Erik Harper Klass

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

Julian Tuwim

. . . it is the whole structure of language that psychoanalytic experience discovers in the unconscious.
—Jacques Lacan, “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious: Or Reason Since Freud” (1949)

L’Ondine et le Pifferaro by Eugeniusz Zak

Julian Tuwim’s lover reclines with her back against a simple headboard of mahogany, her auburn hair pulled into a fragile chignon, which she holds in place behind her head with her hands (again we see the diamond shape of elbows and arms). Her right leg is fully extended, foot, toes pointed. Her left leg is pulled back, knee bent and raised slightly. Her left foot is turned in and it nestles beneath the calf of her right leg. All of this is to say that her legs are entwined in a sort of intimate reflexivity, like a Henryk Kuna nude.2 A white sheet like a Roman palla is pulled over her body’s midsection, extending from about halfway up her left (raised) thigh to just above her breasts.

He sits on the edge of the bed, to her left. He is turned toward her, twisting. He leans forward with his left elbow on his left thigh, and his chin rests in the cup of his left hand, whereby he covers the birthmark on the left side of his face—a habit, this covering. He lifts his right arm, extends his hand, palm down, to the lower edge of the sheet. The hand hovers, fingers loose, like a conjurer’s.

Next to the bed lies a so-called Polish rug, with a field of stylized floral motifs—rosettes in white, yellow, pink, green, blue, silver, and gold—on a dark blue ground. His right leg rises slightly as he leans forward and the big toe of his right foot skims the rug’s surface, sketching invisible figure eights like arabesques.

This is it—with his right hand extended, his right foot weightless (just the first toe touching the rug), the white sheet covering her body, verging on flight—this is it, this instant, when we might set up our easels and paint. Here is anticipation, a pressured pause of longing, Michelangelo’s David, Tintoretto’s The Flagellation of Christ. Take it in. Hold on to it.3

The Polish word for hand is dłoń, and he says the word dłońizm—a protologism, something, if I were to translate into English, like hand-ism—as he touches the sheet with his index finger and thumb, his other fingers extended like a cockscomb. He carefully pulls the sheet back from her thigh, very slowly, just a centimeter, as one might with the utmost of anticipation reveal a new sculpture or invention.

He is a lover of words, a collector of dictionaries, of rare books written by madmen and graphomaniacs. He has notebooks filled with his words, written for their shapes, their sounds, the mere rhythm and pattern of their letters, nothing more. He wrote a poem entitled “Słopiewnie,” a poem bearing no meaning other than the splendid sonorific significance of some proto-Slavic language of the poet’s own invention.4 A word is as real a thing as a tree, he once wrote. He dreamt of a word so pure and raging that it would be one with the thing it signified.

And the word was made flesh.
And it has dwelt among us,
I feed the starving body
With words as if they were fruit.5

Just a glimpse of her left areola, a pale orange-carnelian crescent, becomes visible above the top edge of the sheet, and he forms a word on his tongue and releases it slowly, through an embouchure of lips, a wave of sound, a color made verb: pomarańczować (the English orange hovers within like an allele, like a spirit). Let us say: he has a way with words. She arches her back slightly. Her eyes are green, like the leaves of the linden trees of the Łódź of his youth. A scattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose, falling as if carefully scattered onto her cheeks. Next to the bed, stretching vertically along the wall, a large window with eight loose panes vibrates like a purring machine of glass. Night. Quiet streets. He pulls the sheet back another centimeter.

It is a testament to the immense power of Mayakovsky that he may invade the minds of the Polish poets, even now, when they are in the grip of love. When he read the Russian poet for the first time he thought of lighting, of thunder. He took the page (it was a poem entitled “An Extraordinary Adventure Which Happened to Me, Vladimir Mayakovsky, One Summer in the Country” (1920)), and he interrupted conversations, tapped the shoulders of poets in cafés, waved the smoke away, so that he might share the words (A hundred suns the sunset fired, / into July summer shunted . . . ), as one might pass a brazier’s spark of fire in the ancient days.

Yes, Mayakovsky is coming, and the poets of Warsaw will hear him speak. He will read in Russian (he does not speak Polish), and the people will stream through the city’s streets like electrical currents and order their drinks and sit on wooden chairs with straight backs rendered superfluous as the citizens lean forward forward forward, and those who do not speak Russian will have to make due with just the sound of his words, the inflections, the rhythms, the gesturalities, the electricity, but one does not need a translator to understand the sound of thunder and lightning. He will bring the Polish poets together like links of glimmering chain

Julian Tuwin says the Polish word for concatenationłańcuch—and he says it in such a way that she clasps her hands tighter behind her head, hair pulled taught. He can still savor her, give thanks for her, he is not too old for that (he is thirty-two, thirty-three this September). She is lacking in superfluities. Every line of her is essential. He leans forward and pulls the sheet back another centimeter. The window vibrates like language. He wields with words. Words like objects, like expectations, traveling in straight lines (later, they will swirl). Words like bullets, like falling bombs.6

He pulls the sheet back another centimeter. She releases her hair and it falls into her face like rain, covering one eye, her right one. He says the word błogosławieństwo. This is the amazing Polish word for blessing, and he says the word softly like a breeze. Her lips part, a tiny gap between her front teeth. Her eyes close.

At his base, as deep as she might tunnel into his being, she will find words. There are times when he fears—or is it a rejoicing?—that this is all he is, that this is all he might have to give her. What would happen if the words left him? What would happen if he were to wake and find his well of words gone dry? Would she still love him? Or, a better question, would there be a him to love? Fear saves me, he once wrote, swelling in the breast like breath.7

Tomorrow, he comes. And they will all share the great man. There is plenty of him to go around.

Mayakovsky, you say in a whisper, as you pull the sheet clear and let if fall amongst the clothing, scattered in disarray on the Polish rug, as you turn toward her, as she untangles her legs and opens herself up to meet you.

Mayakovsky, you say, louder now.

1 In Écrits: A Selection (1949), trans. Bruce Fink (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002), 139.
2 See, for example, Female Nude: Torso without Knees, bronze, 1926, Muzeum Rzeźby im. Xawerego Dunikowskiego.
3 Although one may object that painting does not, cannot, render an instant. “A painting or drawing is not a snapshot—it doesn’t capture a single moment, either interior or exterior. It is a construction, strategized and artificial, that may dissemble or disclose.” —Susan Tallman, “Now You See Me, Now You Don’t,” in The New York Review of Books, July 18, 2019, 15.
4 A poem the translators leave unsullied. “Tuwim is untranslatable in all his poems.” —Czesław Miłosz, The History of Polish Literature (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1983), 388.
5 From Julian Tuwim, Słowem we krwi! (Words in Blood), (Warszawa: W. Czarski, 1926).
6 “Poetry is violence practiced on ordinary speech,” said a young Jakobson (cited in M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin, Texas: Univ. of Texas Press, 1981), xxix).
7 Julian Tuwim, “Poem with a Dull End,” trans. Jakob Ziguras, New England Review 40, no. 2 (2019): 45.


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: L’ONDINE ET LE PIFFERARO by Eugenisz Zak (1884-1926). Oil on canvas. 63.3 x 90 cm. 1922. Public domain.