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In Praise of the Unfinished: Selected Poems
by Julia Hartwig
translated by John Carpenter and Bogdana Carpenter
Knopf, March 2008

Hailed by Czeslaw Milosz as “the grande dame of Polish poetry” and named “one of the foremost Polish poets of the twentieth century” by Ryszard Kapuscinski, Julia Hartwig has long been considered the gold standard of poetry in her native Poland. With this career-spanning collection, we finally have a book of her work in English.

The tragic story of the last century flows naturally through Hartwig’s poems. She evokes the husbands who returned silent from battle (“What woman was told about the hell at Monte Cassino?”) and asks, “Why didn’t I dance on the Champs-Élysées / when the crowd cheered the end of the war?… Why was I fated to be on the main street of Lublin / watching regiments with red stars enter the city.” But there is also a welcoming of new experience in her verse, a sense that life, finally, is too beautiful to condemn. She seeks a higher peace, urging us to hear other voices: “an ermine’s cry, moan of a dove, / complaint of an owl - that remind us / the hardship of solitude is measured out equally.”

Hartwig’s compassionate spirit in the face of destruction and suffering, her apparent need to live in the moment, make her poems monumental and deeply touching and the introduction of her work here long overdue.

Return to My Childhood Home
Amid a dark silence of pines—the shouts of
young birches calling each other.
Everything is as it was. Nothing is as it was.
Speak to me, Lord of the child. Speak,
innocent terror!
To understand nothing. Each time in a different
way, from the first cry to the last breath.
Yet happy moments come to me from the past,
like bridesmaids carrying oil lamps.

An admired poet and sometime bestseller in Poland – and an important translator of poetry from English into Polish – Hartwig (now age 85) has also led a memorable life, fighting with the resistance in WWII and taking part in the Solidarity movement. This set of limpid, quotable, often bittersweet lyrics and prose poems makes clear that she could become as acclaimed here as her Nobel Prize compatriots Milosz and Symborska. Countryside landscapes and artifacts from the classical past come to Hartwig as emblems of human endurance, compassion and humility. The same virtues illuminate her poems on public occasions, from 9/11 to the era of Polish martial law: Lord we aren't the only nation tormented this way, she prays, don't let us take pride in it. Later poems speak to the international legacy she favors, especially to the French modernist Apollinaire. For all her topical interest Hartwig is finally a poet of enduring consolation, measured reassurance and scenic clarity, who may also appeal to fans of Mary Oliver. – Publishers Weekly, February 2008 © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.

Julia Hartwig has published more than a dozen collections of poetry in her native country, and her work has been translated into French, Lithuanian, German, Russian, Serbian, Hungarian, and Italian. The recipient of numerous awards for her work, she is also a well-known translator of English and French poetry into Polish.

Bogdana Carpenter is Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan. She is the author of The Poetic Avant-Garde in Poland, 1918–1939, and Monumenta Polonica: The First Four Centuries of Polish Poetry, as well as other works.

John Carpenter is a poet and literary critic. He is author of Creating the World and a study of the literature of the Second World War. Among translations the Carpenters have done as a team are seven volumes of poetry and prose by Zbigniew Herbert.