In Praise of Julia Hartwig

Julia Hartwig, one of the more eminent poets of the generation of ’56 (born in 1921, she is roughly the same age as Szymborska, Herbert, and Ficowski), finally appeared in book form in English last year, thanks to the good work of translators John and Bogdana Carpenter and editor Deborah Garrison at Knopf. While this is her first extensive appearance in English, it is by no means her first appearance in an English-speaking country. She and her husband, the poet Artur Międzyrzecki (1922-1996), spent several years in the States, teaching at SUNY Stonybrook in the 1970s, and as participants in the International Writing Program in the 1980s. Hartwig’s book IN PRAISE OF THE UNFINISHED is exceptionally handsome, with thick paper wraps and stamped typography, and garnered quite a bit of attention at our AWP table last week.

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Unfortunately it has not been as widely reviewed as one might hope (though that’s hardly surprising for any book of poetry). One brief but thoughtful review, by Rita Signorelli-Pappas, did appear in World Literature Today in November. Here’s an excerpt:

What gives Hartwig’s poems their unusual freshness is her lightness of touchshe seems able to effortlessly balance the real and the mythic. In “Philemon and Baucis,” she presents a modern epilogue to the Ovidian myth. A husband who distractedly listens to his wife’s shuffling footsteps in the middle of the night suddenly becomes disoriented and asks, “Is this shuffling real, or is it only a memory, in the past, in nonexistence?” In Ovid, the couple’s generosity to the gods was rewarded with a gift that froze them in eternal union, but Hartwig’s poem suggests an elastic, reversible sense of time in which the present looks back at the past and the past points forward to the present. In “Not Eternity and Not a Void,” the speaker muses on the elusive present moment in time, which “like the mythical messenger / light-footed Iris / always moves away from us with an unknown message.”

Memory amounts to a kind of gentle obsession with Hartwig, but her treatment of the subject is buoyant rather than melancholy. In “Rebuke,” the speaker slyly scolds memory for being unpredictable, a view underscored by the absence of punctuation: “Lawless memory you project / whatever you like on a screen / ignoring our expectations.”

Hartwig was invited to return to New York next week, to read together with Charles Simic at the 92nd Street Y and participate in a translation workshop with the Carpenters. Unfortunately she broke her hip last month and cannot travel. Simic will be reading a selection of her poems from the book along with a short text written by her for the occasion. We wish her a speedy recovery: Szybkiego powrotu do zdrowia!

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One response to “In Praise of Julia Hartwig

  1. Pingback: Julia Hartwig #7 on IndieBound’s Spring poetry list « Bacacay: The Polish Literature Weblog

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