Erik Harper Klass

From Polish Poets in Beds with Girls, and Other True Stories (Part 1) 

Antoni Słonimski

The Lovers by Eugeniusz Zak

There is a bed, a desk (a simple bureau plat) with an open copy of Mayakovsky’s About That (1923) (in Russian), a notebook with a Polish translation: Do niej i do mnie . . . (To her and to me. . . .), a Spanish translation of the last page of an obscure book of Græco-Roman mythology by a little-known translator called Jorge Luis Borges,1 and the equation 987654321 × 9, unsolved, written on a small piece of white paper. There is a chair, a Polish rug (possibly manufactured in Łódź, although markings are ambiguous), upon which clothing is scattered in disarray. There is an uncurtained window next to the desk, opposite the bed, displaying a night, an empty street, rain-drenched leaves, the spark of a street light, mist. The cafés are deserted and the drinkers stumble home, their thoughts oozing forth in speech like a slow juice.2 Next to the window hangs a mezzotint of a sphere inscribed in a circular prism, with the fraction 1/3 written beneath the figure, an original work of a minor artist of interbella Warsaw, whose name is now lost. Antoni Słonimski and his lover lie side by side on the bed, facing each other, his arms around hers, hers around his, like the Brancuși sculpture, kissing and kissing and kissing. She has auburn hair, shoulder length, smooth like glass, curling into her face. A scattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose, falling as if carefully scattered onto her cheeks.

She opens her eyes and looks at him, eyes as green as the linden leaves of Łódź.3 She has a voice that cracks at the ends of phrases. How much do you love me? she asks. This much, he replies, reluctantly loosening his hands from her body and spreading them apart behind her (she cannot see his hands, but she gets the point). That is all? she asks, blinking. He replies: It takes 1063 grains of sand to fill up the universe. I love you that much, he says, plus one.

And they kiss again, they kiss and kiss and kiss, and then she stops and looks up with those green almond eyes. Tell me the story of the Greek man, the mathematician, she says with rain-drenched lips. Archimedes? he asks, pulling away slightly but still keeping her in his arms. Now? he says. Very well. He takes a breath and begins the story.

He tells her how Archimedes helped protect the city of Syracuse—what Cicero called the most beautiful, the most magnificent city of them all—from the Roman invaders, who came by sea and land. He tells her how Archimedes invented weapons—catapults and mangonels, grappling hooks called Claws of Archimedes, huge derricks that dropped heavy stones on the nearer ships, even concave mirrors to collect the sun’s rays and light the distant ships afire—weapons the citizens used to hold off the Romans for many months. He tells her how the Roman armies went away for a time, how in the springtime they came again to conquer the city and how this time they finally succeeded in breaching the city’s limestone walls. The Romans stormed the city, he tells her, and he tells her how Archimedes stood on a field not far from the marble columns of the Temple to Demeter and Persephone, his linen tunic ruffling in a light breeze, and he tells her how he traced figures in the sand with the branch of an apple tree, how a German soldier walked up to the old man, how Archimedes did not look up from his work. Noli tangere circulos meos, Archimedes said, stepping past the soldier with a little skip, as if he were dancing. Do not touch my circles. The soldier, breathing heavy in his dusty helmet, his nostrils drinking in the new death, carried a short sword already stained with blood, and Antoni Słonimski tells her how the soldier raised the sword into the sky, its shadow spreading over the sand, bisecting an arc of one of Archimedes’ circles, and then the shadow swept across the field like the dark trace of a bird, the swiftest of all birds, streaking beneath the sun. Finally, he tells her how the old man’s body fell without a sound, how the blood stained the dirt in a shape of no description, a shape far removed from the geometric taxonomies of man.

He holds her in his arms, and she holds him, their bodies almost floating there in the darkened room (in fact, we might say they float in a displaced volume of liquid space exactly equal to the volume of their intertwined bodies—not a cubic centimeter more or less).

She looks up at him and speaks: But his spirit lives, she says, half a question, half a statement of hope. There is a glisten of sweat below the line of her hair, at what is called the trichion. Two tiny furrows in her brow. I do not believe so, Antoni Słonimski replies. Where might these traces remain? In the marble are only adders’ nests, he says. The wind spins circles like orreries out of sand on ruined Hellas. There are no traces of the old man’s spirit. Just dust and memory. Dust and memory, he says, and story. Oh, she says, her voice cracking, and she lowers her eyes.

And they kiss again, they kiss and kiss and kiss, and then she stops and looks up with those green almond eyes. It is funny, she says. In your story, you called the soldier German. He brings his eyebrows down. A German soldier? He shakes his head. Lapsus linguae, he says. A slip of the tongue, he says.

And he looks beyond her into the darkness—this hour, this hour before dawn breaks—the window facing west. He thinks that now, only now, does he see, below the indigo veil of night, the face of Warsaw, tender and young. There is a mute creaking of a gate closing beyond the window. All the queer and unknowable little streets of the city. A distant whistle. A ringing bell, soft like a lullaby, not at all a warning. A German soldier, he says again, with a little laugh, and then he turns to her, draws her closer, feels her breasts upon him, breathes her in—she smells of corn poppies and larch leaves and new rain—he would like to hold this in, keep this safe, in this inviolate time before dawn, before the great poet Mayakovsky comes to the city to read his poems. He would like to encapsulate her, this foreign object, keep her unchanging, this love, now when there is nothing but hope for the poets and intellectuals of Poland, no need for limestone walls or the machines of battle, no signs of war.

They kiss. He holds her tightly, and she holds him, their hearts going like mad, and they kiss and kiss and kiss.4

1 “La última hoja de Ulises” in Proa, 6 January 1925, 8–9.
2  See Antoni Słonimski, “At Night . . .” and “Morning and Evening” in Introduction to Modern Polish Literature ed. Adam Gillon and Ludwik Krzyżanowski (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1982), 420–21.
3  Let us not confuse Antoni Słonimski with the Łódźian Antoni Słomiński, (1871–1954) “weaver and worker activist” (Wolna Encyklopedia (online)), which latter has no entry in Lerski’s dictionary, and is no poet. We might assume, in any case, that Antoni Słonimski (the poet) had visited Łódź and taken note of the color of the leaves of its countless linden trees
4 Some years after Mayakovsky’s visit, Antoni Słonimski would recount the story of Archimedes in a poem: see “The Death of Archimedes (To the Germans)” (1937) in Postwar Polish Poetry, ed. and trans. Czesław Miłosz (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1983), 6–7.


About the writer:
Erik Harper Klass studied mechanical and manufacturing engineering at UCLA and music at Berklee College of Music. Now he writes. He lives in Los Angeles, California. Erik Harper Klass is the O:JA&L Featured Writer for December 2019.

Image: The Kiss by Eugenisz Zak (1884-1926). Oil on canvas. 46 x 65 cm. Circa 1920. Public domain.