A Stranger in the Village

Maya Peretz, Independent Translator

Halina Poświatowska (1935–1967) was an unusual phenomenon both as a poet and a woman. Her work is very popular in her native Poland; it’s time to introduce her to the wider world. Her personal honesty and the candor of her work were indivisible. Her art presents a different kind of feminism than what has been recognized as such in the West. And her openness certainly brought a breath of fresh air to the straitlaced world of Polish poetry.

Critics called Poświatowska’s poetry “the phenomenon of authentic eroticism” and marveled that she, “most likely the first among [Polish women poets]—lacks any element of shame,” with her painful and intense concentration on the miracle of her own body, not only because it was a female body but because it was mortal.

Her chronic heart ailment made it impossible for her to live a normal life. Yet while Poświatowska was aware that she might not live long, she nevertheless succeeded in writing enough poems to fill three ample volumes, as well as an autobiographical story and another volume of work which appeared posthumously. She also translated poetry by Joseph Margolis, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ezra Pound, Paul Éluard, Jacques Prévert and Federico Garcia Lorca. The first heart surgery Poświatowska had undergone in the United States prolonged her life by nine years. She did not survive the second, in Poland, where she died at the the age of thirty-two.

Poświatowska’s poetry was not as “asocial and apolitical” as she pretended. She could not have doubted that writing as if there were no censorship displayed contempt for the official rules. After all, she harbored no illusions about the communist system. In 1964 she wrote in her often not quite grammatical English: “I am not allowed to go abroad—and the people (officials) ignore me completely, as if I were a sort of … unwanted insect, there is no decision, but [there] will not be any explanation.”

This paper’s focus will be on the poet’s three-year stay in the U.S. as a very young widow, a heart patient and then a student at Smith, and her fascination with the multiethnic and multicultural aspect of life in this country. As the editor of Poświatowska’s bilingual poetry volume (właśnie kocham/indeed I love, Wyd. Lit., Kraków, 1998) and translator of her letters to an American friend as well as her autobiography (Tale for a Friend, in search of a publisher), I propose to use these materials to throw some light on the Polish poet’s feeling about the United States, her relations with people of other races, her enchantment with American art and music, New York City and the night life of Greenwich Village, her brand of feminism and the project to write a dissertation about Dr. Martin Luther King.