Barbara Toporska’s “The Chronicle” in Ambit 234

Barbara Toporska.jpg

Barbara Toporska (1913–1985)

On Monday, October 22, the Tate Modern’s Terrace Bar will host the launch of the 234th issue of Ambit, a consistently exciting venue for poetry and, increasingly, for poetry in translation. Much of the credit for all this excitement goes to poet, translator, and critic André Naffis-Sahely, who recently joined the journal’s staff as poetry editor. André was kind enough to include one of my translations in the latest issue. It is a poem by the little-known Polish émigré novelist, poet, and journalist Barbara Toporska, who was married to the somewhat better known Józef Mackiewicz (1902–1985). The couple left their homeland in 1945 and lived in exile, often in extreme poverty, until their deaths in 1985. (Toporska and Mackiewicz were devoted to one another; she survived him by less than six months.)

Mackiewicz, who claimed to be “anticommunist by nationality,” was one of the first to expose the “Katyn massacre” — the systematic murder, on the orders of Stalin, of some 22,000 Poles, including 8,000 military officers, by the Soviet secret police in April and May 1940. Incidentally, one of the few imprisoned Polish officers to escape death at Katyn, Józef Czapski (1896-1993), was a noted writer and artist, whose work is now being published by NYRB Classics, in translations by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and Eric Karpeles. Mackiewicz’s prose is also ripe for rediscovery, but it is his wife’s poetry that made the most profound impression on me. I was introduced to both authors by the remarkable Nina Karsov, who keeps their work in print through her London-based publishing house, Kontra.

It’s a shame I can’t be at the Ambit launch in person, and I send the readers my best wishes from abroad. The distance, though, feels somehow appropriate. Below is Toporska’s poem, a distillation of the exilic experience, which is dedicated to the memory of another political émigré.

The Chronicle

In memory of Stanisław Kodź (1898–1966)

Dr. (of Law) A. Lonely
political émigré
died
on Sunday
of heart failure
at a Munich hotel.

There is snow in the street
this November in Munich
the walls swayed like veils
the ceiling came down
and dusk glazed the windows
with a silver like silence
then night brushed it off
with the glare of the streetlights.

In the morning the phone rang
servants knocked at the door
locksmith
policeman
doctor —
death was sudden and lonely.

While Lonely — he sails
far away by his lonesome
on this ashen grey Sunday
with snow at the window
growing younger each moment
than all things on the course
of this Europe in autumn
this Munich in autumn.

***

Full stop. End of entry.
“Political commentary?”
cold
cigarette
smoke
in a lump of soil from the homeland.

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