Friday 1 April 2022

Kiedy mówisz When You Say - Jan Twardowski

Kiedy mówisz - When You Say
Stanislad Baranczak
Clare Cavagnah
Zovia Blaszczyh
Myrna Garanis
Malgorzata Koraszewska
Sarah Lawson 
Anna Mioduchowska
Maya Peretz
ISBN 9788308039717
ISBN 8308037577

This is the second collection of poetry by Jan Twardowski that I have been able to track down in English. And I believe there are only the two. Which after reading these two I consider a great pity. I picked up these volumes for a few reasons. First Jan’s grandniece recommended his poetry to me. She is the confirmation sponsor of my oldest daughter. Second our parish has been staffed by Polish Pallottine Fathers and I want to pass a copy of the book on to our priest. Third just from the bit I gleamed about Father Twardowski trying to track down some of his work in English was inspiring. And finally because the first volume I read, Serious Angel, was an excellent read. I wish more of his works were available in translation. This book was according to the publishers site, has been through at least 4 editions and printings. And I am very thankful I was able to track one down. The description of this volume is:

“A selection of the poems of Father Jan Twardowski, a creator of religious poetry full of spiritual order and simplicity, valued by readers.

Selection of poems by father Jan Twardowski, a poet admired for his spiritual peace and simplicity of his religious poetry.”

The authors note at the end of the volume states:

“I sometimes ask myself these three questions: Who am I writing? To Whom am I writing? What do I think of my own poetry?

I do not keep a journal. My experiences, emotions, meetings with the world and with people are recorded in my poems.

Poems are a kind of conversation, in which the author is trying to convey some of his personal experience of the world. I am writing as if I were speaking to a close friend – for me, a poem is an attempt to get to in touch with another person. I would like to get through to everybody out there, and I am pleased that my poems are also appreciated by people living outside the Polish sphere, who understand them through their own language.

As a priest, I live in two different worlds at a time – in the external one, which the media present as contaminated, false, grisly and governed by human sin, and in the internal one, which is defined by people’s confessions and avowals. I know  that a man who parts company with God is in torment. Both believers and non-believers have a cross to bear. 

I constantly strive to write better. In Today’s world, we constantly come across work, often by the most renowned minds of our time, which is contaminated with despair, with relativism, with lack of faith, with materialism, with postmodernism. In this world, a religious poem might seem weak, too muffled. Yet the unheeded readers are out there, those who are looking for hope, truth, authenticity, and do not follow the day’s fashions. I am trying to speak faith in this world devoid of love. 

Poems redeem that which has been trampled upon. They contribute what is human and heartfelt to a computerised, technicised world, what has not been contaminated by hatred, envy, and bickering. Poems bring along orderliness and harmony. They purify today’s reality.

There is a lack of religious poems today, and that need is revealed by the very fact that it has been suggested to publish some of them.

I do not like to provide ready interpretations of my writing, and leave the judgement to the reader. The selection proposed in this volume is and excursion through the redeemed world of mine, in which suffering need not be a misfortune, but rather a test of faithfulness towards a mystery, and death is an encounter with God, who is love.”

This volume is an excellent collection of 71 poems, of which only 7 had previously been published in English. I read through this collection over a few mugs of coffee. A couple of times I thought about some of the poems I read previously in Serious Angel, and one in particular struck me because of the great differences in translation between the two versions:

From this volume:

Faithless Trees

One by one all the trees non-believers,
birds refuse to study religion
the dog rarely goes to church
they really don’t know anything
and see how obedient!

insects under the tree bark know nothing of the gospels
even the white caraway so meet in the pasture
ordinary field stones
tears plowing the skin 
have never heard of Saint Francis
and see how poor

the stars refuse to hear my sermons
so does the humble lily of the valley, all too familiar, alone
the peaceful mountains that, like faith, keep on
love with a heart condition
and see how pure

The version from Serious Angel:

