 in Paris she lived through a fantastical romance with the Portuguese aviator, Jose Manuel Sarmento de Beires, who only a year earlier had flown across the Atlantic. Out of these relationships, instead of children... poems were born.


Whoever wants me to love him must never look gloomy, understand,
and he must be able to lift me up high in the palm of his hand.

Whoever wants me to love him must know how to sit on a bench for hours
and contemplate the little worms and leaves of grass and flowers. 

And he must know how to yawn when the funeral goes by in the street
and the crowds in the procession piously shuffle and bleat.

 Instead when, say, a cuckoo calls he must know how to be moved,
or when a woodpecker pecks fiercely at a silver beech in the wood.

 He must know how to stroke a dog and to give me a caress
and how to laugh and live in his dreams, deep, sweet and meaningless,

and stay quiet in the blissful darkness and know nothing, just like me,
and as for goodness and badness, stray from them equally.

 Her first book of poetry was Niebieskie Migdały (1922). Its title – literally Blue Almonds or idiomatically Castles In the Air – came into being when she fell in love with Jan Gwalbert Pawlikowski, her second husband. It won her immediate acclaim from the Warsaw group of poets, the Skamander. Maria formed deep friendships with this group, especially Julian Tuwim (who shared her interest in magic and esoteric knowledge), Jan Lechoń (who defended her against hostile criticism) and Antoni Słonimski (with whom she would stay in touch during her exile). Through them she also met the master of that literary era, Leopold Staff, whom she’d previously admired from afar.  It has to be stressed though that her poetics were highly individual and she was never really part of any literary movement.       

From that period also comes the volume Pocałunki (Kisses) (1926), including a poem which   illustrates the philosophical nature of the love discourse in Pawlikowska’s poetry. “Love” also exemplifies the form for which she’s best known – four lines concluding in an unexpected twist.

I haven’t seen you for a month or so.
No change. Perhaps I’m pale rather than fair,
sleepier, more silent. It shows
you can live without air.

Lilka travelled a great deal and was open to influences from other parts of the world. She embraced a wide range of ideas: eastern philosophy, the occult and spiritualism, theosophy with Madame Blavatsky, the cult of the sun, panpsychism (the belief that all matter has consciousness), the Persian rubaiyats of Omar Khayyam.  She was also drawn to the avant-garde. This was evident from her close friendship and collaboration with Witkacy, the painter and dramatist. They even attempted writing a play together; it didn’t materialise, but Witkacy painted a distinctive portrait of Maria, showing tears in her eyes. She also translated poetry, for example Anna de Noailles’ love poems and the aphorisms of the mystic Angelus Silesius, such as this:


Property isn’t riches. That man has wealth
who can lose all things, with no loss to himself.       

 The broad influences, philosophical and intellectual, are leavened by the qualities Maria drew from her family home –  the joie de vivre, the feet on the ground – which allowed her to keep a healthy distance from everything, including a séance:     


The Ouija board was baffling tonight...
The entire circle had become impatient...
But one hand whiter than a white carnation
trembled, as a man’s hand held it tight.

 Nobody saw the fading ectoplasm...
The table became motionless and froze.
From the white hand to the man’s there passed a spasm
and love materialised instead of ghosts.  

 Writing for the stage, Maria usually created comedies for the Kraków and Warsaw theatres. Her last play, a grotesque parody of a totalitarian regime, echoing Hitler – had its Warsaw premiere on 2nd September 1939, despite the blackout and the state of emergency.  As the Germans advanced, Captain Stefan Jasnorzewski was ordered out of the city and Lilka followed her husband on a journey abroad, from which she was never to return.  They travelled through Romania to Paris, where Lilka felt almost at home until the Fall of France forced them to flee across the Channel. She spent some time in London and then followed her husband to Blackpool, from where Jasnorzewski  was transferred to various military posts around the country. They spent the next few years mainly living apart but maintaining a very close bond in their letters. Extensive fragments from the correspondence were recently published in Poland (“Z Tobą jednym” [With You Alone ], edited by Elżbieta Hurnikowa, Wydawnictwo WAB). They show how mature love works in the direst circumstances. Lilka and Lotek supported each other in extraordinary ways, both materially and psychologically, and the words leap off the page as they create a language of their own.

Leaving her homeland, Maria Jasnorzewska left her happiness behind, becoming one of millions of war refugees and sharing their fate.  She was stripped of her milieu and her identity, and it is only understandable that the loss hurt her deeply.  But her individualism quickly prevailed and, despite the material privations, her great freedom of spirit and expression survived. Maria kept on writing and publishing in the émigré magazines. Apart from her poetry and poetic notebooks she wrote letters as well as a private diary, although in the face of the brutal reality of war the writing acquired a new form and tone:


Rhymes,my delightful toys, my open jewellery box,
Crammed to the brim with corals, ribbons, shimmering gems;
I gathered you like a magpie; the best moments came
As I cascaded you from one hand to the other...

 Today I do not know how to tie my heavy words
With a flowery ribbon – I do not know how to match
A shade to a shade, a sound to a sound... Goodbye,
My old and happy games, half a maestro’s half a child’s,
The assonance, like a riddle without meaning,
I rung out from the carefree sweat of my brow... Today,
rhythm, I want you alone to lead my yearning thoughts,
Marching them arm in arm, determined, hard and warlike
Till the moment of Return.

