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Cynthia L. HavenCynthia L. Haven

“Invisible You Reign Over the Visible”:
Julia Hartwig’s Reality Mysticism

Ryszard Kapuściński once called her “one of the foremost poets of the twentieth century”, and the writer Czesław Miłosz spoke of her as “the grande dame of Polish poetry.” Julia Hartwig turned ninety on August 14 this year. She has been writing for eight decades, since she was ten. Yet her long career is still in glorious late flower. Cynthia Haven visited the poet in her hometown Warsaw and listened to Julia talking about her life and poetry.

“My way of poetry is a long way,” Julia Hartwig told me on a hot August night in her Warsaw apartment. Her comment is at once enigmatic and precise. Precise because the poet, who turns ninety this year, has been writing for eight decades, since she was ten. She has been publishing collections of her poems since the 1956 thaw over half a century ago. Yet her long career is still in glorious late flower.

Enigmatic, too: her range of vision roams through centuries, continuing a conversation with her recently dead colleagues, literary forebears, and friends throughout time. All great poetry does that, really—but in Hartwig’s case the search is direct and unambiguous. Titles of poems in her newest collection in English, It Will Return, reference Arthur Rimbaud, John Keats, and Joseph Brodsky as well as Vincent Van Gogh, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Henri Rousseau.

In her sense of hierarchy, as in many things, she is akin to the greatest Polish poets of the last century. “I can’t say I belong to the Masters, you know. But I am very close to it,” she says, laughing. Others say she is better than close. Celebrated journalist Ryszard Kapuściński called her “one of the foremost poets of the twentieth century.” Czesław Miłosz called her “the grande dame of Polish poetry.”

Miłosz’s presence (he died on her birthday in 2004) permeates her newest collection: “Daimonion” obviously alludes to him; another, “To Die to Sleep,” hums with his presence. In an earlier collection, Hartwig’s “O!” replies to his own series of poems, also called “O!” Miłosz —more, perhaps, than anyone—was rooted in that sense of hierarchy.

“Respect! The motto of Goethe was taken up by Miłosz,” she writes in “Keats’s Grave.” But for Miłosz, as for Hartwig, that respect extends beyond the merely human. He told me in 2000: “There was at a given moment a stable world where we could see, hold on to values that were a reflection of the eternal order of things. Now we are in a flux. This is a very peculiar way of life. And this is connected with tradition. With traditional forms, traditional values. With a respect for tradition. If we cannot return to the stable world of the past, at least we can have some respect for some stable points. . . . When everything is in flux, revision, it is healthy to have some poets who preserve the feeling of respect.”

Hartwig has echoed his words, perhaps with the maestro in mind as “without sadness / he parts from this world”:

because too many of those who distinguished
between what is permanent and ephemeral
have left (from “Now”)

She is often compared to Wisława Szymborska. One wonders if the association would come less easily if Szymborska were not a woman of the same generation. But it’s not entirely the comparison of poetess with poetess—both have a light, deft touch and a taste for whimsy.

But Hartwig’s terroir extends into a different psychological landscape. She has called her way “reality mysticism,” extending her acceptance of the world to all its horrors, then moving beyond to transcendence. Of the world, she wisely told her translator Bogdana Carpenter, “One cannot set oneself apart from it and be alone like an underground man or a misanthrope.”

But it’s more than that. Reality mysticism doesn’t abstract or withdraw from the present, or use it for a jumping-off point for dreamy speculations, but holds us steadily there, using it to increase our attention, our presence, and our appreciation.

For example, “Return to My Childhood Home” begins with wonder and loss, moving to consolation and light:

Amid a dark silence of pines – the shouts of
young birches calling each other.
Everything is as it was. Nothing is as it was. . . .
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.

When I appeared on Julia Hartwig’s Warsaw doorstep in 2008, at Adam Zagajewski’s suggestion, I knew the poet only by name. The writer Marek Zagan´czyk, an editor at Poland’s premiere literary journal, Zeszyty Literackie, spirited me through the darkened streets of that mythical, reconstructed city, reminiscent of those doomed cities in fairy tales, reemerging from fire or water intact and whole, but with a forever wounded spirit.

