Beach Sandals – Brief poems by Anna Swir

Anna Swir (1909-1984), the name by which the Polish poet Anna Świrszczyńska is known in the English-speaking world, was born in the capital city, Warsaw. Her father, Jan Świrszczyński, was an avant-garde painter and her mother was a former singer who had given up a professional career to take care of her family. Anna Swir’s Poems About My Father and My Mother (unpublished until after her death) relate the story of her early childhood  as the family moved from home to home within Warsaw. She grew up in virtual poverty and had to interrupt her education in order to work. She supported herself as she grew older, managing to attend university where she studied medieval and baroque Polish literature. By the 1930s, when her first poems were being published, she was working for a teachers’ association. In 1934, her poem “Noon” was awarded first prize in a poetry competition sponsored by Literary News. In 1936 she published her first book, Poems and Prose. These early brief poems, writes Czeslaw Milosz in his introduction to Talking to My Body, bear the marks both of her upbringing in the artistic milieu (images taken from paintings and albums of reproductions) and of her fascination with the Middle Ages. In 1939 the Nazis invaded Poland, precipitating World War II. Anna Swir joined the Polish resistance and worked as a waitress and as a military nurse in Warsaw while continuing to write for underground journals and participating in clandestine poetry readings. In 1944, while working as a nurse treating soldiers at a military hospital she expected to be executed for her resistance activities, as she recounts in her collection Building the Barricade. Milosz quotes Swir’s summary of this period of her life: War made me another person. Only then did my own life and the life of my contemporaries enter my poems.

One crucial impact of the war on her life was her displacement from Warsaw to Krakow.  For a time, she worked as a literary supervisor at the theatre there where she wrote and adapted plays. She also wrote children’s books, producing over 50 titles—an accomplishment that won her a literary prize in 1973. During the Stalinist years her plays written for adult audiences reflected the spirit of socialist realism, though after Stalin’s death, in 1953, she was able to turn to more psychological and political drama. She also wrote contemporary comedies for popular entertainment, translated poetry, produced opera librettos, and adapted literary works for the stage, radio and television while continuing to write her own poetry privately. She would eventually collect and publish these poems in a series of volumes, beginning in 1958, and these poems established her literary reputation.

When she was 44, she met and married actor Jan Adamski. (The priest who married them, and who later baptised their daughter, Ludmila, was Karol Wojtyla, later to become Pope John Paul II.) Her Catholicism is evident in the poetry in its incarnational matter where the centrality of the flesh and the joys and agonies of embodiment recur throughout the poems, so much so that Milosz would eventually use the phrase, Talking to My Body, as the title of his volume of English translations of Swir’s poems. Of her personal life at this time Milosz once said, The marriage didn’t last long. Then she separated and she had some lovers.

She never married again, but she eventually entered into a lasting relationship with another man, whose identity is known only as “Jozef,” the life companion to whom she dedicated her book, Happy As a Dog’s Tail  (1978). In later years she became a vegetarian and practiced yoga and gymnastics on a regular basis. She also enjoyed jogging and long cross-country walks, activities that served to set her further outside the literary mainstream, both in terms of her life and her work. She wrote unadorned poetry of physical experience in a direct style. In 1984, Milosz, who was in the process of translating a book-length selection of her poems, wrote to inform her of the project. Though she told him that she was pleased that he was translating her poetry, she did not disclose that she was in the final throes of the cancer from which she would die on September 30, 1984. She is buried in the Rakowicki Cemetery in Krakow.

Her final poem, Tomorrow They Will Carve Me, written while on her deathbed, reads

Death came and stood by me.
I said: I am ready.
I am lying in the surgery clinic in Krakow.
they will carve me.

There is much strength in me. I can live,
can run, dance, and sing.
All that is in me, but if necessary
I will go.

I make account of my life.
I was a sinner,
I was beating my head against earth,
I implored from the earth and the sky

I was pretty and ugly,
wise and stupid,
very happy and very unhappy
often I had wings
and would float in air.

