In Praise of the Unfinished

by Julia Hartwig
Knopf 2008
Reviewed by Matthew Yeager


“Great indeed is our need to love”

hartwig coverOne interesting aspect of current life in Manhattan – particularly Manhattan under 110th St. – is that the sight of a boarded-up building has transformed from an eye-sore into a rare pleasure, like a four-leaf clover. There is a feeling of emptiness that accompanies completeness, a terror that comes when we see that potential has been 100% fulfilled. There will always be upheaval, wrecking balls and re-construction, but what the scenery more often communicates is that each square inch – practically each cubic inch – of space on this small island has been accounted for and utilized. Sitting at my desk, it makes me think of an abandoned mine, stripped of coal. Viewed from a plane window, it has reminded me of a littered coffee-table after a long night of drinking, smoking and talk.

If laws weren’t in place to protect it, I have an awful fantasy that Central Park would be gobbled up in a matter of months. And not even in the surreptitious way a child eats away at a square of cake left in a fridge (by reducing its perimeter sliver by sliver so as to preserve the original shape). In my fantasy it would be totally and unabashedly devoured. High rises would go up. Though citizens would complain, though every cough would be attributed to the loss of millions and millions of leaves (much as every unseasonably warm January day produces thousands of exchanges on global warming), people would move in. Of course this could never happen, but it’s still a fantasy.

I’m lucky enough to live on a block in Harlem (120th St. betweeen Lenox and Adam Clayton Powell) where there are still three uninhabited brownstones. On Lenox Ave. itself, there are large beautiful empty buildings adorned with all the intricately carved, functionless ornamentation Bauhaus architects were in such an ideological fervor to strip away. I don’t know what these buildings originally housed, but I often I find myself daydreaming about sneaking up inside one of them and remaining for days. What I would do in there, I’m not sure. But as representations of remaining possibility and potential, these and other vacant buildings are weirdly heartening.

Daydream of untouched stores of forgotten treasure tend to be brought on when there is a fixed quantity of something that has become precious, which then becomes more precious as supplies dwindle. As a child, my single greatest fantasy was to find an unopened box of 1952 Topps baseball card wax-packs at the flea markets and rural garage-sales my father was always poking around in. (Incidentally, 1952 remains the first year I’d stop at if I were given a time machine and allowed to return.) I am also excited by the thought of “wine hunters” knocking down walls in French basements and uncovering caches of dusty bottles. Poetically, I think the nearest equivalent to such a thing must have been the trunk of Fernando Pessoa’s writings, although something of the treasure-hunter’s unflagging hope must carbonate the thoughts of every academic getting ready to pore over a dead writer’s papers. It’s easy to imagine John and Bogdana Carpenter having a similar excitement in bringing Julia Hartwig’s work, for the first time, into English.

After only a few pages of her selected poems In Praise of the Unfinished, a reader can’t help but wonder how this could be the first translation of her poetry. Actually, I was wondering this even before I opened it. On the cover of the uncorrected proofs I was given to review, we are told that Czeslaw Milosz has referred to her as “the grande dame of Polish poetry.” Could the delay have been born of the difficulty in translating her? Julia Hartwig was born in 1921. Wislava Szymborska, by comparison, was born in 1923. Hartwig has also lived for stretches of time in America, so it seems confounding that she could have flown for so long under so many translators’ radars. The quality of her verse, though I can only compare translations, seems every bit equal to Szymborska’s. Hartwig also possesses a similar gravity, a similar sense of priorities, and a similarly irrepressible affection for the world around her. There’s even a similar spunk. Maybe I’m alone in the dark here – it certainly wouldn’t be the first time – but to only now be getting wind of a poet this good (and nearly ninety years old!) makes me cautiously hope there are others like her.

It is easy to pick out the Hartwig poems that an anthologist would choose to represent her. Her poems about the experience of being a woman in Poland during and after World War II have a sincerity that one would imagine finding not in poetry – with the temptation it brings to raise one’s voice – but in a firsthand oral account or a letter to a far-off friend. As people, there is a strong desire to be a part of any collective shaping experience, and this can often results in testimonies that play up the magnitude of an individual’s personal involvement, testimonies that tap themselves on the chest: “I have seen this! I have seen that! This was my experience!” What comes through in Hartwig’s poems is actually a sense of exclusion. And this is what causes her accounts to ring with truth. Nearby front-line horrors have occurred that she can know about, read about, and endlessly imagine, but never truly know. “Separation,” for instance, begins:

Men do not tell women about war
They are silent when a woman’s hand touches their scars.

Note the quiet authority in these lines. She is speaking for more than herself, which isn’t her usual stance. You could almost say there is a “ghost” limb in this poem, an invisible opening couplet something like, “I have asked him, many times, to tell me what he saw / I have asked others if their husbands and lovers break their quiet, but….”