When I first saw her name on the itineraries for Zagajewski’s Kraków Poetry Seminars for U.S. students, I had initially assumed she was a young, up-and-coming American. Julia is a name popular with the younger set, and Hartwig could be any one of a hundred people in Milwaukee.

The Old World face that greeted me at the door had the trademark eyebrows tilted upward—a permanent question, or signaling her arch and intelligent skepticism. “You came, mostly, to find some things about Herbert, yes?” she asked cordially about my stay in Poland. (I had been interviewing Zbigniew Herbert’s widow for several days nearby in Warsaw.) “Oh yes, I knew him very well, from the German occupation,” she added warmly of Poland’s unexiled bard.

Some of my questions had indeed been of Miłosz and Herbert, my own process of moving from the known to the unknown. I wasn’t alone: English-speaking audiences are generally unfamiliar with her work.

They shouldn’t be. She has published more than a dozen collections in Polish, and her work has been translated into German, French, Italian, Greek, Lithuanian, Russian, Serbian, and English. She has received the Thornton Wilder Prize, the Solidarity Prize, and the Georg Trakl prize. She had, moreover, lived in America for years.

At that time, one spare volume rescued her name from American oblivion—In Praise of the Unfinished. She had one handy, and gave it to me that night—a classy hardcover with heavy, cream-colored pages and a witty, understated design.

“It is hard to separate the poetry from the poet,” she has written in Polish Writers on Writing. “Regardless of how much a so-called lyrical I speaks to us directly from a poem.” So I read her poems through the lens of the slightly wary and forbidding presence, which had dissolved into warmth and generosity of spirit, like a crackling fire on a rainy night.

She served me berries and cream—apparently a typical summer refreshment for a guest in Poland. The joke goes that to try to find a Pole in August is like trying to find an Italian on lunch hour. Hartwig was no exception. She had been in the countryside, and returned to town especially for our visit. She seemed eager to expand her American audience, but hardly desperate to do so.

Carpenter recalled encountering the poet through her poems: “Translating a new poet is like an expedition to an unknown country,” she has written. “Everything is new: landscapes, places, language, tone, metaphors, rhythms, subjects, a way of thinking and feeling. Translation is a slow, gradual process of discovering that country, an attempt to understand its particular contours and culture. It is not simply a matter of finding the closest equivalents of words, the correct syntax and grammar, although it is all of these. It is also an attempt to recreate the author, and the making of a poem that lives and speaks in another language.”

But my process was a reverse one: I had to translate the live woman standing in front of me that evening without, initially, any help from her poems.

Julia Hartwig was born in Lublin on August 14, 1921. She describes her birthplace and “its sleepy beauty,” its lush lindens and meadowland:

not yet borderlands but already borderlands
embroidered cloths on tables holy pictures on walls
here Orthodox icons there Jesus with a flaming
pious chanting in different languages


He alone would know how to lament this city
Who cast upon us the spell of its sleepy beauty
He would know how to celebrate the processions of
phantoms lingering here
To find a prayer for the burning of suffering souls

She is from a family of some renown: “The name is pretty known, to some people. Some know my doctor brother, some know the photographer, some know me.” Her brother is a doctor and professor of medicine (“He founded endocrinology in Poland. He is very famous.”).

But she is also the daughter of a photographer, and the sister of a celebrated one, a dozen years older than she is. That fact goes some way to explaining her sensibility, though she would appear to deny it.
“I never made pictures because my family was a family of photographers. My father was a photographer. My brother was a very, very famous photographer, in an international encyclopedia of photographers,” she said. “I hated it, I hated it all the time. I never did it. There was too much at home.”

Yet here is her tribute to her brother Edward (who died in 2003), “Unforgettable Town,” in which the sensibility of the poet and the sensibility of the photographer would appear to merge: “For [Edward] Hartwig, the best time to take pictures was in the morning, soon after sunrise, when country women carrying milk cans, wrapped up in linen scarves swung over their shoulders, were making for Lublin along the road through the local forest, or when a cat could be seen to be dashing through Szambelowska or Olejna streets, and when the still of the morning was interrupted by the doves cooing over the puddles left by a night shower or a street sprinkler.”

