Rachel says—said—the Polish ł looks like a funambulist, balance-pole angled exaggeratedly, tightrope invisible beneath the walker’s feet. Funambulist. Her word. But the pole is too short. The figure, somehow, too perpendicular, too secure. She sees correction, balance. I see error, nullification. Its pronunciation, according to A New Polish Grammar, “should present no real difficulty to the English pupil . . . the majority of Poles nowadays pronounce this sound with the lips, exactly like the English w.[1] Useful drawings display the exact placement of the tongue. We practiced: ła-la—łu-lu—ło-lo—łe-le— łi-li . . . We’d refill our glasses with wódka and laugh nonsensically at our lips’ and tongues’ machinations. ŁATWO, she said, her lips, tongue, perfect. It is easy. But I was a poor learner. Later, jetlagged, incoherent, I walked to her across the room, my imaginary balance-pole angled exaggeratedly, tightrope invisible beneath my feet, and I fell finally into the net of her arms. We should not be like this, here, she said, holding in her laughter, holding in her tears. She spun the spent cubes in her glass and looked around the room, as if she could see the dark ŁÓDŹ streets beyond the hotel walls. But by then we had to drink, we had no choice. Examples follow.


REYMONT, WŁADYSŁAW STANISŁAW (1867-1925), writer. Reymont “worked as a tailor, a travelling actor, a minor railway employee, a factory hand, and a railroad switchman.”[2] He earned the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1924. In his name we find three Polish łs. Exceptional.

ŁÓDŹ, Poland’s second largest city. “In 1866, the city became a ‘Polish Manchester,’ one of the main textile centres of the Russian Empire. During WW II, the city, renamed Litzmannstadt by the Nazis, was incorporated into the Third Reich. In 1940, the Nazis organised a ghetto for 300,000 Jews in Łódź, and they exterminated the Jewish population before the Red Army took the city on January 19, 1945.”[3] We focus on the Polish ł at this juncture, but the city’s bounty of diacritics is noteworthy.

And let us now commingle the man and the city: “Łódź sie budziła.”[4] Translation: Łódź was awakening.[5]

Or was Łódź waking? Was it waking up? One must not quibble.

The second paragraph of this novel[6] presents a number of further examples of the Polish ł: ROZDARŁ (tore), ZACZĘŁY (started), DARŁY (rip up), GŁOSAMI (voices), HASŁO (password, shibboleth). These are good words. Sipping occasionally from a cup of cold tea—unsweetened, Lipton, ubiquitous here—I hold the books open with small stones I have gathered from around the train tracks across from my lodgings. I collect them, keep them in my pockets. Who did this? Malloy? Mallone? Some Beckett character. These are my souvenirs, these elements of the landscape, these bits of concrete from the sides of buildings, fragments of ancient bricks, chips of old gravestones. She taught me this. Why spend money on plastic baubles when you can have a piece of the city, the real city? We are thieves, I thought. Here, here is one as smooth as a stone from the sea, as if I had been visiting Ddańsk. But there is no sea in the city of Łódź. Someone creaks down the hallway. Quiet voices. From the hotel window a trickle of light, gray. I read.


Pierwszy wrzaskliwy świst fabryczny rozdarł ciszę wczesnego poranku, a za nim we wszystkich stronach rniasta zaczęły coraz zgielkliwiej inne i darły się chrapliwemi, nesfornemi głosami niby chór potwornych kogutów, piejących metalowymi gardzielami hasło do pracy.[7]


One first shrill blast, rending the silence of the small hours, and followed by the ululations of sirens all over town, noisier and still more noisy, rearing and ripping the air to tatters with their harsh uncouth din—a chorus of gigantic cocks, as it were, from those metal throats of theirs.[8]


I like small hours. Better than morning. But are the sirens really noisier and still more noisy? Must they really rear and rip, when we have already rent the silence? (The source text does not alliterate.) Furthermore, might we prefer immense roosters to gigantic cocks, or perhaps here, yes here, we should alliterate: colossal cocks.

A train cries (sure, yes, ululates) beyond the window, not unlike a rooster. I hear it wend its way down Narutowicza and disappear into the distance. Another sip of tea.

The third paragraph. I will stop at this one:


Olbrzymie fabryki, których długie czarne cielska i wysmukniente szyje-kominy majaczyły w nocy, w mgle i w deszczu—budziły się z wolna, buchały płomieniami ognisk, oddychały kłębami dymów, zaczynały żyć i poruszać się w ciemnościach, jakie jeszcze zlewały ziemię.[9]


Do you see them? MAJACZYŁY (loomed), BUDZIŁY (aroused), BUCHAŁY (belched), PŁOMIENIAMI (flames), KŁĘBAMI (withers), ZLEWAŁY (confluent). Little orthographic gods on the page, voices, shibboleths.


With long, dark bodies and slender upstanding necks, looming out of the night, the fog and rain, the big factories were slowly rousing up, scintillating with many a flame, and beginning to live and move amid the darkness.[10]


Let us say, rather, that the necks were slim, that they gushed flame, that the factories were coming alive, that they were not amid the darkness, but in it. Which to take, which version, the English or the Polish, which to keep with me as I walk the streets of Łódź? I opt for the original. Pure. Beautiful. Unreadable. I put the book, and many others, into my old JanSport, and enter the city, my notebook tied to my waist for ease of access, à la Muir.


