Erik Harper Klass

Jan Lechoń

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

So how best to go? A knife? Poison? A great jump? Shall we make a spectacle of ourselves, climb atop tall structures, bleed upon the world below? Or shall we pull a trigger? Mayakovsky wrote once in a poem, Someday I will end the stanzas of my days . . . with the period . . . the full stop . . . of a bullet.[1] And that he did. A Mauser pistol to his chest—of course it would be a Mauser—destroyed his own heart.

Jan Lechoń lies on a lit à travers. He is naked but it is warm in the room and he lies atop the blanket, on his left side, facing the wall, with his head resting on the closed fist of his left hand, his forearm a prop. A magazine is open, Miesięcznik Literacki, the May issue. Pigeons rustle on the landing beyond the window. Jan Lechoń’s lover walks around the room collecting his clothing. In the corner of the room, to the left of the window, stands a bureau, flap lowered, two coffee cups on saucers crossed at their edges with small spoons (one cup empty, one full, cold, cream swirling in clumps), a scattering of papers. The first words scrawled on a sheet, otherwise blank: The storms threaten, they rage and swerve . . .[2] It is morning and the sky is gray like silt, matching the color of the curtains, which are pulled open.

The eulogy, written by Aleksander Wat, begins below a photograph of Mayakovsky lying in his coffin, a great garland of white flowers—what are they, narcissus? amaryllis?—encircling his head. There were many flowers in the park that night. He had gone alone to hear the great man read his poetry and then slipped away from the other poets and wandered the dark efferent streets so he could listen to Mayakovsky’s words, keep them pristine, allow them to slowly solidify in his mind, like a painting carefully set aside and left to dry. Silence had been changed now, charged, he thought, after Maykovsky’s thundering voice. Beneath a sky the color of iron the clouds rolled in silently, threateningly. South he walked, down Bracka with its fans of granite setts, glittering in the lamplight, past Plac Trzech Krzyży and the old St. Alexander’s Church, each portico with eight Corinthian columns (each with eight caulicoles rising out of the leafage), down Ujazdowskie, along the tracks for the electric trams, slick with moisture, streaked with oily blue light. The trees began to thicken as he walked and the buildings slipped back from the street and eventually hid in the foliage like children and then disappeared altogether. He passed Hoża and turned into the park at the gates before the palace.[3]

There were crocuses, reaching up with their pleading violet hands. Horse chestnut. Panicled hydrangea. I carried a notebook and wrote down all the names, all that I knew, all that I could recognize there in the night, he says to his lover, who has not stopped moving around the room. His lover is taking great care in his collecting. Azalea, hazel, rhododendron, quince, sweet mock-orange. In a flash the moon broke through the clouds, he says, and the little flowers of clover reflected white and looked like twinkling stars blanketing the dark grass. Canopies of trees vaulted above me and turned sky to earth, he says. An inversion, he says. A reversal. Flying, flying up like something fallen, he says.

He could be writing a poem, the way he speaks. He walked past Chopin, beneath his willow, playing the night. Past Diana in her Ionic colonnade. Laocoön and His Sons in all their agony. Flora Farnese, her gift of rhyncospermum with their summer white flowers, her dress falling like translucent gauze.

Automobiles stream past his window, the sound still bewildering, the rubber tires sneaking up on you. The futurists were right. The hard, angular machines of steel and glass are everywhere, breathing warm smoke into the air, where it hovers or moves with the wind, like the gray-green feathering spores of the tamarix plant.

He says to his lover: There was Maria Denisova (Maria! Come nearer! / In shameless nudity / or in shivering fright). All along, he says, there was Lili Brik (Now love unfulfilled / we are requiting / with the eternal starriness of endless nights). Near the end he wrote a letter to Tatiana Yakovleva (In the caresses of lips / or hands, / in the trembling of bodies).[4] Might someone someday, he says, go through his poems, one by one, and determine the real reason for his death? He looks at the image in the magazine, brings it close, so close that he can see the dots of ink. Of course the flowers were lilies, he says thinking of Mayakovsky’s loves, white lilies like a mane of snow. What a beautiful corpse, he thinks.

