Anna Swir: Poet, Resistance Fighter and Military Nurse



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Anna Swir (Świrszczyńska) was born in Warsaw, Poland, to an artistic though impoverished family. She worked from an early age, supporting herself while she attended university to study medieval Polish literature. In the 1930s she worked for a teachers’ association, served as an editor, and began publishing poetry. Swir joined the Resistance during World War II and worked as a military nurse during the Warsaw Uprising; at one point she came within an hour of being executed before she was spared. In addition to poetry, Swir wrote plays and stories for children and directed a children’s theater. She lived in Krakow from 1945 until her death from cancer in 1984.
Her poems have been collected in English translation in Building the Barricade (1974), Happy as a Dog’s Tail (1985), fat like the sun (1986), and Talking to My Body,(1996), translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan.
Swir’s poems about war and death use direct, simple language. In Building the Barricade she includes a section called “Poems about My Father and My Mother,” which affectionately describes scenes of her parents. Swir also wrote candidly and passionately about the female body; in his introduction to Talking to My Body, Milosz identified her central theme as “Flesh. Flesh in love and ecstasy, in pain, in terror, flesh afraid of loneliness, giving birth, resting, feeling the flow of time or reducing time to one instant.”  Eva Hoffman, reviewing Happy as a Dog’s Tail for the New York Times, commented on Swir’s adept depictions of erotic love: “The quick, decisive strokes in which she registers moments of meeting, coupling or parting are almost abstract in their lack of surface detail, but they give us glimpses of a turbulent, even ferocious internal life.”

Source: Poetry Foundation:


The Poems

I Carried Bedpans

I worked as an orderly at the hospital
without medicine and water.
I carried bedpans
filled with pus, blood and feces.

I loved pus, blood and feces—
they were alive like life,
and there was less and less
life around.

When the world was dying,
I was only two hands, handing
the wounded a bedpan.

Thoughts of a Fourteen-Year-Old Nurse

If all the bullets in the world
hit me,
then they couldn’t hit anybody else.

And let me die as many times
as there are people in the world,
so that they wouldn’t have to die,
even the Germans.

And let nobody know
that I died for them,
so that they wouldn’t be sad.

The Rats Remain

In this city
there are no more people. Sometimes a cat
with burnt eyes
crawls out from an alley
to die.

Or a rat
scuttles to the other side of the street.

Or the wind moves
a page in a book on the pavement
and knocks the window
with the glinting shard of glass.

Myself and My Person
There are moments
when I feel more clearly than ever
that I am in the company
of my own person.
This comforts and reassures me,
this heartens me,
just as my tridimensional body
is heartened by my own authentic shadow.

There are moments
when I really feel more clearly than ever  
that I am in the company
of my own person.

I stop
at a street corner to turn left
and I wonder what would happen
if my own person walked to the right.

Until now that has not happened  
but it does not settle the question.

Anna Swir, “Myself and My Person” from Talking to My Body, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan. Copyright © 1996 by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan.

I Knocked My Head against the Wall

As a child
I put my finger in the fire  
to become
a saint.

As a teenager
every day I would knock my head against the wall.

As a young girl
I went out through a window of a garret  
to the roof
in order to jump.

As a woman
I had lice all over my body.
They cracked when I was ironing my sweater.

I waited sixty minutes  
to be executed.
I was hungry for six years.

Then I bore a child,  
they were carving me  
without putting me to sleep.

Then a thunderbolt killed me
three times and I had to rise from the dead three times  
without anyone’s help.

Now I am resting
after three resurrections.

Anna Swir, “I Knocked My Head against the Wall” from Talking to My Body, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan.


The Ghetto: A Mother

Cuddling in the arms her half-asphyxiated baby, howling,
she ran up the staircase of the apartment building that was set ablaze.
From the first floor to the second. 
From the second to the third.
From the third to the fourth.

Until she had jumped onto the roof. 
There, having choked with air, clinging to the chimney,
she looked down from where she could hear 
the crackle of flames which were reaching higher and higher.

And then she became motionless and silent. 
She kept silent to the end, till the moment 
at which she suddenly clenched her eyelids,
stepped to the roof edge and, throwing forward her arms,
she dropped her baby down.

Two seconds earlier than she herself leapt down.