Small hours. Moon waxing gibbous. Clouds .20, thin, dark and passing over the southern edge of the city, like the contrails of some borrowed biplane of the interwar years. Sky pale gold to the east (gold in Polish: ZŁOTO). The buildings still stand, red brick, castellated, sooty, bedecked with those chimneys, those looming chimneys, slim of neck, slender, your pick. You can touch the building sides, beneath the new signs, reach up above the alternating layers of paint and graffiti, and your hand comes away with the residue of history. Might her breath, her molecules of skin and hair, be found on these rough walls? Have they been preserved, like my memories? Anna Ginter: “. . . even though The Promised Land [which, reader, I’m slogging my way through, obligatorily] is full of individual characters, lively portraits, intimate situations, the main character is the city of Łódź itself . . . a monstrous, wild, vibrant and passionate metropolis dominated by greed, ruthlessness and cruelty.”[11] We learn in retrospect that the novel’s first sentence, what at first seemed metonymy, was in fact personification of the city itself: its sirens rearing and ripping, those colossal cocks with their metal throats, etc. One must go back, must read again, to understand the words as the author intended. Let’s do.

Łódź sie budziła.

The night still hangs heavy here on the streets but, looking east, the sun breaks through between the buildings, scintillating, burning like flame, within the golden interstices.

Łódź was awakening.



The acute, or long, a is found in many languages, notably Czech and Hungarian. “It is like the a in English father, but without diphthongization.”[12] One must not confuse the letter with the grave a (à). I prefer the acute to the grave. The eye more easily passes over the letter’s jagged barb, its own internal resistance to returning. Forward. Always forward. I, of all people, should take heed. Examples follow.


KHAYYÁM, OMAR (c. 1048–c. 1122) “a Persian philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician of the twelfth century. Known for his quatrains (RUBÁIYÁT).”[13]

Lights come up. Three soldiers sit in the dirt, enemies. Polish, Russian, German. Not a word is spoken. Here in no man’s land, within some labyrinth of trenches, a strange place where, in the words of Piłsudski (of which more below), they would inevitably have lost themselves, the three soldiers have decided to stop fighting, and instead they play with clay. A bomb slowly falls over a perfect silent city and stops, hovers in the sky for just an instant, and then changes direction, flies through the air, chases its own beginnings, until it has consumed the plane from whose bay it had been let loose. The plane spirals like a dying bird, strikes the ground (Rachel’s hand, warm in mind, flinches), whereupon one of the soldiers shapes it into a candle. A child is born bit by bit from the thinning body of his mother, one piece of clay at a time, until the child is a man, is a soldier, like themselves, ready to die in the trenches. Two more children are born and grow to become men. By the end of the play (based loosely on the work of our poet), the soldiers have built a tree of clay, around which their doppelgängers, their steel helmets askew, recline and, finally, sleep.

We are no other than a moving row

Of Magic Shadow-shapes that come and go

Round with the Sun-illumined Lantern held

In Midnight by the Master of the Show.[14]

Of course, I don’t know the Persian. We trust the translation. Once, a long time ago, she pulled down a book and licked a finger and read. “The important thing here, though, is that the difference between image and reality simply does not matter, does not even exist, for those readers who cannot compare the source text with its translation.”[15] Rachel, replacing the book on her ample shelf, explained to me the nature of the dilemma. Semantic translation is concerned with equivalence, that is to say, she said, the “shape” of the source text. Consider Aquila de Pontos’ second-century Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, in which the Hebrew word order is imposed upon the target language. Consider too, and more interestingly, the Zukofskys’ translation of Catullus’s poem 32, in which the English words seek to mimic the actual sounds of the Latin (Amobo, mea dulcis Ipsitilla = I’m a bow, my dual kiss, Ipsithilla ).[16] Communicative translation, on the other hand, deals not with syntax and semantics—sound, we could add to the list (appearance! form! meter! rhyme! yes, add them), that is to say, she said, the signifiers—but with message and meaning, a cultural adaptation, that is to say, she said, the signified. The translator strives to adhere to the ideological and poetological expectations of the target reader. And here now finally we consider Edward FitzGerald’s recreation, that is to say, invention, of Rubáiyát. (She pulled down a book, licked a finger.) “It is an amusement to me to take what liberties I like with these Persians, who (as I think) are not poets enough to frighten one from such excursions, and who really do want a little art to shape them.”[17] (Replaced the book on her ample shelf.) The translator does not, must not, she said, start at the word. The translator must start at the culture, and work down. Macro to micro. We do not translate words, she said. We translate a universe of ideologies and poetics. Translation, thus, is necessarily imperfect. That is to say, she said, perfect translation is necessarily impossible. When a given culture chooses to accept or reject a translation, we must consider not the success or failure of the translation, in much the same way that one must consider not the success or failure of instantaneously transporting an object of some mass from point A to point B (in clear violation of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle), she said, or heavier-than-air human flight without mechanical aid, etc., etc., but rather (one must consider) the power and manipulation of that culture—that is to say, she said, the power of that culture to manipulate. We were eating noodles. She slurped a bite. She used chopsticks. I, a fork. Modern furniture. A round, white, shiny table that blinded me in the mornings when I ate my cereal. An orange globe, aloft, aglow. Her little sun, she called it. Ikea shelves overflowing with books covered one whole wall of her apartment, an attraction that drew us in, had its own gravitation, supplied us, I now see in hindsight, with much of the air and nourishment we—the fragile, newborn we—would need to survive. Culture is written by the victors, is how I think she put it, between bites. And who’s to quibble? Are we thus then bound to, faithful to, enslaved by (oh, how I hear her words, these are her words), the source text, must we sit back and allow ourselves, like the New Critics, to be quietly raped by these lexicological phalli, or are we free to consider the ideological, the poetological, expectations of you (me), the reader, as if the translation was conceived alchemically, a homunculus, born fully formed in the target language, might we, like a promiscuous Don Juan, fondle the warm, moist, tender words, might we, she said, her perfectly plucked eyebrows rising, might we fuck them into oblivion? Octavio Paz, his phenomenal eyebrows peaked like acute accents (vide supra the á which is the subject of this section of my nonfiction study of the orthography of Central Europe), fingers to chin, contends that servile translation (traducción servil) is a misuse of terms, not translation at all, but—she walks over, takes a book from the shelf, licks a finger, suggestively, looks into my eyes for just a moment—but “a depository made of a string of words to help us read the text in its original language. Something closer to a dictionary than a translation.”[18] (Nabokov, with his remarkably similar brows, accents grave perhaps, would lower his, and strongly disagree.)