He imagines a great reversal. The bullet pulled from immaculate skin, disappearing into a gun swung forward, an implosion of smoke, the gun turning away. Sound to silence to trembling hand gradually becoming still. And then he imagines the clothes flying from his lover’s body in an exquisite explosion, scattering in disarray across the floor, the chair, the desk. The crumpled body—he imagines his own body—flies flies flies to the open window, slowing and settling like the pigeons (settling like his lover into these cooling saffron sheets—or really (the reversal) a warming). He imagines the return of love, it comes easy like something unspooling (and then of course, later, after, if he plays this out too far, in a terrible flash it will be gone). Somehow someone along the way took glue to the old wallpaper—quatrefoil flowers of pale gingerline—tucked in the corners, pulled in the seams, so there is this, this apparent canceling of what the scientists call entropy (Polish: entropia). But still the color softens, fades.

He walked alone along a path beneath the trees to the bridge of King John III Sobieski and his rearing horse. At the bridge he turned and looked out at the distant Palace on the Isle, framed in hornbeam and ash, its columns’ reflections a spectral shimmer in the canal, twisting like the turned legs of old furniture and disappearing into the water’s deepest black, and the years fell away like the leaves of the ash tree. Preserve our own storms, he would write in a poem, for they keep us human.[5]

There was a first love once, long ago, in the hills of Ojców when he was small, but he did not know it then, and it was only after he left, only after he felt his gut open up—a void, an emptiness—with nothing at all to fill it, that he knew it, and really it was a long time after that, as he sat alone under one kind of tree or another thinking of Zygmunt’s leaving, that he understood, that he could put a word to it: Miłość. Love.

The trees blocked the night sky as he walked along the park lane: the chestnut, he says, the beech, the ash, the elm, the silver fir, the lime, the maple, the hornbeam, the oak, the willow, the locust, the poplar, the catalpa, and Jan Lechoń does not stop until his lover sits at the edge of the bed, puts a hand, now cold, on Jan’s hip, holds it there. There are no words for this, no goodbyes, not yet. The goodbyes come later, expansive and diminishing, like the consecution of color draining orange to red to violet from an evening sky. His lover sits there in the silence, only the sound of the pigeons, and then he stands, lifts his bag, walks carefully, hesitates at the door—Jan imagines him turning to look, a final glance—and then he leaves without closing it. The footsteps are soft down the stairs—there is no haste in the way Jan Lechoń’s lover leaves—the sound of the front door below, and then nothing but the pigeons at the window, dancing and rustling like those blown ash leaves, and then all at once as if startled leaping into the iron-gray silence.

[1] The poem goes something like this. Jan Lechoń has read several translations.
[2] This would eventually become the poem “Manon.” See “Five Poems by Jan Lechoń,” tr. Clark Mills, in The Polish Review, Vol. 1, No. 2/3 (Spring-Summer 1956), 5.
[3] My map of interbellum Warszawa shows the park just east of a section of the city called Ochota, a word my Polish–English dictionary translates as desire, which, we all know, “must be considered the very motor of narrative, its dynamic principle” —Peter Brooks, Reading for Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984), 91.
[4] See Mayakovsky, “Cloud in Pants” (1914–15), in Vladimir Mayakovsky: Selected Works in Three Volumes, vol. 1, trans. Dorian Rottenberg (Moscow: Raduga Publishers, 1986), 23, “About This” (1923), in Mayakovsky, trans. Herbert Marshall (London: Dennis Dobson, 1965), 214, and “A Letter to Tatiana Yakovleva” (1928), in ibid., 376.
[5] Jan Lechoń, “Manon” (vide supra), 5.


Jan Lechoń (Part I) and Jan Lechoń (Part II) were originally published, in slightly different form, as “The Hills of Ojców When I Was Small” in Maryland Literary Review, Spring 2019.

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: Woman with a Rabbit by Eugeniusz Zak (1884-1926). No medium specified. No size specified. 1908. Public domain.