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Myśli o szczęściu

(Thoughts about Happiness)

Reviewer: Wojciech Kajtoch

[Myśli o szczęściu] By Janina Brzostowska. Edited by Miriam Akavia. Foreword by Witold Brostow. Jerusalem: Carmel Publishing House, 2003. xiii + 83 pages. Paper. Bilingual in Polish and Hebrew.

Janina Brzostowska (1897-1986) wrote for over fifty years. In her youth she was associated with the expressionist poetic group Czartak created in the 1920s under the leadership of Emil Zegadłowicz. Brzostowska was the youngest member of that group. In 1925-77 she published eighteen volumes of poetry and three novels. Miriam Akavia -herself a writer-made the selection for this volume of poetry in Hebrew translation, with the Polish originals included. The translators are Jael Shalit, Arie Brauner, Irit Amiel, Szoszana Raczynska, and Miriam Akavia.

Some poems in this volume deal with human relationships: “Friendship,” “When You’ve Captured Somebody’s Heart,” “Tell Me,” “The Wall,” “A Game of Chess.” This last poem is an analysis of a budding love. There are also lyrical descriptions of motherhood (“The Evening of the Covenant”) and of childhood (“The Lion Gate”). In this last poem, the child’s naive and hyperbolic way of looking at the world is confronted with a later adult perception.

Another motive in the volume is nature. In “An Enchantment” the poet admires the charm of an autumn day in Kraków. In other poems she uses nature to speak about the human condition, human helplessness, and the power of feelings (“The Nest Abandoned by a Bird” and “Cactuses in Bloom”). Sometimes nature seems to be a safe refuge from the dangers of human society. In “The Viper” she writes: “But I fled to the riverside / not for the beauty of the trees / which grew most luxuriantly in the valley. / Among the people it was too hard / to walk around carrying protests by the armful.”

Some poems contain a direct critique of the human world. Brzostowska is annoyed by its dullness and greed (“Thoughts on Happiness”), by jealousy and unfriendliness (“The Stick”), by conceit of the powerful, by wrongs done to the weak (“There Is More,” “When a Man Complains”), by “measuring others by one’s own yardstick” and by society’s refusal to accept originality (“I Want to Be Myself”). On the other hand, she praises disinterestedness, simplicity, and frankness which in her rendition are typical of poets (“The Poets”).

I find three more topics in this volume to be of particular interest. The first two are the unreliability of the senses and the search for inner peace. Brzostowska realizes that the senses can mislead and that reality may not in fact be what we think it to be. It happens sometimes that “reality is shapeful / with crystalline clarity / but there is in it / no naked truth.” People are often afraid to venture outside of established paths, and they cover their uneasiness with empty swagger (“The Tales of a Man”). To protect oneself from such existential problems the poet advises inner frankness and striving for peace that many simple people have achieved (“Along the Fence”). This seems to be an echo of Czartak’s poetical theory and practice.

An important leitmotif of the volume is the irreversible lapse of time. The poet uses two scales to measure it: the personal one (childhood and youth pass, what lasts is friendship and love) and cultural. Time measured with the second set of scales does not disintegrate. Houses, places (“The Old-Town Market Square in Prague” and “Jewish Cemetery in Prague”) and even furniture (“The Old Cupboard”) preserve the life, work, and ideas of entire generations. I presume the poet’s conviction of the vitality of tradition must have won the hearts of readers in Israel.

This Hebrew reader is also the addressee of the “Foreword to the Translation of Janina Brzostowska’s Poems into Hebrew by the Author’s Son.” In it, Witold Brostow reminisces on the history of Polish-Jewish relations. His conclusion contains a thought that has often been overlooked by those who have commented on the subject in recent years: these relations have always contained more light than shadows.

Translated from Polish by Anna Kajtoch

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The Sarmatian Review
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