I have to be careful on Sundays: nostalgia lurks behind every corner. On Sunday afternoons I often find myself leafing through crinkled papers marred by my childish scribbling or succumbing to the evocative mustiness of old books… Today I dug up a translation I started years ago, of a poem that, not altogether coincidentally, takes nostalgia as its subject. It is a playful, poignant lyric by Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska (1891-1945), whose elegant verse earned her the title of the “Polish Sappho.” Perhaps a more accurate — and chronologically appropriate — monicker would be the “Polish Edna St. Vincent Millay” or, better yet, the “Polish Anna Akhmatova.” Like the early Akhmatova, Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska wrote with great nuance and classical clarity of women’s lives and loves. (And Akhmatova may have recognized the resemblance, as she translated Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska’s work into Russian.)
The poem below, “Granny” (“Babcia,” 1924), imagines the future existence of a Polish child of the century — a 24-year-old flapper — in 1974. The flapper-turned-granny, Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska predicts, will recall Prince Krakus, the legendary founder of the city of Kraków, and his daughter Princess Wanda, as well as to the French Marshal Ferdinand Foch (1851-1929) and Józef Piłsudski (1867-1935), who was Poland’s Chief of State from 1918 to 1922 and would again become its de facto leader in 1926. You’ll notice that the poet proves something of a seer, anticipating the invention of the iPhone, which she calls the “biophone.” Sadly, Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska would not live as long as her heroine; she died of cancer in Manchester in 1945.
Fifty years hence, she’ll sit down at the piano
(that very spring she’ll turn seventy-four):
a granny, who wore jumpers,
lived through the great and oh-so-dreary war,
saw trams glide through the streets,
the airplane take its first steps in the sky,
and people speaking without seeing one another
over the telephone.
The granny, who recalls Krakus and Wanda —
or who, in any case, recalls Foch and Piłsudski —
who was intoxicated by a jazz band
and who received her letters from the postman,
whose youth passed shabbily, without a kikimobile,
a biophone, a virocycle, or an astrodactyl —
watching her faded flicker with a wistful smile,
will play old-fashioned foxtrots on the piano.