And so servile, that is to say, faithful, translation (or whatever we may choose to call it) must be left to the scientists and mathematicians. They peer into distant, invisible worlds. They swim in microscopic seas, get caught in their nets of numbers. They translate (or, perhaps, dictionate) their precise, experimental results, their careful calculations, from one language to another, and nothing is lost. They are the gods of language, are they not? Perfection and immutability may be found in the world of the mathematicians but are mythological baals in the world of the artists. (She pulls down a book. Carnap: “Of the so-called philosophical problems, the only questions which have any meaning are those of the logic of science.”[19] Reaches up, replaces book to ample shelf, stretches her satin arm. Her shirt rises and I see that smooth strip of shadowed skin between her hip and lower rib, what mathematicians might call a hyperbolic paraboloid of white flesh. White in Czech: BÍLÁ.) Then what are you doing? What do you call it? She smiles before answering, fingering another book. I am exerting the power of subversion under the guise of objectivity, she says. I know she is quoting.[20]  Expand, I say, I plead. I am instantaneously moving objects of mass, she says. I am flying without mechanical aid. She returns, miming a bird, settles, to her work, the pages, one blank, one littered with words I cannot read. She does not look up. I am working now, she says. She hums while she works, beautiful melodies, major keys. Later, later still, over vodka, before we undress, she explains that Poland (because we understand suffering) had never possessed a whaling industry, so when Zieliński composed (is that the word she used?) his famous Polish translation of Moby Dick, he was compelled to create a vocabulary of his own. A hunter of words, he. I remove one of her shoes. A strand of her hair uncurls—unfurls, better, yes—upon her face, covering, nearly covering, her right eye. Unwashed dishes in the sink. A meticulously made bed. Things are new. The Hopi Indians, she says, have conceptions of space and time that have no linguistic counterparts in other languages. Another shoe, across the room. There is no “Lamb of God” in the Bible of the Eskimos, she explains, pushing her uncoiled hair from her eye (her eyes are the color of the leaves of weeping silver lime trees that grow from brick planters along the streets of Łódź) as I unbutton her shirt. The sin of the world, she says, falling backward, shivering, as if just born, is taken away by a “Seal of God.”

I close my notebook, replace my pen (ballpoint pen inventor: LÁSZLÓ JÓZSEF BÍRÓ—a cornucopia of diacritics! the name practically swoops on the page!). I am sitting here next to the monument of Reymont, on his travel trunk. He too walked the city by day, took his notes, wrote at night. In his left hand he holds a small notebook. His right hand is poised over the page, mid-sentence, but he looks up, watches the street, as we must imagine he did when these chimneys really did belch smoke into the sky. I rise, touch his nose for good luck, pull my JanSport over my shoulders, turn, walk north up Piotrkowska. The street is quiet at these small hours. The umbrellas are down. Stores still dark. It is a good time to walk, to see things as they were, I mean are.



The acute o is the 21st letter of the Polish alphabet. The accent indicates a /u/ pronunciation, as in bull. The two examples given in A New Polish Grammar are GÓRA (mountain) and BÓG (God). Further examples follow.


PIŁSUDSKI, JÓZEF KLEMENS (1867-1935), statesmen. “Piłsudski is considered by many the most outstanding Polish politician of the twentieth century and the chief restorer of Poland’s independence after WW I.”[21] His associations with the city of ŁÓDŹ are rife, which city I emphasise once again, an orthographically beautiful and apt locale for these proceedings. Why am I here? Is this why I am here?

