Zbigniew Herbert in Scotland, 1963

Herbert Collected Holy Iona

When last year we read Zbigniew Herbert’s Collected Poems 1956–1998 I came across a single reference to Scotland, in the poem ‘The Prayer of the Traveler Mr. Cogito’ or, to give it its Polish title, ‘Modlitwa Pana Cogito – podróżnika’. Here is the relevant section in the Polish original, followed by Alissa Valles’s translation from Collected Poems.

a także Miss Helen z mglistej wysepki Mull na Hebrydach za to że przyjęła mnie po grecku i prosiła żeby w nocy zostawić w oknie wychodzącym na Holy Iona zapaloną lampę aby światła ziemi pozdrawiały się

and Miss Helen of the foggy island of Mull in the Hebrides for offering Greek hospitality and asking me to leave a lamp lit at night in the window facing Holy Iona so that the lights of earth would greet each other

The poem is taken from Herbert’s 1983 collection Raport z oblężonego Miasta / Report from a Besieged City. I was curious to know more about the time he spent in Scotland, which was in fact twenty years before this collection appeared, in autumn 1963. According to Andrzej Franaszek’s 2018 biography of Herbert, using public transport Herbert travelled north from London, stopping in Leeds, York and Durham before arriving in Scotland, where he visited Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Inverness, Oban, Mull and Glasgow, before returning via Carlisle to London.

Franaszek quotes from a postcard Herbert sent from Edinburgh on 18 October:

Wdrapałem się na górę koło Edynburga i oczywiście spadłem trochę (niegroźnie). Tak trzeba. Ziemio ty moja szkocka ukochana! Jutro jadę, ale dobrze nie wiem dokąd. Dziś w nocy narada sztabu z mapą. Jestem bardzo szczęśliwy, żeście mnie wypchnęli w świat. (…) Przede mną góry i skały, kozice i georginie. Naprzód! Hej!!!

I scrambled my way onto a mountain near Edinburgh and I fell down a little (not dangerously). Maybe a good thing. My beloved Scottish earth! I am leaving tomorrow, even though I’m not sure where I’m going. Tonight there will be a conference of the High Command over the map. I’m very glad that you pushed me out into the world. (…) Ahead of me mountains and cliffs, mountain goats and dahlias. Onwards! Hey!!!

In another postcard, sent from Inverness, he described his mixed feelings about the country: he was ‘exhausted but happy, head over heels in love with Scotland; its beauty exhilarates the tourist. But life without sex… one has to go back.’

He returned via the west coast and, finding himself in Oban, decided to cross to the nearby Isle of Mull and from cross there to Iona or, as he consistently called it, using the English adjective, Holy Iona. ‘Holy Iona, czyli kartka z podróży’ (‘Holy Iona, or a page of travel’) was written in 1966 for the West German radio station WDR, and published posthumously in the collection Mistrz z Delft (2008). Of his perspective of islands, he wrote:

Wyspy nie należą do krajobrazu mego dzieciństwa. Urodziłem się w środkowej Europie, w połowie drogi między Morzem Bałtyckim a Czarnym. Pejzaż mojej młodości to podlwowskie okolice: jary i łagodne pagórki porośnięte sosną, na której najpiękniej kwitnie pierwszy sypki śnieg. Morze było tam czymś niewyobrażalnym, a wyspy miały posmak baśni.

Islands were not part of the landscape of my childhood. I was born in Central Europe, halfway between the Baltic and the Black Sea. The landscape of my youth was the area near Lwów, crevices and gentles hills covered in pine on which the first dry snow bloomed beautifully. The sea was something unimaginable there, and islands had a scent of fairytales.

The crossing to Iona had something otherwordly about it. It was 29 October, his birthday, and the ferry was no longer sailing. The landlady of his B&B at Fionnphort phoned a local fisherman, who agreed to take Herbert on the short crossing. In his radio talk he described their meeting-place:

Zimny, wilgotny, siwy ranek. Stoję w pobliżu jetty, która jest po prostu betonową ścieżką wchodzącą w morze. Ocean jest wzburzony, wysokie fale rozbijają się na skałach urwistego brzegu. Nagle z mgły wyłania się mała łódka rybacka płynąca w moim kierunku. Było to jak podanie ręki marzeniu.

A cold, damp, gray morning. I am standing near a jetty, which is just a concrete path going into the sea… which was stormy, high waves crashing against a rocky coast. A small open boat appeared from out of the mist; it was like extending your hand to a dream.

