Unexpected reading binge: Eastern Europe

Have you ever had those days where one little link clicked in the morning leads you down a rabbit hole of reading for the rest of the day?

It happens to me a lot.

Today a few things conspired to lead me on a binge of reading about Poland and Eastern Europe in general.  Based on this review, On the Road to Babadag: Travels in the Other Europe by Andrzej Stasiuk is going to be a great read, as soon as I can track down a copy.

From there I found reference to Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.  While my library has a copy, it’s in the section of the stacks that are currently moving and inaccessible.  Luckily, The Atlantic has the rather lengthy magazine version available online for free.  I’ve always meant to read some West, and never have until now, but she is truly wonderful and I can’t wait to finish the whole long piece.

It was in a London nursing home. I had had an operation, in the new miraculous way. One morning a nurse had come in and given me an injection, as gently as might be, and had made a little joke which was not very good but served its purpose of taking the chill off the difficult moment. Then I picked up my book and read that sonnet by Joachim du Bellay which begins: ‘Heureux qui, comme Ulysse, a fait un beau voyage.’ I said to myself, ‘That is one of the most beautiful poems in the world,’ and I rolled over in my bed, still thinking that it was one of the most beautiful poems in the world, and found that the electric light was burning and there was a new nurse standing at the end of my bed. Twelve hours had passed in that moment. They had taken me upstairs to a room far above the roofs of London, and had cut me about for three hours and a half, and had brought me down again, and now I was merely sleepy, and not at all sick, and still half-rooted in my pleasure in the poem, still listening to a voice speaking through the ages, with barest economy that somehow is the most lavish melody: ‘Et en quelle saison Revoiray-je le clos de ma pauvre maison, Qui m’est une province et beaucoup d’avantage?’

— Rebecca West

Though wildly unversed in it, I have a fondness for Eastern European and Polish history and literature that stems in large part from my own Polish roots.  Stasiuk and West’s books will likely join Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Travels with Herodotus on my (short) list of excellent Eastern European travel books.  (This NYT piece points out some complications with Kapuscinski’s body of work, but I, like its writer, still admire the strengths of his work.)

Today is also the birthday of celebrated Polish poet Czesław Miłosz (who died in 2004 at the age of 93).  I love Milosz’s ABCs, a strange and irreverent little collection of prose reminiscences.

Admiration: I have admired many people.  I have always considered myself a crooked tree, so straight trees earned my respect.

I firmly believe that the best way to experience Milosz’s poetry is to hear him read it.  Poets.org has a few suond recordings available.  My favorite of the bunch is “And the City Stood in its Brightness.”

Traditions we don’t have

Happy Easter Monday. Were my family still in Poland, we’d call it Śmigus-Dyngus, and I might have been woken up this morning by a boy pouring water on me and hitting me on the legs with switches.

In honor of how totally weird that is to think about, here’s a poem for today that is from Poland, and is also about water:

by Wisława Szymborska
(translated by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh)

A drop of water fell on my hand,
drawn from the Ganges and the Nile,

from hoarfrost ascended to heaven off a seal’s whiskers,
from jugs broken in the cities of Ys and Tyre.

On my index finger
the Caspian Sea isn’t landlocked,

and the Pacific is the Rudawa’s meek tributary,
the same stream that floated in a little cloud over Paris

in the year seven hundred and sixty-four
on the seventh of May at three a.m.

There are not enough mouths to utter
all your fleeting names, O water.

I would have to name you in every tongue,
pronouncing all the vowels at once

while also keeping silent — for the sake of the lake
that still goes unnamed

and doesn’t exist on this earth, just as the star
reflected in it is not in the sky.

Someone was drowning, someone dying was
calling our for you.  Long ago, yesterday.

You have saved houses from fire, you have carried off
houses and trees, forests and towns alike.

You’ve been in christening fonts and courtesan’s baths.
In coffins and kisses.

Gnawing at stone, feeding rainbows.
In the sweat and the dew of pyramids and lilacs.

How light the raindrop’s contents are.
How gently the world touches me.

Whenever wherever whatever has happened
is written on the waters of Babel.