We are very lucky to know so much about the life of this fascinating figure. In the 1950s her sister, the well known satirist Magdalena Samozwaniec, wrote a memoir entitled Maria and Magdalena,  which was complemented in the ‘70s by Zalotnica niebieska (it’s a pun made out of the words ‘flirt fly blue sky’) where she created the magical legend – full of wonder and humour – about the Kossak family. Such a legend would never have struck a chord with readers were it not firmly grounded in the brilliant writing of both sisters, and of course Maria’s poetry has borne the test of time, speaking powerfully to consecutive generations. 

In London in the 1950s Maria’s friend the critic Tymon Terlecki published Ostatnie utwory (The Last Works) from her émigré period, and after the death of Jasnorzewski in 1970 he followed this with her diaries.  At the time Terlecki explained his decision by stating that “Everything that has to do with an artist of such stature is significant”.  I’m reminded of these words today, because in recent years new publications have revealed more of Maria’s private diaries and correspondence, in which she recorded some drastic details of her illness. This has caused controversy in Poland.        

To my mind however, the prose in which she describes her pain is the consistent continuation of her earlier writings. They too dealt openly – albeit through poetry – with intimate phenomena and aspects of human nature. In the past she had dealt with female eroticism – and shattered a strong taboo. Writing towards the end of her life so openly about the arcana of terminal illness, the poet broke another taboo. She named the unnameable again.        

It is also well known that Maria spoke rather bluntly about the émigré military leadership and generally about the circle in which she found herself out of the necessity of fate. It has to be remembered that her personality refused to give in to propaganda, that she condemned war – even the “just” one – and she raged against the destruction of everyday life. She even wrote interesting poems in that vein, though she was not allowed to have them published. Her first and foremost critic and censor was her husband, Lotek, who made every effort – understandably enough – to stop his wife from getting him and herself into trouble. This is a fragment of Lotek’s letter dated in July 1941:

“I am returning your first and second compositions but with the strong reservation that you mustn’t send them off for publication. You have no idea how painful it would be for me to see it appear, so to speak, in the public domain. I gather you don’t realise what’s going on. The gravity of our times is so great that today’s writing must also have its ‘weight’. And you, Babykins, write that the war is about the slow draining, disappearing and withering of shops...  Dammit!!!”

Yet Lilka did not stop from expressing her dismay at those who prohibit all criticism of the war. 


When one of us appears to be war-unfriendly
Some sneering mentor grabs you instantly
And swats you like a fly with the word ”Pacifist!”,
Choking the heart’s endeavour, most efficiently...

 Most  debates about the work and life of Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska take place in Poland, but in the UK some of us also remember this outstanding figure and her five years here.  She spent most of the time in Blackpool, but then due to her illness she moved to Manchester.  And that’s where she lies buried – at Southern Cemetery.  Later her husband was laid next to her.  In 1973 a gravestone was erected by the Union of Polish Writers Abroad and the Polish Community in Exile.         

In 1995, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of her death, Anna Maria Grabania’s Theatre of Small Forms staged a solo performance, “Maria”, which told the story of her life. It was based on her poems and on fragments of the memoir by her sister Magdalena.   The play was directed by Andrew Visnevski from The Cherub Company, and Maria was played by the legendary Fenella Fielding. It played at the New End Theatre in Hampstead.  I was given the daunting task of translating the script including the poetry, which I did in collaboration with Tony Howard.  It was a massive challenge but equally a wonderful opportunity to immerse myself in this marvellous verse.  It was the beginning of several years of work which culminated in the publication of a bilingual selected edition: Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska, Butterflies (Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków,  2000). All the translations quoted here are taken from this edition.  

We also learn about Maria from the memoirs of her contemporaries. Here is what her close friend Irena Krzywicka wrote: “There was absolutely nothing prosaic about her. Even in the most mundane circumstances poetry constantly rustled round her like a vivid mountain brook. (...)There was a never-ending secretion of poetry and constant radiation through words. No wonder a magical atmosphere always materialised around this woman.”  And here’s her husband Lotek sending his family a telegram in 1932 shortly after they married: “I have found a wonderful exotic flower, which I will never leave.” He was true to his word and kept vigil by her bedside till the end.


You’re wrapped in furs. I see
you pause before a puddle, clutching close
a Pekinese, a brolly and a rose...
How will you step into eternity?

She left behind a huge literary legacy: a dozen volumes of poetry, a dozen plays for theatre and radio, poetic notebooks, diaries, letters...  All this is still reaching us slowly, a true treasure chest of human knowledge and esoteric wisdom. She was living magically and dying heroically, recording it all to the very end...


“I shan’t return here! Let God hurtle me
Far into the stars! This world has hurt me
Unforgivably!” “Yes, but here love
Flowers like a stray orchid... Won’t you return?”


Writing this piece, I have drawn on the excellent introduction by Krzysztof Ćwikliński to Poezje zebrane Marii Pawlikowskiej-Jasnorzewskiej [Collected Works by Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska] (ALGO, Toruń 1994) and the article by Justyna Chłop-Nowakowa, “Bez znieczulenia. Wiersze i zapiski Marii Pawlikowskiej-Jasnorzewskiej z lat II wojny” [“Without Anaesthesia. Poems and notes of M P-J from the period of WWII”], available on the Internet.  For the War diary extracts see: Wojnę szatan spłodził. Zapiski 1939-1945 [The War Was Spawned by Satan. Notebooks 1939-1945]. A new analysis of Maria’s life story is offered by Anna Nasilowska’sbiography( Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska, czyli Lilka Kossak. Biografia poetki  [Toruń, 2010]).