Once on Iona, Herbert explored the recently rebuilt abbey complex. He was particularly struck by his encounter with a sculpture, Descent of the Spirit’, by the Lithuanian-born Jewish sculptor Jacques (Jacob) Lipschitz (1891–1973), who fled France for the USA in 1940.

williammarnochionaabbey2008
Photo: William Marnoch, Iona Abbey, 2008

Its inscription, in French, reads:

Jacob Lipchitz juif fidéle à la fonde ses ancêtres a fait cette vierge pour la bonne entente des hommes sur la terre afin que l’esprit régne

Jacob Lipschitz a Jew faithful to the heritage of his ancestors made this virgin for the accord of men on earth so the spirit might reign

Herbert, who had witnessed the destruction of Polish Jewry during the Second World War, appreciated the paradox of recovering signs of community in this, to him, remote place. He expressed gratitude to ‘the Jewish artist who had heard so many words of hatred and responded by reaching for the words of reconciliation’.

Herbert returned to Mull, and the Fionnphort B&B, that same day. The evening brought him the image of light which he later incorporated into the ‘Prayer’:

Po kolacji gospodyni prosiła mnie, abym postawił małą lampkę w oknie wychodzącym na Holy Iona. Taki jest zwyczaj. Nocą światła obu wysp rozmawiają ze sobą. (…) Nie wiadomo, co przyniesie przyszłość i jak długo trwać będzie rozdarcie świata. Ale dopóki w jedną bodaj noc roku światła tej ziemi będą się pozdrawiały, niecała chyba nadzieja jest pogrzebana.

After supper the landlady asked me to put a small lamp in the window overlooking Holy Iona. That is the custom. At night the lights of both islands talk to each other. (…) It is not known what the future will bring and how long it might be until the world is torn apart, but as long as one night of the year, the lights of this land will offer greetings, hope is not buried.’

*

My thanks to Robin Connelly, Grażyna Fremi, Michał Kuźmiński, Basia Macmillan and Robert Macmillan for their help in sourcing and translating material on Herbert’s trip. As well as the books mentioned above, online there is, in Polish, a useful article from 2007 by Piotr Toczynski about Herbert and Iona, and a recording of Herberttalking about Scotland (scroll down to the heading ‘Szkocja’).

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Starting to rescue the books at Edinburgh’s ‘Polski Dom’

The Polish Ex-Combatants’ Club at 11 Drummond Place in Edinburgh is to be renovated; works have started and the building will reopen as a revitalised cultural centre in 2020. The building was first purchased by Polish soldiers in 1948 and after 70 years the collections of books, pictures, documents, photographs, etc provide a snapshot over that time. The first sorting has commenced and discoveries being made of publications which excite interest. During 2019 the selected material will be assessed, catalogued and conserved before being returned to the new centre or dispersed to relevant libraries. Jenny and Stuart Robertson, Tom Bacciarelli and I made a start on November 26 but we have three rooms of books to sort through so it will take some time, especially when a special find starts a conversation and we then have to remember to return to our task! 

Krystyna Szumelukowa 

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Zbigniew Herbert – sessions in Edinburgh secondary schools

In September I ran sessions on the poems of Zbigniew Herbert in four Edinburgh secondary schools (Broughton, James Gillespies, Drummond and Firrhill), working with older pupils.

Each session involved reading and discussing a Herbert poem, and a creative writing exercise which used the poem as a starting point. The poems we looked at were ‘Elegy of Fortinbras’, ‘Journey to Krakow’, ‘Prayer of the Traveller Mr Cogito’ and ‘The Russian Emigrés’. I used various activities to help them engage with the poems, including reading aloud in groups, and piecing together a poem like a jigsaw.

  

Pupils in two of the sessions gave written answers to evaluation questions, about what they felt they had learned about Poland, Zbigniew Herbert, and poetry, as well as what they’d liked, and what they’d change, about the session.

Their comments included:

  • Poland – invasion by Germany, and domination by Russia, as well as its shifting borders
  • Herbert – his time in the Home Army, and his travels to Scotland and Los Angeles
  • Poetry – poems can function without punctuation, rhyme and marked rhythm; their emotional content; a poem ‘doesn’t have to be complex and intimidating’
  • What they’d liked –interactive activities; writing using a line or lines from another text; reflections on immigration; ‘learning about a poem written by someone who is not Scottish’
  • What they’d change –include more poems; spend more – or less – time writing; less history, more biography
    One comment read – gratifyingly – ‘Polish people, more creative writing please’. We’ll do our best!

My own reflections on the sessions follow.

