Book Review: The Print-Pantheist — Cyprian Norwid’s “Poems”

In light of the many translations of Cyprian Norwid’s verse into English, Danuta Borchardt thought carefully about what she was going to focus on.

Poems by Cyprian Norwid.Translated from the Polish by Danuta Borchardt. Archipelago Books, 180 pages, $16.

By Ellen Elias-Bursac

When I asked Danuta Borchardt what inspired her to take on the project of translating a selection of verse by Polish poet Cyprian Norwid (1821–1883), she said it was his strikingly modern voice and his ideas. Norwid’s verse touched her with its fresh, experimental spirit.

A visual artist and draftsman as well as poet, Cyprian Norwid lived mostly in Paris but also spent time in, and wrote poems from, Warsaw, Berlin, Verona, Florence, Rome, New York, and London. He died in poverty in Paris, having published during his lifetime only two collections of verse. It was only after 1918 that he was accorded the cultural stature he has enjoyed ever since.

Borchardt, a native speaker of Polish, feels she could never have succeeded at this and her many other translations from Polish into English (including her celebrated version of Witold Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke for which she received the ALTA National Translation Award in 2001) had she not done her own writing and publishing of short fiction in English. She credits several colleagues in her Translator’s Note for helping her understand the cadence of American English, but her English is without question up to the task of this challenging translation.

In light of the many translations of Norwid’s verse into English, Borchardt thought carefully about what she was going to focus on. In the Translator’s Note, she spells out her principles: to retain Norwid’s complexities, convey his multiple meanings and intentions, his rhythm and musicality, the lyricism and rhymes, and the form and idiosyncratic punctuation of each poem. Holding to these tenets meant extensive research into Norwid’s life, his innovative language, and the existing scholarship on his work. The translation of the 43 poems took her several years. She was helped in this by Norwid scholar Agata Brajerska-Mazur, who is credited on the title page and elsewhere as a key collaborator.

The book Poems opens with selection from Norwid’s famous Vade-mecum, a series of 100 enumerated poems. The first of these, “Introduction,” ushers us directly into Norwid’s poetic universe with its closing lines:

Beyond, above all your charms,
You! poetry and you, speech! Behold,
Ever the highest will be – this aim:
To name each matter by its rightful – word!

We are faced immediately with the poet’s engagement with meaning: “To name each matter by its rightful – word!” and his punctuation, particularly the use of hyphens, which Borchardt not only conveys but brings alive.

The next poem, number I, titled, like the series, “Vade-mecum,” opens with Norwid’s wry humor: the image of an impatient audience and an action-hungry society:

Their hands swollen from clapping,
Bored by chants, people called for action;
Shapely bay trees heaved sighs,
While their limbs sensed bolts of lightning.

and ends with lines that bring us the pacing of generation, history and place, conveyed in Borchardt’s nuanced rhymes and assonances:

My son – will skirt this work, but you, grandson, will note,
What disappears today (because hurriedly read)
While print-Pantheism still reigns,
By virtue of the printer’s type in lead –
And, as would happen on a Roman street,
With catacombs’ paths under one’s feet,
Overhead the sun, and daylight sanguine yet flawed,
So will he read again what you read today,
And will recall me. . . when I’ll be no more!

Off the page leaps surprise after surprise as the reader explores these poems, such as the poignant six-line poem “Tenderness,” in the Vade-mecum series:

Tenderness – is oft like a war-drenched cry,
And like wellsprings’ murmuring whirl,
And like a burial lament. . .

And like a braided long blond curl,
Upon which the widower is wont to wear
his silver watch –––

Translator Dantua Borchardt — it took her years to translate Norwid

More surprises follow: the riff of a mazurka that rollicks through “Chopin’s Grand Piano,” the penultimate poem in the Vade-mecum series, ending in the lines, “The dull stones groaned:/The Ideal – has reached the street ––” as Chopin’s piano, and his music, tumble down onto the street. In her notes in lieu of an afterword, Borchardt explains that “Chopin’s Grand Piano” was written in reaction to the defenestration of Chopin’s piano by a battalion of the Russian army. One can easily imagine the resonance of these lines far beyond the 1860s when Norwid wrote them.

The grieving poem “My Song (I),” written, we learn, after Norwid’s fiancée broke off their engagement, flows onto the page with a melodic rush, demonstrating Borchardt’s mastery of rhyme:

Oh, sorrow, sorrow from end to beginning,
The black thread is spinning:
It’s behind, it’s ahead, and it’s with me,
I breathe, and it’s there,
I smile, and it’s here,
In my prayer, my hymn, and my tear.

Never predictable, Norwid wrote a number of terse poems that he refers to as epigrams, such as “Their Power”:

Immense armies, generals bold,
Police – covert, overt, of both sexes –
‘gainst whom are these aggressors? ––
A few ideas. . . that aren’t new but old. . .!

(reprinted on January 2, 2012 in The Nation)

A caricature of Polish poet Cyprian Norwid

But he also writes “Quidam,” set in the reign of Hadrian, a long, narrative poem excerpted in this collection, the story of “. . . just someone – some man – quidam!” as Norwid writes, with a prescient modernism, in a letter to a friend. “He doesn’t undertake any action, he merely desires and searches for good and truth, as they say: he actually doesn’t do anything –- he suffers much, he is killed almost by accident, in a slaughterhouse!”

The collection also includes a poem inspired by John Brown’s hanging. The poem opens with the lines

Over the Ocean’s undulant plain
A song, like a seagull I send to you, o! John… (113)

and ends with

Before the song matures, man will die again,
Yet ere the song dies, people will rise.

Again, as in poem number I, Norwid is measuring time with the life span of the poem, infused with the revolutionary spirit of the mid-nineteenth century.

With much gratitude to Danuta Borchardt, we, of the generation of the great-great-great grandson, read again Norwid’s verse “while print-Pantheism still reigns.”

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