His photographs of the “Lublin period,” she said, “are soft and romantic; they transform reality into a serene vision, somewhat melancholic, but full of freshness.”

Certainly the older brother brought artists into the family circle: the poet Józef Czechowitz (1903–39), “invariably with his pipe,” and Józef Lobodowski—the photographer credits both with introducing him to the avant-garde; the art lover Wiktor Ziółkowski; Wacław Gralewski, the editor in chief of Reflektor.

In her essay, it’s hard not to miss a child’s early sense of the sacredness of all creation, of reality—the beginnings of a sacramental imagination where heaven and earth are bound together and embrace. Hartwig turned to words, rather than pigment or film, to express the world that is a powerful symbol of the unseen: “In school, also, I was known as somebody who writes poetry. Very strange,” she said.

She was dissuaded early from the well-trod staples of a young woman’s poetry. During the war, she visited Miłosz for the first time, traveling from Lublin to Miłosz’s Warsaw home. She had brought a handful of her own poems, and those of a girlfriend.

His reaction might have dismayed a woman of weaker will. As she recounted it in a 2005 interview, he said, “Oh, about love . . . Love is not a topic for poems.” But he did the poet a big favor, forcing her to dig deeper for less obvious material.

“I don’t think he really was enchanted, you know?” she drawled in her living room, and laughed. “But afterward, he appreciated my poetry and wrote some criticism about it. So we are good friends, I think.”

The meeting made enough of an impression that she wrote about it years later in “Meditation (on Czesław Miłosz)”:

We weren’t worthy or sure enough of ourselves
to catch hold of the subjects beyond our reach
He must have known it if he encouraged simplicity
and warned against aiming too high even mocked it
But he warned in vain
because the very practice of art implies conceit

Hartwig was among the generation who pursued university studies—in her case, Polish literature—in the underground Warsaw University from 1942 to 1944. The Nazi regime prohibited universities (and even high schools), but Hartwig migrated from Krákow to Łódź to Warsaw to study. Meanwhile, she helped the partisans as a runner for the Home Army.

On her way home one day, she was tipped off that the Gestapo were looking for her at her apartment. “So I turned, and disappeared. That’s it.” Without even a change of clothes, she fled to a forest, near Lublin. “Such a war story. One of so many. It was so usual in Poland. It was not even sensational for me,” she sighed.

When the Russians entered Lublin, “we came back by foot,” she recalled. And in a poem called “Victoria,” she wonders:

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

The Champs-Élysées came soon enough. After her studies at postwar Warsaw University and the Catholic University of Lublin, she went to Paris on a scholarship and stayed until 1950.

“From the moment I first arrived in France, everything I experienced there had an influence on my path in life, affected my interests, my outlook on the world, my passions and my work,” she wrote in Thank You for the Hospitality. Hartwig would go on to write monographs on Guillaume Apollinaire and Gérard de Nerval and to translate Rimbaud.

“What is striking about French literature is the range of scale: the Hugo-style genius of the French spirit and the Rabelaisian bawdiness, de Musset’s charm and Apollinaire’s thrilling melody, Lautréamont’s madness, the inexhaustible passion of Rimbaud’s poetry, the latent sensitivity of Reverdy’s cubism, the inventiveness of the lyrical paradox in Jacob’s work,” she wrote. “Old and new, separate and shared, like the root, stem, leaf, and flower in one plant.”

In 1954 she married the eminent poet, writer, and translator Artur Miedzyrzecki (1922–96), who had served the Polish Army in Italy. She published her first book during communism’s brief 1956 thaw, when she was in her mid-thirties. “I waited for good poems, it’s true,” she said. “But still the attention was . . . it was remarked.”