Piłsudski danced. He danced the Polonaise (like the Swedish semiquaver polska), forward, back, side-to-side. He danced the Mazurka, arms outstretched, jackboot heels clicking. The Krakowiak is danced in groups, the dancers often forming shapes like stars, and Piłsudski danced, yes he danced this too. He danced the Kujawiak, gently spinning and turning in lines or circles. Piłsudski, it should be noted, was not a huge fan of circles, and especially not of lines, (he preferred the shape of a pincers), but still, he danced. He danced the Oberek, the quick steps, the continuous turns. He’d nod to the small village band: violin, accordion, drum. His eyes were spots of light like amber gems plucked from the Baltic. His walrus mustachio (one like his can only be called thus—mustache fails entirely) concealed the missing front teeth (courtesy of the butt of a Russian vintovka Berdana). He lowered those caterpillar brows, clenched that jaw of steel, and he, this man, this god-like mountain of a man, danced.

Warsaw was damn near surrounded. On 4 July 1920 Tukhachevski, the young Russian general of the Red Army, commenced his assault from the Berezina River. The Polish Army’s northern flank was turned and forced to retreat west. On 19 July Grodno fell. The Polish Army’s northern flank was turned and forced to retreat west. On 28 July it was Białystok. Polish northern flank turned, forced to retreat west. On 22 July the Brest Fortress fell, and soon after, the Red Armies trundled across the Bug River with their bayonet-tipped rifles angled back like a moving, leafless forest. Tukhachevski looked through his field glasses through wisps of smoke. Not far off, beyond the flashing ribbon of the Vistula, the tops of the towers of Warsaw must have danced before his eyes like Polish peasants. A telegram reached Piłsudski in his office at Belweder Palace. He tore the seal. The Polish Army’s northern flank had been turned, the document read, and had been forced to retreat west.

At least one historian compared Tukhachvski’s march on Warsaw to Ludendorff’s march on Paris six years earlier. England and France encouraged Polish capitulation. Lithuania ping-ponged to the Russian side. Neutral Germany kept playing goalie to French arms and munitions, as did the Czechs, who blocked the supply trains heading north. In acute right triangles, the hypotenusal foreign diplomats fled the capital holding their heavy leather satchels out to their sides. The Red Armies 4th, 15th, 3rd, and 16th arrayed respectively north to south. Their numbers exceeded 108,000 infantries, 11,000 cavalries, supported by 722 pieces of artillery and nearly 3,000 machine guns. The Soviet advantage at what military historians might call points of interest was 4 to 1. Dig! shouted the generals and other Polish dignitaries. Entrench! Deeper! Deeper! The truth, said Piłsudski on page 61 (I have pulled the book from my JanSport and I read from it, cradled in my left arm, like a cloistered monk, while I walk), is that, at the beginning of the war against the Soviets, all Polish generals, myself included, were under the influence of a long period of trench warfare, which was itself an affirmation of the triumph of linear strategy over what then seemed the antiquated strategy of movement. Dig! Entrench! Deeper! Deeper! But he remembered how a million men turned to bone and dust on those ravaged hills of blood to the west. Such were the hecatombs necessary for the recreation of a war of movement which had been lost in the somber gulf of the trenches, thought Piłsudski, in those words exactly. Dig! they shouted. Make a strong line! Deeper! Piłsudski’s mustachio did not move, did not even quiver, but if you looked closely you might notice the slightest agitation in his legs, just a little slide-tap-tap-slide-tap-tap of his right boot, a click or two of the heels. Piłsudski was not a man of inertia. Piłsudski danced.