I trod a thousand paths in the sun and in snow,
I danced with my friend under the stars.
I saw love
in many human eyes.
I ate with delight
my slice of happiness.

Now I am lying in the surgery clinic in Krakow.
It stands by me.
they will carve me.
Through the window the trees of May, beautiful like life,
and in me, humility, fear, and peace.




I do not speak Polish. I do not read Polish. Yes there is something clever, caustic and evocative in the poems below and in the longer ones available on the Poetry Foundation site that transcends translation. Anna Swir is like a more carnal Emily Dickinson or a more spiritual Sylvia Plath. As she put it memorably, A poet should be as sensitive as an aching tooth. There is an ache and an acute sensitivity to body and soul in her best poetry as is evident below and in the more extensive poems. She was not well-known or much celebrated in her native Poland. (Even today the Wikipedia page on the Rakowicki Cemetery in Krakow, which also contains the graves of Georg Trakl and Wislawa Szymborska,  does not mention her in its list of notable internments.) Czeslaw Milosz explains why he introduced her work to a wider, English speaking audience: he translated her poems in order to repair injustice, because she was underestimated. I consider her a very important poet. But she was somehow in the shade. First of all, she had great difficulty in finding proper expression for her experiences, her war experiences. And then later she had difficulty finding this proper expression also for her love experiences. So she was a latecomer in a way. And for that reason she was not highly known. In 1985, Milosz published Happy as a Dog’s Tail, the first collection in English to consist solely of Swir’s poems. All of the poems were translated by Milosz, in partnership with Leonard Nathan, and consisted of poems from her mature volumes . In 1996, Milosz and Nathan re-edited the volume, adding an additional 65 poems and removing 31 that had been in the first edition, and renamed the book Talking to My Body. New translations of the poems have appeared in  Building the Barricade, translated by Piotr Florczyk in 2009. I leave it to Milosz, in a posthumous tribute, to sum up the enduring appeal of Anna Swir’s poetry: Opening myself to her verses, I have been more and more conquered by her extraordinary, powerful, exuberant, and joyous personality . . . her calm in accepting reality, whether it brought bliss or suffering. A mood of detachment is visible in her late poems. To have met such a person through her poems has inclined me to faith and optimism . . . In her later poems it was apparent that she had been gradually moving toward a supreme quietude.


Brief Poems by Anna Swir



I swam away from myself.
Do not call me.
Swim away from yourself, too.

We will swim away, leaving our bodies
on the shore
like a pair of beach sandals.



Two rucksacks,
two grey heads.
And the roads of all the world
for wandering.



Because there is no me
and because I feel
how much there is no me.



is the hardest
work of all.

The old and sick
should be exempt from it.



You make among the trees
a nest for our love.
But look at the flowers
you’ve crushed.



I am filled with love
as a great tree with the wind,
as a sponge with the ocean,
as a great life with suffering,
as time with death.



I envy you. Every moment
You can leave me.

I cannot
leave myself.



Twenty-four hours
I was dying of fever.

Twenty-four hours
mother knelt
and prayed by my bed.

Twenty-four hours
father lay, face down
on the floor.

They saved me.



Like an eye and an eyelid
United by a tear.



I am jolly as if I were
very fat.
As if I had four
very fat legs. As if I jumped very high
on my four very fat legs.
As if I barked
cheerfully and very loudly
with those four very fat legs.
That’s how jolly I am today.



Whether in daytime or in nighttime
I always carry inside
a light.
In the middle of noise and turmoil
I carry silence.
Always I carry light and silence.



When I am alone
I am afraid to turn
too quickly.

What is behind my back
may not, after all, be ready
to take a shape suitable
for human eyes.

And that would not be good.



She was an evil stepmother.
In her old age she is slowly dying
in an empty hovel.

She shudders
like a clutch of burnt paper.
She does not remember that she was evil.
But she knows
that she feels cold.



She is sixty. She lives
the greatest love of her life.