I had struggled to choose poems for in the sessions, in terms of finding a ‘representative’ Herbert poem; each shows as it were only one aspect of his interests. I enjoy his poems with classical references, but felt they might require too much explanation. Of the four poems I focussed on (‘Elegy of Fortinbras’, ‘Journey to Krakow’, ‘Prayer of the Traveller Mr Cogito’ and ‘The Russian Emigrés’) some background notes were needed for all of them, perhaps most of all for the first (some pupils had read Hamlet, but none recalled who Fortinbras was). It became clear in the first session that Herbert’s language was simple enough, and his ideas complex enough, to engage the pupils, even if they didn’t understand all the references and lost some nuance.

I was able to evolve new activities for engaging with poems in the classrooms: reading aloud as a group, piecing the stanzas together like a jigsaw, using 2 or 3 lines from a poem to begin writing a new text. I thought these activities helped pupils engage with the poems: to read them carefully and think about how they were structured, where the emphases lay, who these characters were and why they did what they did, and how these poems might relate to their own interests and experiences.

When I was at school it was a rarity to read any Scottish authors; perhaps the pendulum has swung so far the other way that pupils now have an appetite for non-Scottish authors, and a curiosity about authors writing not in English.

My own interest in Herbert’s work was refreshed, thanks to the pupils’ curiosity.

I’ve also written a teaching resource on Herbert’s poems, which is available to download as a pdf.

Ken Cockburn

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Zbigniew Herbert – poetry teaching resource

Celebrating the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert (1924–1998) is a new poetry resource for secondary school teachers.

Zbigniew Herbert (1924–1998) is one of the best known and most celebrated Polish poets of the 20th century. His life and work shed light on some of the major events of 20th century European history, including World War Two, the Cold War and the end of Communism in eastern Europe. Twenty years after his death, 2018 has been declared the Year of Herbert by the Polish Sejm (Parliament).

To mark the Year of Herbert, Zielony Balonik: the Scottish-Polish Book Group commissioned Ken Cockburn to write this resource for use in secondary schools. It introduces Herbert and his work to teachers and pupils in secondary schools in Scotland (and beyond). As well as a brief biography of the poet, one of his poems is presented in Polish and English translation, with ideas for using it in the classroom. Further ideas are given for working with other Herbert poems, together with a short booklist, and links to websites where his poems are available, along with background material.

A number of related public events and school sessions linked to Herbert’s work have also been arranged with the help of the Scottish Poetry Library, including sessions looking at Herbert’s poems in four Edinburgh secondary schools, which I’ve written about here.

Our thanks to those who have offered financial support for the resource and the events programme:
Polish Ex-Combatants Association in Great Britain Trust Fund;
Scottish Polish Cultural Association; 
Polish Consul General in Scotland.

The resource is designed by Emma Quinn Design.

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A Morning with Żanna Słoniowska

Members of Zielony Balonik were delighted to meet with Żanna Słoniowska, the author of The House with the Stained-Glass Window at the Lighthouse Bookshop in Edinburgh on May 26th at an event hosted by Kasia Kokowska of Word Polishers and supported by the Polish Consul General in Edinburgh. 

From left to right:
Grazyna Fremi, Zanna Sloniowska, Krystyna Szumelukowa, Jenny Robertson

Żanna explained that her first novel was the culmination of a long process of living the first part of her life and thinking of its meanings in the embrace of the character of  her home city, Lviv, as it is now known and located in Western Ukraine. The human characters in her story  explore how four generations of women in the same family, living in one house, reflect the multiple identities, inherited or thrust upon them, as a result of geopolitical upheavals including war itself, imposed by external forces or generated from within through cultural conflict. 

Her book was written in Polish and expertly translated in fastidious detail by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Żanna’s  multi-language skills (Polish, Ukrainian, Russian and English) demonstrate her own internationalism and her desires for cross cultural links to be expressed in freedom of thought and movement. Żanna’s book adds to the revelation of the role that the city of Lviv has played in the history of the borderlands of eastern Europe, and how for too long it became almost invisible in the aftermath of the Second World War.

 

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Joseph Conrad on St Andrew’s Day in Edinburgh November 30th 2017

From left to right: Nick Barley, Sylwia Spooner, Duncan Milne, Linda Dryden, Krystyna Szumelukowa, Kate Simpson, Laurence Davies, Tom Bacciarelli, Iain McIntosh

The complexity of Joseph Conrad was revealed by experts Laurence Davies and Linda Dryden in two presentations highlighting his connections with people and places in Scotland and his transnationalism engendered by his personal family history of displacement and the twenty years of traversing the oceans. It was fascinating to see images of the young Konradek on his horse in the territory of the Russian Empire in 1865 and then the elderly Joseph Conrad relaxing in his garden in Canterbury, Kent with a cousin in 1924. In between his life resulted in writings which have been recognized not only for the quality of his use of the English language but also for his commentary on issues at the time which resonate today, such as racism and slavery, inequality and globalization. These multiple aspects were drawn together by Nick Barley in a Q and A session. 160 years after his birth there is no doubt that the works of Joseph Conrad are reaching out to a new generation and to a wider audience.