I make my way north along the stars of Piotrkowska, the concrete sprayed clean by men in orange vests, past all the trucks delivering Tyskie and Żywiel and Coca-Cola to the cafes and coffee houses, the beer gardens stretching into the street, surrounded by dwarf cypresses growing from wooden planters. Like heliotropes the beige, square umbrellas start to open. Only a few tourists are out at these hours, these tiny hours, click-clacking off their hangovers in the long shadows. Past the Grand Hotel I turn right on Generała Romualda Traugutta. Just a couple blocks. There, past the Łódź House of Culture, he stands at the edge of a square, backed by green explosions of trees. I walk up to him. Hello, I think. Hello again. I salute, turn, sit with my back against the plinth, facing the incipient sun. I take out the loose maps found in the inside flap, back cover, of the book. They are wrapped with a strip of white paper, like gifts. I spread them across the smooth marble surface, slide them around like tarot cards. The Polish armies are in blue. The Russian, of course, red. I hold them down with stones. This is a great joy. I had shillyshallied for some time: $75.01 for a “like new” version with a “tiny rip” on the inside jacket seemed excessive, but such are the trammels of non-fiction writing. (Did I do this for her? Did I? If I had employed the services of a psychotherapist my instructions explicit or implicit I’m sure would involve the aloud and perhaps repetitive affirmation that she will never read this, she will never read this, she will never read a word of this.) I open to the first pages. A black and white photograph of Józef Piłsudski has been expertly glued to the verso facing the Publisher’s Note. His hair is smoothed back. Those brows. That chin. His nose as straight as the rear cowling of an FT tank. The book reflects something of the grandeur of its author. A cover woven in battleship grey, the same grosgrain stitch of Piłsudski’s Order of the White Eagle ribbon bars, the same color of the Polish officers’ greatcoats. The head- and tail-bands peak through in royal blue with white stripes. The pages are thick. They sound triumphantly when turned. Listen, listen, they say. And then, returning to the title page, I realize what is missing.[22] The author: Józef Piłsudski. That is all. Whose voice(s) are we hearing? Piłsudski spoke French, German, and Lithuanian, in addition to Polish, Russian, and, later, English. One gathers he did not speak that last language well. This is not his translation. These are not his words, not exactly. And yet, his lips move, he turns to me, he speaks, and I am saturated with two languages. Both languages coexist, are recreated as one new language. I negotiate, she says, at some linguistic and cultural crossroads. I am a wanderer here. I am lost. In Rodolphe Gasché’s essay on the role of difference in Walter Benjamin’s theory of language he (Gasché) states: “The objective possibility of translation, a possibility that is also a call for it, can thus best be described as an inner limit of the work of art, or again, as a structural feature that, within the work itself, points beyond it.”[23] (She returns the book to her ample shelf.) Points beyond it, Gasché says. To where? What am I reading? Benjamin would say, says Rachel, that both the original and the translation are fragments of a greater language, a “pure” language.[24] Ah yes, I say, pre-Babel. The allegory of the shattered vessel, I say, or at least something like that, or perhaps this is what I wish I had said. Later. Much later. We are going through the motions, she and I. I am driving somewhere. We have returned, Poland already coalescing into memories of greater and greater entropic ruin. She looks straight ahead. Lights strobe across her hair, the side of her face. Silence unspools. I am driving too fast. I don’t know where we were going then, don’t know when she stopped looking at me, when I lost those eyes, those green eyes (eyes which, I always thought, were the perfect complement to my amber). In this part of the movie of our lives her face is always in shadows, oversaturated, chromatistic, pushed deeper into the gray scale. Perhaps, I think now, this is why I always see her when things were new. Not really a choice. A necessity. The naturalists always preferred the sunrises (sunrise, in polish: WSCHÓD SŁOŃCA). We are not bridges, she says. We do not exist in one world or the other, or, that is to say, she says, we exist in both worlds at once, but belong fully to neither. We are, in that sense, ghosts. Ghosts, I think. A headlight flashes across her body, the light recedes in an instant, she returns to darkness. She told me once not long ago that after the wooden Parthenon was burned to the ground by invading Persians, the Greeks rebuilt the structure, and they did so this time with marble. Let’s go, I said, let’s go there, and she answered in that way that says yes but means no. Our airy dreams of futurity, by now, were fragile and obscure, a dangerous no man’s land. Tell me what you want me to be, I said once. Write it, I said. Such is love. We become eager malleable cowards. This is not the story of a love affair gone bad. This is a book of nonfiction. There are no mysteries to conceal. Let’s not draw this out. She is gone, and here I have returned like a fool, perhaps like a fool, to where we once were, and here I sit—gluing together pieces of a shattered vessel, this war, these maps, a withered wreath at Piłsudski’s feet scratching the bronze surface, whispering from the past—I sit, reading the greater language of Year 1920. Date: 5 August. He sat alone at his large oak desk (Empire style, all Corinthian and splendor) in his office at Belweder Palace and let a cigar dwindle. In hands that nearly shook he held a cup of tea, but the tea (unsweetened) had gone cold. The fine large china cup (reserved expressly for the use of the minister) sounded loudly in its saucer as he rose, walked, or really gamboled (in 3/4), to his mullioned window. He looked down into Łazienki Park, down to the dark sclera of pond reflecting the brilliant white iris of moon (as it turns out, sclera in Polish is TWARDÓWKA). The stars whirled. Fireflies chased themselves in loops and spirals. Linden leaves fell like hope. His options were, let us say, circumscribed. He made his decisions. He would leave Warsaw weakly defended against the Soviet frontal attack. He would employ the armies of the southern Polish wing to surprise (in spiraling loops) the Russian armies from the rear. He would personally command the attack. A small nocturnal fly beat against the glass, as if trapped. He watched it for a moment, turned and gamboled back to his desk. By 13 August he had tendered his resignation from all state functions and duties, and, with a profound sense of the absurdity of the situation, left Warsaw for his headquarters at Puławy.

