White Magic

White Magic

Originally published on pisk.ca/white-magic.

This was the vibe of that summer.

It was one of the most memorable summers of my life. I had just a few courses left at university before I would be an official graduate. Not quite an adult, yet no longer fully immersed in the snug university bubble, I was still far enough away from the Real World to forget about it a little while longer. This was where I made one of the smartest decisions in my life: I packed my suitcase and hit the road.

That summer I set out to chase down opportunities that I knew would soon be out of reach. Barely finished my exams, I flew to Jonquière to take part in a 5-week intensive French immersion program, then moved to Ottawa for a few weeks to work at Bluesfest, finally heading out to a once-in-a-lifetime experience in tranquil Canmore, Alberta.

The ten days I spent there changed my life.

Poland in the Rockies is… oh gosh, where to begin. It’s billed as a “unique 10-day program for young Canadians and Americans of Polish descent, mainly for those who do not speak Polish, have little or no contact with Polonia, but would like to learn more of the history and culture of Poland”. Simple enough. But it is much more than that. It’s a connection and, if you’re standing over the Atlantic with one foot here the other there, it’s home. Here, listen:

A significant turning point in my life occurred in Canmore. While there, we would often coalesce, our group 50-strong, into a ring around a speaker as they told us of Poland’s history, her chivalry, her romance. During one of these gatherings we were at a high-class conference centre (everything at PitR is ritzy), huddling around Bill Johnston and Tamara Trojanowksa. Bill is a lauded translator of Polish texts and professor of comparative literature at Indiana U who, aptly enough, reminds me a bit of Indiana Jones in his calm demeanour and quiet, relaxed presence. Tamara is an esteemed professor of Polish literature at U of T who rings transatlantic like Christopher Hitchens, and whose class lends her an unmistakable Izabella Scorupco air.

Hanging out with Bill: “Hej-so, hej-so, hej sokoły! ♫ ♪…”

And so began my immersion into a completely new world.

“I’m going to read you a poem by Baczyński, only I might tear up. I’ve never been able to finish it aloud before.”

Alright, Bill had my attention.

“Tamara, if I falter can you just pick up where I leave off? Thanks. Okay… Stojąc przed lustrem ciszy…”

He didn’t make it very far. Somewhere between the lover’s thoughts and the serene imagery, Bill collapsed, huddling inwards, choked on his tears, and quickly handed the text over to Tamara.

It was like watching a movie.

I had only been hit hard by a poem once before, but this was something else. And the poem, the poem was sublime. It was naked, stripped of all but the pure, the necessary, the image. And it enthralled.

Read on in Polish if you can. Slowly.

Biała Magia

Stojąc przed lustrem ciszy
Barbara z rękami u włosów
nalewa w szklane ciało
srebrne kropelki głosu.

I wtedy jak dzban – światłem
zapełnia się i szkląca
przejmuje w siebie gwiazdy
i biały pył miesiąca.

Przez ciała drżący pryzmat
w muzyce białych iskier
łasice się prześlizgną
jak snu puszyste listki.

Oszronią się w nim niedźwiedzie,
jasne od gwiazd polarnych,
i myszy się strumień przewiedzie
płynąc lawiną gwarną.

Aż napełniona mlecznie
w sen się powoli zapadnie,
a czas melodyjnie osiądzie
kaskadą blasku na dnie.

Więc ma Barbara srebrne
ciało. W nim pręży się miękko
biała łasica milczenia
pod niewidzialną ręką.

4 I 42r. w nocy

Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński

White Magic

Barbara stands at the mirror
of silence, and her hands reach
to her hair; in her body of glass
she pours silver droplets of speech.

And then like a water pitcher
she fills with light, and soon
she has taken the stars within her
and the pale white dust of the moon.

Through her body’s trembling prism
white sparks of music will leap
while ermine will creep through her
like the downy leaves of sleep.

