Nov. 2008 WLT
Nov. 2008 WLT

Julia Hartwig. In Praise of the Unfinished. John & Bogdana Carpenter, trs. New York. Knopf. 2008. ix + 143 pages. $25. ISBN 978-0-307-26720-7

The poems of the Polish poets Zbigniew Herbert, Czes_aw Mi_osz, Wis_awa Symborska, and Adam Zagajewski are by now familiar to English readers, but the work of Julia Hartwig is less widely known, although she is considered in her native country to be among its leading modern poets. Now, thanks to the concise, elegant translations of John and Bogdana Carpenter, we have been given access to the range of her impressive work. While her tonal control and philosophic resonance mark her as quintessentially central European, Hartwig’s poems are distinctive in their playful, eclectic spirit, which may in part result from the invigorating effect of her time spent translating poets as diverse as Apollinaire and Plath and teaching at the University of Iowa.

What gives Hartwig’s poems their unusual freshness is her lightness of touch—she seems able to effortlessly balance the real and the mythic. In “Philemon and Baucis,” she presents a modern epilogue to the Ovidian myth. A husband who distractedly listens to his wife’s shuffling footsteps in the middle of the night suddenly becomes disoriented and asks, “Is this shuffling real, or is it only a memory, in the past, in nonexistence?” In Ovid, the couple’s generosity to the gods was rewarded with a gift that froze them in eternal union, but Hartwig’s poem suggests an elastic, reversible sense of time in which the present looks back at the past and the past points forward to the present. In “Not Eternity and Not a Void,” the speaker muses on the elusive present moment in time, which “like the mythical messenger / light-footed Iris / always moves away from us with an unknown message.”

Memory amounts to a kind of gentle obsession with Hartwig, but her treatment of the subject is buoyant rather than melancholy. In “Rebuke,” the speaker slyly scolds memory for being unpredictable, a view underscored by the absence of punctuation: “Lawless memory you project / whatever you like on a screen / ignoring our expectations. 

The metaphor of multiple, conflicting versions of memory is extended in “Beautiful Sisters,” which ends by suggesting that perhaps the only memory to be trusted is our collective knowledge of original innocence: “In the end we remember only the beginning / distant greenery before banishment from Eden.”

Hartwig’s poems are liberally sprinkled with references to the arts, especially to classical music. “A Thank-You Note” suggests the equilibrium paradoxically poised at the center of the frenetic tempo of Vivaldi’s sonatas, and “Hilary Hahn” meditates on the exquisitely haunting after-ring of violin music heard on the radio: “he stood with his hat in hand and waited / but still it circled for a moment / as if dancing with eyes closed.”          

Although Julia Hartwig, like her fellow Polish poets, suffered and survived the constraints that postwar communism imposed on personal freedom, the experience has not irrevocably darkened her poems, which continue to affirm natural beauty and childlike wonder. In “Return to My Childhood Home,” what is too painful to be understood is firmly held in counterpoise with remembered contentment: “Yet happy moments come to me from the past, like bridesmaids carrying oil lamps.”


Rita Signorelli-Pappas
Princeton, New Jersey