Clouds now .05. Sky wiped nearly clean, yellow to the east (yellow in Polish: ŻÓŁTY). An ankle-less woman pushes a cart over to where I sit, asks me something in Polish. I do not speak Polish, I say, in Polish. She looks at my maps, moves on, limping slightly. She smilingly called me a goddam American monolinguist. She called me an insularitist, a solipsist. She talked about the nativist knowledge-power nexus, which I guessed was a quote.[25] She may or may not have used the word xenophobe. I responded in French, but nonsensically, mostly loanwords, and she wasn’t fooled. I alluded to the prerequisite of the serious writer of American History to intermittently quote Tocqueville’s Democracy in America if said writer is to be taken seriously by fellow historians, something accomplished (the quotes) seven times, a personal record, in a piece (I call them pieces) I had written entitled “Erotica and Exotica in the Jeffersonian Agrarian Ideal.”[26] I’d like to read that, she said, lying, perhaps. On our second date I said something that I had been rehearsing for a while, I said that when we speak, when we write, we must navigate between the Scylla of the colloquial, and the Charybdis of the recondite, through which ironic reflexivity she sailed us with nary a batted eyelash, sliding her index finger around the rim of her glass, into the turbulent waters of nineteenth-century Greek and Latin poetry translation, in which, she said, the translators scylla-charybdisly (she would upstage me, always) sought both to faithfully maintain the meter of the source text (usually to questionable result—dactylic hexameter, for example, is a real bitch in English), and, at the same time, she said, to rhyme, even though Homer and Aeschylus and Virgil and the lot did not rhyme in the least. (Later, her place, another book, she pulls another book. “We make our author [in this case, Juvenal] at least appear in a poetic dress. We have endeavoured to make him speak that kind of English, which he would have spoken had he lived in England, and had written to this age.”[27] Book replaced, ample shelf. There is no literature, I said after a pause, that puts the qualities naturally lacking in the writers of democracies more in relief than that of the Greeks and Romans.[28] She nodded, twisted her lips.) Rachel was finishing her degree in Applied Linguistics. On the night we met she held her wine glass low on the stem as she moved from side to side, quasi-dancing to something by Stereolab,[29] something in an odd time signature, such that she kept alternating downbeats on different sides. I, in my tight blazer, moved forward and back, with a little hitch such that my forward thrust, kind of a stylish jutting forth of my chin, would hit each downbeat. The whole thing, our proximity, the motion, put in mind some sort of mechanical springwork from the early industrial revolution, a spinning mule or some such, wherein my forward motions were converted into her seesawing side to side. We were already a contraption of sorts, she and I. She wore a sleeveless blouse—called, I think, a camisole—orange. The tune was in “5.” Things kept building. I feared she’d spill her red, and when I mentioned it, she looked at me with those eyes that are now etched (burnt, bayonetted) into my mind, and smiled, and finished the wine in a throw. Well, I said, I guess that settles it. She had freckles, traces of them, like afterimages, her whole body, constellations, in negative, but of course I couldn’t see them, not yet, and who knows how they have changed in translation. She comes and goes like this, shattered and disordered, (these fragments, my ruin), in different tenses, as I suppose do all memories. The words, the ordering, are lies. I must curb these distractions. I shake my head, literally, I do this, like a wet dog. At the other end of the square two children holding sticks for guns play games of war. Piłsudski looks on, amused. Leaves, like armies, spiral, loop.

On 16 August the Polish Assault Group, the Grupa Uderzeniowa, assembled in an open field in what was known as the Vistula–Wieprz triangle, about 100 miles south of Warsaw. The sun rose like a turret and painted the men’s rifles and eagle cap badges in vermillion light. Each soldier, in addition to his rifle (various), carried a sabre, a bayonet, a mask, an entrenching tool, and a canteen, and as they forward-marched Piłsudski, cupping his right hand over his eyes, commented to an officer that the clanking soldiers sounded like a company of medieval knights. But oh, how they moved! A kaleidoscope of movement! By evening the town of Włodawa had been liberated. At Bialystok the Soviet 16th Army had been cut in two. In blinks of an amber eye the Polish 5th Army had crossed the Wkra. Radzymin had been recaptured. A member of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party who went by the name of Joseph Stalin was disinclined to release more soldiers to help win the battle. The Russians were in trouble. What one will see when observing Marshal Piłsudski’s Map No. 8 is the retreat of the Soviet Armies. One will see red circles like amoebas drifting in time-lapse across the liquid page in a northeast direction, splitting, shrinking away from Warsaw. One will see the blue divisions moving north, and then east, in upside-down and then sideways Us. Blue arrows extend like lances. The red circles burst, now they are bodies, now they are men, retracing steps. The corn poppies, just now starting to regain their sunwise stretch, are once again pressed flat into the soft dirt. Rivers are recrossed. One can see the red men flee in arrows back across the Bug, across the Narew, past Minsk, almost to Kiev. East, east, east.

The Polish–Russian armistice was signed on 10 October 1920. The war was over. Communist domination of Central Europe was delayed some 24 years. In “Gazeta Polska” (1930) Lord d’Abernon says: “The history of contemporary civilisation knows no event of greater importance than the Battle of Warsaw, 1920.”[30]

Piłsudski died of stomach cancer in May 1935. His heart was buried in Vilnius, at the grave of his mother, and his body in KRAKÓW, at the Wawel Chapel, next to the kings and queens. A modern scan of the tumor that did him in might have revealed a dark seam, a curvilinear demarcation, shaped not unlike the Ribbentrop–Molotov line, which would stretch from the Baltic Sea to the Carpathian Mountains, a line that a few years hence would destroy that other great body of Poland, the country itself.


Ł, Á, Ó (in sum)

Let us take a moment for a few further summarising examples of these three very important letters:


IŁŁAKOWICZ(ÓWNA), KAZIMIERA (1892-1967), “poet loosely connected with the Skamander group. . . . served as J. Piłsudski’s private secretary in the interwar period.”[31] Rachel is translating. We work together because if we did not we might never see each other. We are two ships passing, she says, so we may as well set our courses abreast on the gleaming, open sea. This is how she speaks. Our sea is her couch, a geometric sectional with very hard cushions (orange). I am researching for a piece I plan to call “Mike Hammer vs. Sam Spade: The Individuation of Semi Antiauthoritarian Perspectives in Postwar America,” or something to that effect.[32] She works with one of her legs folded beneath her. Do you like her poetry? I ask. I am not sure, she says. I do not hear it yet. Listen.