Bears are rimed in its hoarfrost
with polar starlight imbued
and a stream of mice pours through it
in a clamorous multitude.

Till slowly she drifts into sleep,
filled all with milky white,
while time melodiously settles
deep down, in a tumble of light.

So Barbara’s body is silver.
The ermine of silence within
arches its white back softly
at the touch of a hand unseen.

January 4, 1942, three o’clock in the morning

Translated by Bill Johnson

I don’t know what captured me. It might have been the beauty of the Polish tongue through my mind, fully felt for the first time: the low, present rumbling of r’s, rolling like thunder in the distance, the rhythmic clacking of t’s and k’s–lightning lighting up the smooth flow of c’s and s’s, themselves swishing like a gentle breeze through the trees of prose. It might have been hearing perfect silence in a full room as a grown man was dismantled by just words, it might have been the intense feeling of all of us hearing our story for the first time, together. I do know, however, that something clicked in me that day, something changed. I began experiencing the world differently, more acutely, more thankfully, more intensely.



Krzysztof just before his death.

Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński, or Jan Bugaj, as he was known during World War II, belonged to the pokolenie Kolumbów: a generation of Polish intellectuals born during the interwar years who grew up “discovering Poland” after 123 years of her non-existence. He studied the Polish language underground during WWII, but by 1943 he had given up his studies, dedicating himself to the liberation of Poland.

Hearing Baczyński had joined the Szare Szeregi to help in the war effort, Stanisław Pigoń, a prominent Jagiellonian historian of literature, famously summed up Poland’s state in those despairing times: “Cóż, należymy do narodu, którego losem jest strzelać do wroga z brylantów.

Born in 1921, he was just 23 when he was shot by a German sniper during the Warsaw Uprising.

… but who was Basia?

Basia, also shortly before dying.
Basia, also shortly before dying.

Barbara Stanisława Drapczyńska was a colleague of Baczyński’s, also a student of Polish philology at the then-underground University of Warsaw during the German occupation. December 1, 1941, they met, they were engaged by 1942, and took their vows that summer, on June 3, 1942. People moved fast back then.

As the brightest candles burn out the fastest, so too ended Basia’s brief, tragic sojourn on this earth. Pregnant with Krzysztof’s child, she died while still a teenager and not a month after him, struck in the head by a splinter of glass during the Uprising. She was found later holding her husband’s identity card tightly in her arms. In a merciful twist of fate, Basia never found out her husband had already been killed a few weeks prior. The three now rest at Powązki Military Cemetery in Warsaw.

The Generation of Columbuses lived and loved intensely. Knowing they could die any moment, every second was precious. Basia was Krzysztof’s muse, inspiring him to write one of the most notable collections of erotica in the Polish language. But “erotica” is used in its more traditional sense here–reading Baczyński is nothing like reading a Harlequin, no; it’s immersing yourself in a torrent of raw emotion where the words swirl and eddy and melt all around you, drawing you in and leaving you feeling like you just fell in love. Listening to Biała Magia was like feeling a heavy summer storm rolling in. It just picks you up and carries you where it wants to go.

They say art can be divided into three classes: bad makes you feel nothing, good makes you feel again, and great makes you feel for the first time. By this measure, Baczyński is exceptionally great art. It is a tragic loss indeed that Poland had to lose so many of her diamonds to survive.

Edit (29.VI. 2013): Poland in the Rockies was formally bid adieu by its organizers (it ain’t easy, setting this up!)… though I feel it’s more a lying dormant thing than anything, just waiting to be reincarnated. Things like this are too strong to ever go away entirely!

Edit 2 (10.III.2014): Sure enough, PitR’s back on track! Apply now for this year’s July 24-August 3rd session!

More of Baczyński’s poetry in English:

  1. http://pippoetry.blogspot.ca/2008/11/krzystof-kamil-baczynski.html
  2. http://info-poland.buffalo.edu/web/arts_culture/literature/poetry/baczynski/Baczynski.htm

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

^ Translate