She walks arm-in-arm with her dear one,
her hair streams in the wind.
Her dear one says:
“You have hair like pearls.”

Her children say:
“Old fool.”



Out of suffering, power is born.
Out of power, suffering is born.

Two words for one



Were I able to shut
My eyes, ears, legs, hands
And walk into myself
For a thousand years,
Perhaps I would reach
—I do not know its name—
what matters most.




I carried two potatoes
a woman came up to me.

She wanted to buy two potatoes
She had children.

I didn’t give her two potatoes
I hid two potatoes.

I had a mother.

translated by Piotr Florczyk



I will survive.

I’ll find the deepest basement,
shut myself inside, won’t let anybody in,
I’ll dig a hole in the ground,
chew out the bricks,
I’ll hide in the wall, I’ll go into the wall
like a centipede.

Everyone will die, and I
will survive.

translated by Piotr Florczyk



Those who gave the first order to fight
let them now count our corpses.

Let them go through the streets
that are not there
through the city
that is not there
let them count for weeks for months
let them count our corpses
till death.

translated by Piotr Florczyk


You Died

You really died in me, not when
another gave me joy.
You died in me
when another gave me pain.

translated by Margaret Marshment and Grazyua Baran




Wiersze i proza (Poems and Prose) (1936)

Liryki zebrane (Collected Poems) (1958)

Czarne słowa (Black Words) (1967)

Wiatr (Wind) (1970)

Jestem baba (I am a Woman) (1972)

Poezje wybrane (Selected Poems) (1973)

Budowałam barykadę (Building the Barricade) (1974)

Szczęśliwa jak psi ogon (Happy as a Dog’s Tail) (1978)

Cierpienie i radość (Suffering and Joy) (1985)



Thirty-four Poems on the Warsaw Uprising (1977), New York. Transl.: Magnus Jan Kryński, Robert A. Maguire.

Building the Barricade (1979), Kraków. Transl.: Magnus Jan Kryński, Robert A. Maguire.

Happy as a Dog’s Tail (1985), San Diego. Transl.: Czesław Miłosz & Leonard Nathan.

Fat Like the Sun (1986), London. Transl.: M. Marshment, G. Baran.

Talking to My Body (Copper Canyon Press, 1996) Transl.: Czesław Miłosz & Leonard Nathan.

Building the Barricade and Other Poems of Anna Swir Tr. by Piotr Florczyk (Calypso Editions, 2011).



Poems and a brief biography on the My Poetic Side website.

Anna Swir & the Poetics of Embodiment by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell.

Poems by Anna Swir on The Gladdest Thing.

Poems by Anna Swir on A Longhouse Birdhouse.

Czeslaw Milosz discusses his translations and her poetry with The San Diego Reader.

The Anna Swir page on the Biographies II site.

An interview with Piotr Florcyz on translating Anna Swir.

Pearls and Toads, Yeast and Froth: Relationships in Anna Świrszczyńska’s Poetry; an essay by Laura Miller-Purrenhage.

Antenna – Brief Poems by Ciaran Carson

Ciaran Carson (October 9th, 1948 – October 6th, 2019) was born on the Lower Falls Road in Belfast into an Irish-speaking family. His father, William, was a postman and an Irish language enthusiast from whom he inherited his love of Irish, and of traditional music and storytelling. His mother, Mary, also an inspiration for his poems, worked in the linen mills. He spent his early years in Andersontown where he attended Slate Street School and, later, St. Gall’s Primary School. After attending St Mary’s Christian Brothers grammar school in Belfast, he studied English at Queen’s University where Seamus Heaney was one of his tutors and where poets Medbh McGuckian and Paul Muldoon were fellow students. After graduation, he worked as the traditional arts officer of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland from 1975 to 1998 with responsibility for traditional Irish music and literature. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he travelled all over Ireland, playing the flute and the tin whistle in public venues, often accompanied by his future wife, Deirdre Shannon – herself a gifted fiddle-player. In 1998 he was appointed a Professor of English at Queen’s University and in 2003 was appointed director of the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at the university. 