When I try on his armor, 

A tide of miraculous power flows into me, 

By another’s is my arm victorious, 

My eyes become a flash of the spirit, 

In my heartbeat beats a might star![33]


I have grown a mustache, at her request, still new, foreign, like a Halloween costume, and I have taken the habit of smoothing it from side to side with my thumb and index finger, which action I hope conveys the proper amalgam of rumination and pensiveness. Who is she talking about? I ask. A man called Józef Piłsudski, she says. Do you know him? In her words I hear just the slightest trace of her parents’ accent, and I find it beautiful, irresistible.[34] I have not heard of him, I say. She has returned to her work, scratching with a pencil. I like the sound of his name, I say. But she is gone, humming, gone.

Kazimiera Iłłakowiczówna met Piłsudski in Kraków in 1911. After the meeting, and just before the outbreak of the Great War, she wrote him a letter, which, among other things, reported that she had been learning how to shoot and asked him to make her his aide-de-camp. Her request, in a letter personally signed by Piłsudski, was politely refused. But he did not forget her. Fourteen years later she received a telephone call from his office. When the call was put through, she received a simple message: The commander, the voice said, wishes you to become his personal secretary at the Ministry of War. She joined the Second Republic a few days later and was with him until his death. What do I know about her? She returned to Poland after 1947 (she had been evacuated to Romania with the rest of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs). She settled in Poznań. She translated Schiller, Dickenson, Goethe, Tolstoy, SÁNDOR Petöfi, others. She wrote until she lost her eyesight after an unsuccessful glaucoma surgery. And blah blah blah blah blah. Of course, I’m just stalling for time here. Building the tension. Did they love? There is a picture of her when she was young. Hair pulled back, loose strands glistening in the light. Her eyes are huge, probably green, like the leaves of the weeping silver lime trees, glittering in the morning air. It is a warm evening in June, he is working late, and he is agitated. To the east Stalin’s Russia, like a schoolboy whose ball had been taken by a much smaller classmate, the final bell imminent, is biding its time. To the west some fellow named Hitler has risen to power, and Piłsudski doesn’t like the looks of that little mustache of his. She pours his tea and those intransigent strands of hair loosen, uncurl (unfurl!) upon her face, covering, nearly covering, her right eye. He looks up. Hesitates. Brushes it away. She wears a white amaranth above her left ear. They draw closer. What the hell do I think I am doing? You can’t rewrite history, says the translator of the translator. This is what she would say. You say, I say, nothing is fixed. Every word, every single moment is translated anew. Everything is mutable. I am yelling now. I turn and face her. Since the sound of every little fucking syllable of every little fucking word is a sine qua non in the phonic–semantic code of that word it is impossible to have complete lexical identity in interlanguage translation or perfect synonymy in intralanguage translation! Why are you yelling? my Rachel asks. Or I ask my Rachel. Maybe she is yelling. Things overlap, become confused. Borges’s Menard we all know copied out two chapters of Cervantes’ Don Quijote, did so word-for-word, and he claimed that his version was superior to the original insomuch as the foundation of a new poetics had been introduced, one in which the act of reading is itself the ultimate act of creation, that is to say, one in which shut up shut up shut up! The black text of the white page is translated by the brain organ into the mental text of the colorless mind. Etc., etc. His mustache I mean his mustachio tickles her lips and they draw closer, closer. He holds her young, slender body. (Young, slender body? Are you kidding me?) His eyes like amber gems taken from the Baltic, the eyes of a historian, look into hers, the eyes—green as the sea—of a translator, and then they close, and the warm night just gets warmer.

I have been told I can learn more about Kazimiera Iłłakowiczówna from Elżbieta Andrzejewska at the Raczyński Library in Poznań, at Iłłakowiczówna’s own writing studio on Gajowa Street—I have the address here, on a sheet of paper, in my pocket—but there is no need. This is what happened. Out of marble, this time. I am the victor. I will bring this back to life. “For in its afterlife—which could not be called that if it were not a transformation and a renewal of something living—the original undergoes a change.”[35] We, I tell my future Rachel, we are like Ozick’s Edelshtein, attempting to salvage a post-Holocaust Yiddish. We are like the forensic anthropologists, seeking to tell the stories of the dead by the bones and ash buried beneath this Polish soil. Here is our afterlife. Yours. Mine. Ours. Isn’t this what you always wanted? That menorah, greening on the shelf. I’m ready for it now. Bring it down. Yes they kissed. Yes they persevered. Yes they loved.


I collect my maps, replace them in their ribbons of white paper. I put the stones back in my pockets. The sun has risen above the horizon and hovers malevolently like a Soviet observation balloon. Piłsudski doesn’t flinch. Just grips that sword tighter. Military cap pulled low over amber eyes, White Eagle gleaming. I salute, about-face smoothly and retreat across the gray granite pavers toward Piotrkowska, the leaves scrambling with a sound of a hundred years, the city awake now, alive, monstrous, wild, vibrant, scintillating, aroused, aflame, the buildings rising up bestride—but to hell with all this fucking scenery.[36] What I mean by all this—really more of an aside, a parenthesis, in my nonfictional study of letters and diacritics of Central Europe, with descriptions and examples—what I mean is that she, linguist, translator, was indecipherable to me. She is a source text, and I am left with her absence, her translation. I, like those most pious readers of the English Bible—couchant, creaking upon long padded kneelers, the turned pages, paper thin as water susurrating in their churches—I, like them, banish the source text and accept as my one unique reality my translation, but unlike the Christians, who choose to vitiate the Masoretic Hebrew scriptures and kneel in obeisance to their King James, I have no choice, I must accept what is mine to love, for I have nothing more, those infatuations are dead, burnt, like Poland, like Europe, to embers. But their marmoreal offspring remains.