From 1970 to 1974, and again in 1979, the couple lived in the United States, first invited by Iowa’s International Writing Program, which would sponsor a cadre of prominent Polish writers, afterward with academic appointments at several universities. (Their daughter, Daniela, still lives in New York.)

Hartwig wrote two volumes of poems about her American sojourns, both titled Americana, as well as travel diaries. With her husband, she also published an important anthology of American poetry in translation The Modern Man I Sing (1992).
When martial law was declared in 1981, she was once again in France, and rushed home to Poland. “It was a time of no telephones, no letters, no communications,” she remembered. “It was a tragedy, a real tragedy. We were so unhappy. I can’t remember a time we were so unhappy,” said Hartwig, who had worked in Solidarity’s central office. “All this beautiful fever of Solidarity was finished.” “It’s terrible for a country. I can’t forgive them. Really, I can’t.”

Is there anyone left to forgive? “Of course, of course. Very old people now.” She’s thinking, in particular, of General Wojciech Jaruzelski, who governed Poland under martial law. “Probably he would be happier to die. Not my business.”

They must risk assassination daily, I suggested. “One does not assassinate in Poland,” she answered, almost proudly. “They did,” she said. “But those who are assassinated are always good people, not bad people.”

You know, you always write too late,” said the late-blossoming poet. “Because it is impossible to write at once. When you write, it becomes history.”

Her history, instead, seems to bleed into the present, like ink through paper, and her dark equanimity embraces time. Although she writes elsewhere that “dying is hard labor,” she considers her postmortem life with calm: after her death she would like to be “a statue looking at the sea” with “darkness behind me, in front of me a bright sky, flickering lights on the water, and to feel on the stony face the southern sun.”
In a world mesmerized by political theo¬ries, as invisible as fate or God, she has watched the fall of two empires, the dénouement of mar¬tial law, the destruction of her Warsaw. Clearly, the invisible reflects darkness as well as light, and she embraces both.

“Winds! How can I know you?” she asks. “Only your envoys speak about you / limbs of trees grasses bending under your palm / pointing here! here!” Whether “the sudden banging of a window” or “hordes of clouds driven away,” Hartwig concludes in her poem “Winds”: “Invisible you reign over the visible.”

For Hartwig, a poet “is defined in equal measure by his attitude to the word and his attitude to reality,” with an interdependence between the two. “I accept the visible world in all its wealth and menace,” Hartwig has written. “The truth about it, the image of it accessible to us, at the same time carries us in the most extraordinary way into an invisible sphere.” Hence, “The experience of reality thus becomes a kind of transcendent experience.”

And, in the words she has loved since she was ten years old, it is a talisman against time and its destruction—an incantation for the wind.


Julia Hartwig
You shouldn’t have written them lightly
on the spur of the moment
just like that
out of the blue
said one poet to another

(Oh how I liked that out of the blue
out of the blue I repeated to myself
for me it didn’t mean “neither here nor there”
but as much azure as one can carry
for all azure is blue)

Who will remember your out of the blue
– he said –
the moment it’s written it disappears
you were best when you shaped your poems
slowly and with care

But he spoke to a poet no longer alive
who has left for good
into the unshaped azure
this time unexpectedly
truly out of the blue


This article was first published in World Literature Today 85:4 July 2011, 16-20. Julia Hartwig’s books have been translated into English by Bogdana and John Carpenter. All poems in this text are taken from these books published by Knopf and Northwestern University Press.

Cynthia L. Haven is an American writer and journalist. She has contributed, amongst others, to the Times Literary Supplement, the Washington Post Book World, and the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Recently, her book An Invisible Rope:Portraits of Czesław Miłosz was published. She is also the author of Czesław Miłosz:Conversations and Peter Dale in Conversation with Cynthia Haven. In 2008 she was a Milena Jesenská Fellow at IWM.

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You can also watch some video clips of Julia Hartwig >>here.

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IWM, 2011. Copyright © 2011 by the author & World Literature Today. All rights reserved. This work may be used, with this header included, for noncommercial purposes. No copies of this work may be distributed electronically, in whole or in part, without written permission from the author and World Literature Today.