He was the author of fourteen poetry collections and six prose books including Last Night’s Fun (1996), a book about traditional music where each chapter bears the title of a beloved song; The Star Factory, (1998) a memoir of Belfast which The Chicago Tribune called “a positive, loving, even celebratory evocation, the work of a man determined to live an ordinary urban life, and to clear in it a place for the imagination”; Shamrock Tea, (2001) a novel longlisted for the Booker Prize which, as The Guardian reviwer put it “claims to be a novel but might equally be filed under History, Philosophy, Art, or Myth and Religion”; Fishing for AmberA Long Story, (2000) which weaves, in an elaborate manner, Irish fairy tales, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the history of the Dutch golden age into the form of a magical alphabet; a novel The Pen Friend (2009) and a literary thriller set in Paris and Belfast, Exchange Place (2012).  His translation of Dante’s Inferno (2002) was awarded the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize and in 2003 he was made an honorary member of the Irish Translators’ and Interpreters’ Association. He also translated Rimbaud into alexandrine lines in his collection In the Light Of  (2012) and the lesser-known French writer, Jean Follain, in From Elsewhere (2014) where he accompanied each translation with his own individual response. Unsurprisingly, given his Irish-language background, he also translated the Irish classic The Táin (2007) and Brian Merriman’s classic The Midnight Court (2005).

Ciaran Carson lived in Belfast his whole life. He died of lung cancer on 6 October 2019 at the age of 70, days before the publication of his last collection, Still Life.



Although it has long been superceded by better-known and better-celebrated collections, Ciaran Carson’s first book The New Estate (1976) was, to my mind, a remarkable debut and this first edition with its intriguing woodcuts holds a special place in my collection. A poem like The Bomb Disposal where “The city is a map of the city” prefigures themes that were to be developed, explored and extended throughout subsequent volumes: and a poem like Soot is still, decades on, a memorable and intricate poem. That fascination with maps, a constant throughout his career, is further indulged in his second collection, The Irish for No (1987) where a central section recreates the map of Belfast – the collapsing city – in words. Obliterated streets, bombed-out hotels and demolished facades are recalled and reconstructed in verse. A vibrant and decaying city is celebrated in an explosion of proper nouns. There is a new and frightening maturity at play here as evident in a poem like Campaign. Yet it is in the longer poems, in a style that owes much to the influence of the American poet, C. K. Williams, that Carson was to find his own mature voice. The subsequent collection, Belfast Confetti (1989) which, intriguingly, does not contain that evocative poem Belfast Confetti , further develops the long poem, the nine line poem, the prose poem and, interspersed throughout, a selection of translations of Japanese haiku (see below.) It also begins with a poem about maps, about Belfast, about street names, about directions, about history and, in typical Carson fashion, elides and aligns all together.

Breaking News (2003) is fascinating for the manner in which Carson manages to develop a fragmentary style to convey his typical concerns. That brief and fragmentary style is less successful, to my mind, in later volumes. On the Night Watch (2009) consists of over one hundred and twenty slimmed down, pared down, sonnets dealing with a siege of sickness. It is ingenious but somewhat repetitive. Ever more ingenious, if also repetitive, is the subsequent collection Until Before After (2010) which is about his wife’s hospital stay for a serious illness. The book is divided into three sections (until, before, after) and each poem in each section includes the relevant preposition from the title of that section. Brief poems are also included in his penultimate collection From Elsewhere (2014) a response to the French poet Jean Follain or, as he put it in an introductory note: This book consists of translations of the French poet Jean Follain, faced by “original” poems inspired by these translations: spins or takes on them in other words. Translations of the translations as it were. If many of the translations are a little flat, the translations of the translations, the original poems, some of which are included below, are far more interesting. There are no brief poems is Carson’s last posthumous publication Still Life (2019) but it is a remarkable swan song, one of the best poetry books of the decade, a superb concluding look at life, death and the streets of a Belfast that nourished this remarkable poet throughout his life.


