Erik Harper Klass

Antoni Słonimski

from Polish Poets in Beds with Girls, and Other True Stories (Part II)
Head of a Woman by Eugeniusz Zak

She is a construction, a collection of fragments and details, a concentration of disparate parts. And he is a collector. But how much does he miss? How much is left unknown, undiscovered? In comparison to her infinity, his attainment is but a speck of dust. He looks up into her eyes. They are green, as green as the leaves of the linden trees of Łódź, but when he looks carefully, he sees amber and light brown and shades of blue and streaks of yellow. He tries to keep track of it all, to remember. And then she blinks.

On what the French call a lit à la polonaise, with the crown long since removed, she lies supine, and he, face down, lies between her legs, which are spread just wide enough to lightly embrace the sides of his body. Her satin nightgown fringed in pink lace is pulled up, bunched in purls beneath her breasts. His forearms rest across her bare stomach above her navel and he feels the delicate expanse of her pubic hair on his chest. She places the woven fingers of her hands behind her neck to lift her head, arms and elbows in a diamond shape.

Her eyes slowly open and he can see the shadows of her lashes on the tops of her cheeks. Now everything has changed in these eyes. He sees an amazing tracery of fine white threads, flecked with gold. He sees the glisten of a tear. He sees flames like solar flares, as if the dark pupils were bursting like tenebrous suns. All is new, now that time has passed. And then, again, she blinks.

Next to the bed is a desk (nondescript) upon which an old copy of Mayakovsky’s poems in Russian lies within reach. He often reads to her, translating slowly, and tonight in the candlelit room he leans over and takes the book into his hands. He props himself onto his elbows, placing the book on her stomach, turns to a page, reads:

In so-many, so-many years to come
—which, in a word, I won’t survive—
whether I die from hunger,
or fall from a gun—
today’s circus-clown,
a professor will study to the last iota,
where appeared,
who with.[1]

Mayakovsky’s death is still fresh, still shocking. It was a death that lingered. I still miss him, he says to her.

You loved him, she says. All the poets loved him. We all loved him, she says.

He nods. He keeps the book open, as if he might turn to another poem, but after a time he closes it (he knows now is not really the time for poetry), he reaches over without putting weight onto her body, returns it to the desk.

He looks up, meets her gaze, and now he notices a complexity, or really a duality—a sort of dialectic—of greenness in her eyes. The irises themselves are pale like shallow pools, glimpses of gold and white streaks like sun-tipped minnows darting radially in the green liquid, and each iris is encircled with a dark-green ring. In her eyes is this liquid lightness, these shallows, and there is also the deeper color of a great, unfathomable depth; all at once both of these—lightness and weight—are present. And then she blinks, and all of this is gone.

And this is just her eyes!

He could go on forever. She is an overwhelming deluge, a cataclysm of particulars. There was a man once who could remember each instance in time, a man who remembered not just every grain of sand, the shape of every leaf of every tree, the exact curvature of a sideways eight, the sound of each of her utterances, the exquisite morphology of every letter of every word of every text on her shelf, but also each time—each instant—he had seen or heard these things.[2] But Antoni Słonimski is no hypermnesiac. What is missing is the thread that might bind these glimpses of her together. Once she moved her hair from her eyes and the soft underskin of her arm became visible. Once she danced in that amusical way of hers, while she pulled a book from her shelf, humming. Once she put her hands on her hips and turned her head and stuck out her tongue and smiled. He clings to these memories even as new sensations burst upon him like cosmic particles, a great barrage of invisible matter. She is a project of hopeless complexity. He can barely imagine how much is lost in the gaps between these memories, these sensations. And what if, he wonders, what if those parts of her that are beyond his capacity for memory form her essence? What if he is not seeing her at all?

He looks into her eyes, and then, surrendering, he removes his glasses, sets them on the table next to the book of poems, and slides down a few centimeters. The simple act initiates a slight arching in Janka’s back, a tightening of her stomach. She untangles her hands from behind her neck, reaches down to him, touches his smooth forehead, she runs her thumbs over his thick brows, and then (as he moves lower) she turns her eyes up toward the headboard—they become of one color now, just before closing, almost a pure white, like the eyes of the old painters’ ecstatic saints (Antoni Słonimski cannot see this, he can only imagine)—and then her head falls back on the pillow, her hair strewn as if spilled.

The sheer volume of details overwhelms him. The limitations of his mind—of his eyes, his hands, his olfactory system, his tongue, etc.—render his struggle to gather enough information to understand her beyond a seemingly arbitrary collection of discreet parts and attributes and habits futile. In the end, she is nothing more than this: an accumulation of sensations, an arrangement of patterns, a series of fleeting moments.

[1] “A Bargain Sale,” in Mayakovsky, trans. Herbert Marshall (London: Dennis Dobson, 1965), 124.
[2] For a clinical discussion of what the psychologists call hypermnesia, see Jorge Luis Borges, “Funes, The Memorious,” in Ficciones, trans. Anthony Kerrigan (New York: Grove Wiedenfeld, 1962), 107–115.


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: Head of a Woman by Eugeniusz Zak (1884-1926). No medium specified. No size specified. 1923. Public domain.