Tell me what you want me to be. Write it. Write it down. And she wrote: Nie rozumiesz.



[1] Joseph Andrew Teslar (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1947), 4.

[2] Jerzy J. Lerski, Historical Dictionary of Poland, 966–1945 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996), 505.

[3] Ibid., 324 (minutus mutatis).

[4] Reymont, Ziemia obiecana (Warszawa: Nakład Gebethnera i Wolffa, 1899), 3.

[5] Reymont, The Promised Land, Vol. 1, trans. Michael Henry Dziewicki (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1927), 3.

[6] I reluctantly admit to the reader that I opted to purchase a solitary Volume 1, which I found for $83.95, plus shipping, on Amazon (“pages clean . . . covers show light edge wear”), and I can feel its longing, its sense of incompletion, a tearing, a ripping, a rending. The reader wonders shall I shell out the $91.76 plus shipping for Volume 2 when I return from this trip? TBD.

[7] Reymont, Ziemia obiecana, 3.

[8] Reymont, The Promised Land, 3.

[9] You get the point.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ginter, “Metonymy and the Meaning of Construction,” Style, Jan 2008, 175, 178.

[12] William Edward Harkins and Marie HNYKOVÁA Modern Czech Grammar (New York: King’s Crown Press, 1953), 8.

[13] Oliver Learman, The Biographical Encyclopedia of Islamic Philosophy (London, New York: Thoemmes Continuum, 2006), 274.

[14] Omar Khayyám, Rubáiyát, trans. Edward FitzGerald (London: Anthem Press, 2011), 56.

[15] André Lefevere, Translating Literature (New York: Modern Language Association of American, 1992), 109.

[16] Louis Zukofsky (with Celia Zukofsky), Anew (New York: New Directions Pub. Corp., 2011), 260.

[17] Edward FitzGerald, FitzGerald to His Friends (London: Scolar Press, 1979), 103.

[18] Traducción (Barcelona: Tusquets, 1990), 10, quoted in Willis Barnstone, The Poetics of Translation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 31.

[19] Rudolf Carnap, Logical Syntax of Language, trans. Amethe Smeaton (London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1937), 8.

[20] Tracked it down: Lefevere, Translating Literature, 7.

[21] Lerski, Historical Dictionary of Poland, 441.

[22] Just to get it all down in official footnote form: Józef Piłsudski, Year 1920 and Its Climax (London: Piłsudski Institute of London; New York: Piłsudski Institute of America, 1972), passim.

[23] Gasché, Of Minimal Things: Studies on the Notion of Relation (Stanford, California: Stanford Univ. Press, 1999), 68.

[24] Approximate quote from notebook (red) of Rachel Waszyński. (Much of Date 3—dinner, her place, trout, cucumber salad, cherry pie (cucumber in Polish = OGÓREK)—involved the correct pronunciation of her last name. Waszyński = /Vɑˈʃɪn ski/. She sounds it out, syllable by syllable. We’re drinking orange-infused Vodka, homemade. The orange globe blinding. Note to self: install fader switch. Orange shag carpet. (Orange, pervasive in her place.) Eventually I will bring over candles, but then, after a few times, they go unused, they sit on a shelf in the kitchen, slowly falling back toward the wall next to a verdigris-stained menorah saved from the homeland, frozen testaments to hope (the candles), to a love once new. But we’re on Date 3 here. Waszyński = /Vɑˈʃɪn ski/, /Vɑˈʃɪn ski/, /Vɑˈʃɪn ski/, /Vɑˈʃɪn ski/. Oh, how it lingers, how it burns the mind.)

[25] Another one I tracked down: Bella Brodzki, Can These Bones Live?: Translation, Survival, and Cultural Memory (Stanford, California: Stanford Univ. Press, 2007), 9.

[26] Unpublished, as yet.

[27] John Dryden, “A Discourse Concerning the Original [sic] and Progress of Satire,” in Essays (New York: Russell & Russell, 1961), 113–114.

[28] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 451 (a paraphrase).

[29] Stereolab, Dots and Loops (New York: Elektra, 1997), not sure the track.

[30] Quoted in Archibald L. Patterson, Between Hitler and Stalin (Indianapolis, Indiana: Dog Ear Pub., 2010), 83.

[31] Lerski, Historical Dictionary of Poland, 207.

[32] Update: completed, unpublished, as yet.

[33] From notebook (blue) of Rachel Waszyński. Not sure where she found the poem, but I did stumble across the same excerpt in Eva Plach’s The Clash of Moral Nations: Cultural Politics in Piłsudski’s Poland, 1926-1935 (Athens, Ohio: Ohio Univ. Press, 2006), 51.

[34] But most beautiful, most irresistible, was when she spoke Polish, for perhaps in those moments I was released of my self-imposed duty to (try to) understand her.

[35] Walter Benjamin, approximate quote from notebook (blue) of Rachel Waszyński.

[36] Samuel Beckett , Malone Dies (New York: Grove Press, 1956), 131.


Erik Harper Klass

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, CA, with his wife and dog. "A Few Letters and Diacritics of Central Europe: With Descriptions and Examples" is his second published story.

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