Brief Poems by Ciaran Carson



Rain in summer –
it is the sound of a thousand cows
Being milked.

In winter
The eaves are heavy with ice,
Their snowy teats drip silence.                             

from the Welsh



Now I am bereft of answers
Your questions have gone astray –

Your roofs are open to the wind,
My roof is but cold clay.

after Dafydd Jones




Plains and mountains, skies
all up to their eyes in snow:
nothing to be seen.



I know the wild geese
ate my barley – yesterday?
Today? Where did they go?



These are wild slow days,
echoes trickling in from all
around Kyoto.



I’ve just put on this
borrowed armour: second hand
cold freezes my bones.



In Kyoto, still
longing for Kyoto: cuck-
oo’s two timepworn notes.



Darkness never flows
except down by the river:
shimmering fireflies.




from BREAKING NEWS (2003)



beyond the yellow
shipyard cranes

a blackbird whistles
in a whin bush


beside the motorway
a black taxi

rusts in a field 
of blue thistles



backpack radio



I don’t
read you

what the




red alert
car parked

in a red

about to



so quiet

you can

hear it rust



I met him
in a bar

he shook

my hand

of coffee-grinders


and that

and place

by now

he’d lit

a cigarette

he reeked of


Waste  Not

birds flock
above the field


women with sheaves

the dead

gold braid
and buttons



from a piece of
the Tupperware
lunchbox that hold

the wiring
they could tell
the bombmaker wore

Marigold rubber gloves



the horses fell

a crow
plucked the eyes

time passed

from a socket

a butterfly



the road
to Sevastopal

is paved
with round-shot

the road
from Sevastapol

with boots
that lack feet



from ON THE NIGHT WATCH (2009)

It Is

as late as

you think
you think

you know
the small hours

into decades


or dawn
to the chink

of the first bird



that we two
looked at

last year
does it fall

or what is this

a blinding

dark & stars
we wonder which

is yin
which yang

what then
what now



of his gear

a soldier
by his neck

all 33


the body
laid out where

he went kaput
a bullet

the occipital bone


Night after Night

in room
after book-

filled room
upon storey

after storey
I scan spine

after spine
upon shelf

after shelf
trying to locate

a volume
lodged at

the back
of my mind



So it is

as when
death draws

nigh death
draws a hush

upon the house
until the one

who is about
to die

cries open
the door



toll time

takes we
cannot tell

the order
of our going

hence until
the next

not even


It is

as if another city
dark as this one

dwells in this one
as before now that

you hear it through
the helicopter

beat that swells
from where

the city meets
the city


Time and

again time
after time to

play in time
as we did with

each other for
the last time

before now that
after without you

I still keep
your time in mind


The tag

round your wrist
bore a number

your name
and DOB

two weeks after
two stone less

the day you
came home it

slipped off
no need to snip



from FROM ELSEWHERE (2014)


From time to time
following the rumble of thunder
or a bomb
upon a mantlepiece
a Dresden vase crowded
wIth open-mouthed flowers
trembles about
to topple



Fallen from some
unknown tree
the leaf stuck
to the mushroom
in a moonlit glade
a horseman passes by
into the gloom.



Amid the nosie of gunfire
only the blind man
hears his cane
as he taps his way
through streets thronged with rioters
to the printing press
where they cast bullets
from type.


What Light There Is

By night
a flotilla of helicopters
circles above a city
never seen but heard
a noise indistinguishable
from that of the world
beyond its waves
from time to time
pierced by
a lightning stroke
the shriek of a night bird.


All poems: ©The Gallery Press.




 Poetry Foundation page on Ciaran Carson.

The Gallery Press page on Ciaran Carson.

An interview with Ciaran Carson in The New Yorker.

Michael Hinds discusses the poetry of Ciaran Carson in the Dublin Review of Books.

Still Life: a review by David Wheatley.

The Triumph: In memory of Ciaran Carson, a poem by Paul Muldoon.

Irish Times Obituary.

The New York Times obituary.