Trees Are Non Believers

Every single tree is a non-believer
birds do not learn religion at all
a dog very seldom goes to church
they really know nothing
yet so obedient

insects under bark do not know the gospel
even white caraway most silent along the path
common field stones
like crooked tears on a face
do not know Franciscians
yet so poor

righteous stars do not want to listen to my sermon
lilies-of-the-valley on the edge therefore lonely
all mountains quiet and as patient as faith various loves with cardiac defects 
yet so pure

There are similarities between the two translations but even based on titles a different feel. And yet both are wonderful reads. I do prefer the second though. The translators names are at the end of each poem. The team of translators is:  Stanislad Baranczak, Clare Cavagnah, Zovia Blaszczyh, Myrna Garanis, Malgorzata Koraszewska, Sarah Lawson, Anna Mioduchowska, and Maya Peretz. In the publishers note we ae informed that the selections span from 1937 to the year 2000. Most are drawn from the source volumes. And the 7 that previous appeared in English we are provided the sources. There are many excellent poems in this volume. I picked my 5 favourites to share as a sampling, they are:

Learn How To Wonder

In church learn how to wonder,
that the Holy Host is so small
it could hide within the little hands of the girl in white shortest of them all

yet before it crowds sink to their knees,
burst out crying, confess,

that boys with berry-black tongues, shirtless
to spite grandmothers, rush
through the church’s half-open door
and, awed at the church’s solemnity,
suddenly hush.

And think – how astonishing 
that God was once not a king,
but a child, with a mother, like us

So many mysteries, dogmas,
martyrs, sinners like Judas,
and yet always new believers

That one, without a single prayer,
can have a change of heart
and simply believe in Him
from all this wonderment

About A Sparrow

I don’t know how to write about church
about the prayer tents over masses and altars
about the clock that devours us
about the saint with his hair clipped like grass
about windows that toss butterflies
into the house: small multi-coloured ships
about moths whose dark breath blackens candles
about the eye of Providence
about Holy Mother’s hair of warm wind
about those who are sorry even before they sin

but about someone 
hiding in the shadows
who suddenly sticky with tears and hot like July
walks away transformed into the tender heart of a violin

and about you unruly sparrow
who stunned with grace
fell headlong
into the holy water


I did not come to convert you
and anyway all the wise sermons have fled from my head
I was stripped of all shine long ago
like a hero in slow motion
I won’t pester you 
with what you think of Merton
I won’t jump around during discussion
like a turkey with a red wattle on its nose
I won’t grow handsome like a drake in October
I won’t dictate tears that will confess to everything
I won’t spoon holy theology into your ear

I’ll simply sit beside you
and confide my secret
that I, a priest
trust God like a child


Your call is always loudest
at dawn and at sunset
isn’t it true that there are only two pure moments
the early bright one and the one at dark
when God gives day and when He takes it away
when someone wanted me and when I’m no longer needed
when someone loved me and when I’m left alone
when I’m being born when I die
those two seconds that always come
one light the other dark
so honest they’re both naked
so beyond us we no longer are

When You Say

Don’t cry in your letter
don’t write that you’ve been kicked by fate
there is no situation on earthy without a way out
when God shuts the door – He opens the window
breath out and look
from the clouds come falling
small great misfortunes needed for happiness
and from simple things learn calm
forget that you are when you say that you love

That final one is obviously the title piece. This is an excellent collection of poetry spanning much of his career. I am thankful the name Jan Twardowski was mentioned to me. And will keep my eyes out for more of his works in the future to be translated into English. This is an excellent collection. It is well worth the read if you can track it down. And I hope the poems I sampled inspire you in your own examination of the world, and maybe to give this volume a try.

Note: This book is part of a series of reviews: 2022 Catholic Reading Plan

Books by Jan Twardowski in English:
Kiedy Mowisz When You Say (bilingual edition)
Country Bumpkins Move to Paris: Letters Home 1970 to 1972 (Editor)
Country Bumpkins Move to London: Letters Home 1979 to 1983 (editor)

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