‘My heart stood still in a distant motel:’ 6 contemporary Polish poems

This is our Poland

2 July 2021
Selection and intro: Marcin Sendecki

Following the Second World War, many Polish poets took inspiration from an array of national traditions: the vast corpus of Romanticism, which is fundamental for Poland’s cultural identity; the Polish Renaissance; the Baroque era; and the diverse avant-garde movements. International readers might be familiar with the works of Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska, both Nobel Prize laureates, or Zbigniew Herbert and Tadeusz Różewicz, who would have been worthy of the prize, too. The Polish poets who explored and created ‘other traditions’ that are now influencing young poets are, among others, Tadeusz Peiper, Miron Białoszewski, Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, Adam Ważyk, Witold Wirpsza, Tadeusz Karpowicz, and Anna Świrszczyńska.

The contemporary Polish poetry scene today is vibrant and varied, drawing on all of these influences as well as world trends. Representative of some of the most distinct poetic voices, the selection below offers an insight into what inspires and enlivens the imagination of poets in Poland today.



[their glitter…]

Written by Krystyna Miłobędzka and translated by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese


their glitter, my awe (?)

their death, my gold (?)

me of them (?)

that which awakens leads (?) rustles (?)

childishly green short breathless winter wheat


Krystyna Miłobędzka (b. 1932) is an award-winning poet, and one of the most cherished and admired authors in Poland today. She lives in Puszczykowo near Poznań.



Bug Hour

Written by Tadeusz Pióro


After sunset, the cat goes hunting.

He huddles like a hedgehog in a corner of the room,

on a shelf or somewhere behind my back, near

the flickering lamp, deadly centre

controlling the flights of mosquitoes, moths, flies

and other nervous satellites.

The cat crouches as if he were about to jump

the Bosphorus, but when his paw arcs and catches

something in the air, it’s all legerdemain:

an off-hand gesture of annoyance rather than

labor for just deserts. He inclines his head and

carefully loosens his claws: got it. Shove in quick.

Piece of cake. It’s harder to catch a bug high

above the floor, in midair. When he fixes his eyes

on the joining of ceiling and wall

or climbs on top of the door jamb,

I huddle deeper in my chair,

as if I were a sizeable insect

frozen in the last flash of life. But the phone

rings, it’s Adam Wiedemann complaining

that someone has stolen my dreams. I promise

to send him some new ones as soon as I dream them.

Adam spent his time in Nurnberg profitably.

Bye, see you soon. This time, it’s a moth.

It’s sitting on a picture frame, a reproduction

of Caravaggio’s Deposition of Christ. The cat jumps off

the jamb, leaps a few paces like a pole vaulter,

flies through the air and with both paws

pulls the moth off the black metal frame.

He squats like a rabbit, thrusts the moth in his mouth,

moving jaws, smacking tongue, wagging head.

Love makes us suffer more than pornography.

I remove a bottle from the garbage can,

a few drops of vodka left on the bottom,

pour them on my finger and slide it

along my lips, but can’t kill the taste.


Tadeusz Pióro (b. 1960) is a poet and translator. The author of seven collections of poetry and several academic books, he teaches American literature at the University of Warsaw.



Mystical Report

Written by Marcin Baran and translated by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese and W. Martin


In just moments we’ll witness

the appearance of stigmata

on the elbows of all the residents

of the planet. In the time when flowery

dresses get tossed aside, when drops

of a world form overhead – the naked soil

is like parched skin. What are you looking at?

Since you’re not watching the animated lips

of the sky arrange forgotten words

into prayers. At thighs

then, quietly turning into buttocks?

At scalpels, tricorns, or other

instruments? Out of the occasional

touch and the casual acquaintance

comes Mr. Fly and his plan. He buries seeds

and sorrows in bitter salt, tucks

reddish hairs under the skin of tomatoes.

In the shadow of a cow, he prepares to swallow

all those who need some diabolic fiend

in order to believe. With a hand that’s cold

on the surface and hot inside, you cast away

what is mortal. I know only too well

you’re somewhere else. I come slowly

to a standstill. Spectacular difficulties occur

in taking photos of a man and a woman

and some other trinity. The air cracks

like bones breaking. Only the sign Łuszczyca,

city of sex and enterprise assures us

we’re headed in the right direction. How,

for what, and why? Stay tuned, the next

episode will be on your own skin.


Marcin Baran (b. 1963) is a poet and editor. The author of nine collections of poetry and the editor of several anthologies, he lives and works in Krakow.


Hospital of the Transfiguration

Written by Marta Podgórnik and translated by Juliusz Pielichowski


Meanwhile, in my sleep I was sailing around Tangier,

Or maybe canoeing down the Orinoco.

A machine of dreams and drugs was carrying me

Towards the swamps rather than stars.

My lungs breathe better than my heart.

Brown broken with black? the shimmering violet?

I don’t think anyone has seen or knows it.

I believe in gondolas, flame, salamanders,

And that there are worlds; not in me though.


Marta Podgórnik (b. 1979) is the author of 10 collections of poetry. She is one of the most distinct female poetic voices in Poland today, and the recipient of numerous literary awards. She lives in Gliwice in Upper Silesia.



What to do when the liberal Left falls silent?

Written by Natalia Malek and translated by David Malcolm.


Stand with your feet hips-apart.

Bend gently.

Straighten your arms out in front – make them a bale of cloth, a brighter top to the breakwater.

Repeat:

I am free as a pit viper.

I am fearsome as the daughter of a pit viper.

No one desires me yet this way.


Natalia Malek (b. 1988) is a poet, curator of literary events, and translator. She is the author of four collections of poetry and the recipient of several emerging writers’ awards. She lives and works in Warsaw.



[My heart stood still]

Written by Marcin Sendecki and translated by Benjamin Palloff and Natalia Malek


My heart stood still in a distant motel
when you opened your burqa with the Armani tag.
A fine substitution. A responsorial psalm
as the brand demands. I had a house among

The community gardens. In fact, a newsstand,
in fact, a shack, in fact a tarp on a poll, like a fop
cast out by his patron (planting beds forever in
the order). If you’ve collapsed, I’ll stand and give you ether.

The clinic has now a restorative regime.
Iatrogenic nurses sparkle at their station.
For the terminal ward they say: dispersive.

That’s what you look like from under my shut eyelids.
With a torch beside a barrel of honest-to-goodness fuel oil,
in the halo of retorsion. Now stand over here. That glow is me.


Marcin Sendecki (b. 1967) is a poet and editor who authored over a dozen collections of poetry, and poetry anthologies. He lives in Warsaw.

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