Ewa Lipska

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Introductory Remarks by Robin Davidson


Polish poet Ewa Lipska begins her essay, “The Absurdity of Beauty,” by saying: “Nietzsche believed that ‘an artist hates reality.’ Above all, however, we are its slave and sometimes its victim.” This, Nietzsche’s belief, is a fitting description of Lipska’s own artistic vision as I have come to understand it over the past fifteen years. I first encountered Lipska’s poems in a “Modern Thought” class taught by Polish poet Adam Zagajewski at the University of Houston. We read translations by her British translators, Barbara Plebanek and Tony Howard, for whose fine work I am still deeply grateful. It was not until the summer of 2001, when she sent me, at Zagajewski’s request, a copy of her book 1999, that I longed to translate her poems myself, and with the help of my friend and colleague Ewa Elżbieta Nowakowska, to whom Lipska introduced me, that became possible over the course of the years which followed.

Ewa Lipska was born in 1945 in the Polish People’s Republic. Thus, like Adam Zagajewski and Stanisław Barańczak, she is among those writers who come in the wake of two very accomplished generations of Polish poets—first that of Aleksandr Wat, Anna Swirszczyńska, and Czesław Miłosz, born between 1900 and 1911, and second that of Tadeusz Różewicz, Zbigniew Herbert, and Szymborska, born in the 1920s. Since 1967 Lipska has published more than 20 volumes of poetry in which she relentlessly examines centuries of systems (political, economic, scientific, technological, artistic) and their lexicons to question the viability of human knowledge, our motivations in formulating it, and the illusory nature of our perception. Interestingly, Lipska was first educated as a painter at the Kraków Academy of Art, and her ars poetica is strongly informed by movements in the visual arts, particularly Surrealism.

We see in the poems which appear here the influence of a surrealistic imagination in the service of irony, subversive wit. These pieces are taken from Lipska’s book Pogłos (Echo, 2010), three of which are addressed to a Mrs. Schubert. I’ve been compelled by this mysterious character for more than a decade when I first discovered her in Ludzie dla Początkujących (People for Beginners, 1997). Mrs. Schubert is a persona who appears in the several prose poems concluding the volume, and we learn from them only that she may be “the police inspector’s daughter.” We see Mrs. Schubert again in the concluding poem of 1999, in which Lipska appears to comment upon the 20th century’s mass murders and the role of art in a brutally dispiriting time. Schubert is a common Austrian surname, and like Zbigniew Herbert’s complexly ironic Mr. Cogito, Lipska’s figure is a kind of European “every woman” of modernity. The poems appearing here prefigure Lipska’s two newest books, Drogi pani Schubert (Dear Mrs. Schubert) and Miłość, droga pani Schubert… (Love, dear Mrs. Schubert) appearing from her Polish publishers, Wydawnictwo Literackie in 2012, and Wydawnictwo a5 in 2013, respectively. The two volumes feature 54 poems addressing the same Mrs. Schubert, now as then, offering her cryptic information and directives, and commenting upon poetry as the uncertain intersection of fiction and reality, political history and individual erotic imagination.

The Poems

(Poems translated from the Polish by Robin Davidson & Ewa Elżbieta Nowakowska)


From Pogłos (ECHO)
Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 2010.



Droga pani Schubert, w młodości często
chorowałem na operę. Operę tragiczną, która
dosypuje do życia trucizny, przebija sztyletem
strach, ginie w pojedynku, popełnia samobójstwo.
Podziwiałem śpiewaków, którzy ratowali honor
sopranu. Kiedy z arii wydobywał się ogień,
wzywali na pomoc fabułę i inne cudaczne
desenie sztuki. Jak pani wie, muzyka roznosi
choroby nieuleczalne: nokturny, serenady,
symfonie, urojenia smyczkowe. Jako pacjent sal
koncertowych, biegle nimi władam.



Dear Mrs. Schubert, in my youth I often
fell sick with opera. Tragic opera, which
adds poison to life, stabs fear with a dagger,
is killed in a duel, or commits suicide.
I admired singers who saved the honor
of the soprano. When fire leapt from the aria,
they called the plot and other bizarre artistic
motifs for help. As you know, music spreads
incurable diseases: nocturnes, serenades,
symphonies, stringed delusions. As a concert
hall patient, I have fluent command of them.


.    .



Droga pani Schubert, coraz bardziej dokucza mi
nadmiar ludzkości. Jestem popychany, trącany,
ginę w czyichś ramionach. Straszy mnie miasto.
Biegnę wzdłuż ognia do pobliskiej opery. Na scenie
jestem sam. Błazen Rigoletto. Otwieram usta
i przekręcam w gardle kontakt.



Dear Mrs. Schubert, an excess of humanity
nags at me more and more. I am pushed, shoved,
get lost in someone’s arms. My city haunts me.
I run along the fire to the nearby opera. I am alone
on stage. The Jester Rigoletto, I open my mouth
and turn on the switch in my throat.


.    .



Droga pani Schubert, nie mogę wytłumić
powracającej przeszłości. Hałaśliwych kłótni
języków obcych. Nie mogę wyciszyć głośnej
gorączki naszych rozpalonych głów. Ucieczek
z domu. Przenikliwych zapachów pogrzebów
i mięty. życia w cudzysłowie. Nie mogę wyizolować
mniejszości z krzyku większej całości. Co mówi na
to lekarz? To tylko nie leczony, chroniczny pogłos.



Dear Mrs. Schubert, I can’t muffle the returning
past. Noisy quarrels of foreign tongues.
I can’t mute the loud fever of our hot-headedness.
Escapes from home. The penetrating smells
of funerals and mint. Life in quotation marks.
I can’t isolate the minority from the screams
of the larger whole. What does the doctor say?
It’s just an untreated chronic echo.


.    .



Miłość jest jasnowidzem.
Przewiduje siebie ciebie i mnie.

Jest z narodu wybranego
i posługuje się językiem
wysokiego napięcia.

W Bibliotece Narodowej
powala nawet
nieoczytane książki.

W lawinie chórów
odkrywa echo
euforii i śmierci.

A kiedy cię dopadnie
staraj się być w domu.
Albo coś w tym rodzaju.
Byleby się spotkać.



Love is clairvoyance.
It foresees you and me.

It’s from a chosen nation
and uses high-voltage

In the National Library
it renders even
illiterate books speechless.

In the avalanche of choirs
it discovers an echo
of euphoria and death.

And when it seizes you
try to be at home.
Or somewhere like that.
Just as long as you meet each other.


Ewa Lipska was born in Kraków in the Polish People’s Republic in 1945. She studied painting and art history at the Kraków Academy of Fine Arts, and has published twenty volumes of poetry since 1967. Much of her work emerges out of the events of World War II, and interrogates social and political issues with a skeptical surrealism. Her most recent volumes—1999, Sklepy zoologiczne (Pet Shops, 2001), Ja (I, 2003), Gdzie indziej (Somewhere Else, 2005), Drzazga (Splinter, 2006), Pomarańcza Newtona (Newton’s Orange, 2007), Pogłos (Echo, 2010), and Droga pani Schubert (Dear Mrs. Schubert, 2012)—are influenced in particular by her friendships with Nobel Laureate Wisława Szymborska and Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal. Lipska has won numerous literary awards, including the Polish PEN Club’s Robert Graves Award for lifetime achievement in poetry, and collections of her verse have been translated into fifteen languages. She lives in Vienna and Kraków.