On the night we welcomed 65 people to this free event at Augustine United Church. Starting at 6pm the main event concluded at 7.30pm but we then welcomed 20 guests for a reception, which closed at 8.45pm. We distributed leaflets advertising the new publication Conradology and we are now looking forward to Nick Barley successfully inviting Maya Jasanoff to the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2018 to promote her book “ The Dawn Watch”.

From left to right: Nick Barley, Sylwia Spooner, Duncan Milne, Linda Dryden, Krystyna Szumelukowa, Kate Simpson, Laurence Davies, Tom Bacciarelli, Iain McIntosh

Photo: Tom Duda/freshmintstudio.com

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A Celebration of Joseph Conrad

An evening of presentations and readings portraying the influence of Joseph Conrad as a European and his links with Scotland. Conrad experts Professor Laurence Davis of the Joseph Conrad Society and the University of Glasgow, and Professor Linda Dryden of Edinburgh Napier University will enlighten and surprise as thy reveal more of the life and times of Joseph Conrad.

St Andrew’s Day, 30 November 2017, 6:00pm – 7:30pm

Augustine Church, 41-43 George IV Bridge, Edinburgh EH1 1EL

To book contact: http://bit.ly/2zvv4RA

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A Haircut and a Poem

During my last visit to Warsaw I needed a haircut. My usual hairdresser was on holidays and I started looking at other salons. Walking along Wilcza Street, I noticed a narrow shop with lots of wood and warm lighting, with a small sign – fryzjer, but no hairdressing activity in site. After some hesitation I went in to explore; yes, It was a hairdresser and a nice young lady at an elegant reception desk invited me for a haircut with Luiza at 7:00pm.

I arrived earlier, and the same receptionist took me through a couple of rooms to a comfortable sofa. I observed Luiza zen-like hair cutting: very, very slowly, with great concentration and attention to almost a single hair. She smiled at me from time to time, as she sensed being observed. A large mug of green tea and a couple of articles later, she sat me in front of a full length mirror to discuss my haircut. On a little transparent table by the mirror, I noticed a small laminated pice of paper with a short text, placed next to a vas with pink carnations. To my astonishment it was a poem ‘Na zewnątrz noc’ (Outside its night) by Tadeusz Borowski, one of my recently re-discovered authors. I was astonished to find poetry and especially Borowski’s poem at the hairdresser! I read the poem a couple of time and realised that it was about the War and his love Maria, whom he followed to Auschwitz. Borowski’s selection of short stories has been translated into English and published by Pengwin Classics This Way to the Gas Ladies and Gentlemen. Continue reading “A Haircut and a Poem”

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Celebrating Polish art, design and theatre for children

The creative minds of Edinburgh and Łódź have joined their forces and concocted a brand new festival to be hosted by the Scottish capital. On Thursday 12th October, I had the pleasure to attend the opening event of the Kite and Trumpet Festival celebrating Polish art, design and theatre dedicated to younger viewers.

The festival lasts for 11 days and offers a whole range of events held mostly at the Summerhall, but also the Scottish Storytelling Centre and North Edinburgh Arts. Every day of the festival offers tons of fun in a wide range of creative workshops for children, as well as various theatre productions from two Polish theatres. If that weren’t enough, the Summerhall opens its doors daily offering you “Bawialnia”, or the Playroom, featuring educational games and eco-friendly toys by Polish artists, designers and creative companies.

While your kids are immersed in play, you can enjoy the exhibition of works by illustrators and artists and browse a whole array of beautiful and wise books for children, both in Polish and in English translation, including Clementine Loves Red by Krystyna Boglar, which we have read recently at the Zielony Balonik book club.

I would like to congratulate and thank the organisers for bringing such a fantastic event to Edinburgh and express a hope that it becomes a regular feature in the cultural calendar of our city.

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The Last Family

The Last Family DVD was sitting on my bookshelf since my last visit to Warsaw. I have never liked Beksinski’s paintings, but was keen to see the film about him and his family; he was a well-known painter with quite a macabre style.

Directed in 2016 by Jan P. Matuszyński, it is a portrayal of a successful artist’s life in Warsaw before all the changes. Tomek moved from Sanok, a small town, into a high rise block on the same housing estate as his parents, who lived there with both grandmothers. He is quite depressive and disruptive individual. Fluent in English, he is passionate about the new British music and develops his own late night radio programme, to which my brother listened in the 1970’s. His suicidal tendencies are a constant worry to his family.

Continue reading “The Last Family”

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