Surprisingly, WWII is the expressed subject in very few of these poems. (Hartwig’s fascinations include painting, nature, literature, and also America.) However, the re-prioritization that occurs as a result of such a reality as war – the “utter change,” to paraphrase Yeats – is present everywhere. We read her in light of war’s darkness. Take the short poem “A Sigh” as an example. Her subject here is her love of things she has deemed superfluous. The second of the two stanzas reads:

How I loved you things that are unnecessary
paintings words flowers and lovely faces
each blossoming meadow sunsets and dawns
how I loved you almost to excess
and how vexed I was that you are superfluous.

As we all know, an understanding of what is superfluous or extraneous results from a confrontation with what is absolutely essential. The stressed-out workaholic whose lifestyle brings on a near fatal heart attack will often emerge, pushed in a wheelchair out of a hospital, expressing a similar point of view. Call it a survivor’s stance. What is interesting, however, are the sorts of things that Hartwig deems “superfluous.” Paintings, sunsets, and words are unnecessary. As for dawns, lovely faces, and flowers, they too are lovely but not crucial, like snow on Christmas.

Yet aren’t these exactly the sorts of things you might expect the workaholic heart attack victim to vow to pay more attention to? It is rare that the examples a poet lists to back up a declaration make any contribution to the overall meaning of the poem. But here they open a door into her personality; they increase her. Glyn Maxwell (and I think he borrowed this from Auden) teaches poetry by dictating poems with blanks in them, almost like mad-libs. After taking a few minutes to fill in the blanks, students then compare their choices to what Edward Thomas or Philip Larkin did. Imagining “A Sigh” as such a mad-lib, it’s easy to picture students who have supplied “cigarettes or video games or fame” being startled at what an odd collection of nouns Hartwig has chosen. So what is not superfluous? Now we must set the book aside, stare at the wall above our desks, and ask ourselves. If a poem can make us do this, we know that it has done something.

Ultimately, it is impossible to refrain from loving what there is to be loved in this world. It is absolutely utterly and completely impossible. A chocolate-caramel will taste good to us no matter if it comes from a candy dish at a funeral home. And this is Hartwig’s message: what you find at the center of her. She even concludes one poem – and convincingly, I might add – “Great indeed is our need to love.” What a wonderful statement to walk around with in your head. But it is not a message that we’ll necessarily heed out of any mouth. As American readers, we are more inclined to listen to such truths when they’re uttered by “Greatest Generation” foreign poets, especially Eastern European poets.

One large reason for this is World War II. Though America fought, the war wasn’t on our soil, and thus there was economic boon. Instead of rebuilding, we had building. Henry Ford’s assembly-line techniques, honed in the war, were applied to home-manufacture (Levittown) and hamburgers (McDonalds). Powerful lobbying coalitions were formed among industries with common interests, and we experienced the cancerously-rapid growth of suburban America and all its defining features: automobiles, interstate systems, discount stores, single-family homes, fast food, vinyl-siding, cul-de-sacs, sports-obsessed dads, chain supermarkets, et al. While US suburbia is looked on most often with wariness and displeasure (it has encouraged obesity, environmental harm, cookie-cutter lifestyles, materialism, and the replacement of the skilled craftsman with the repetitive laborer – “America” basically), it’s hard to imagine that the average postwar European wouldn’t have preferred a 15 cent McDonalds hamburger or a washing machine on credit to the bomb-torn scenes out a glassless window.

When people are confronted with daily evidence, they are inclined not to forget. Thus, the war lingers through what we must assume are Hartwig’s formative poetic years. As in Milosz, when she expresses an appreciation for a minute facet of everyday life, the fact that we can’t help but appreciate becomes part of the subject matter of the poem. There are so many poems that enact this, but I was particularly moved by one called “Philemon and Baucis,” which I believe is a prose poem. The entire poem centers on the relief a man in bed feels at knowing the sounds of his companion in the next room haven’t been dreamt. “It is real! She really shuffles. So, they are still together. Grateful and reconciled, he falls back into his fragile sleep.”


Although this might be an over-attention to the superfluous, this volume is severely short-changed by its lack of an introductory essay and notes. To send this Selected into the world of American poetry without an introductory essay makes no sense, almost like sending a child off to school in January without a winter hat. (Perhaps a better analogy would be to say this book is like a major sporting event without a pre-game show.) What quality of music do these poems have in their native Polish? Are they free-verse in the original or free-verse adaptations of rhymed and metered poems? What sort of artistic milieu did they emerge from? Would someone group her with others into a school? What kinds of language-specific effects – puns, for instance – are left behind? Has she evolved stylistically over her career in ways that might not come across in translation? I can’t speak for every reader (and I can also understand the impulse to let the English language versions speak for themselves), but these are questions that I am curious about and embarrassingly will probably never be able to figure out for myself.

If the translators themselves weren’t up to it (they have certainly done their work), couldn’t Knopf have found a willing essayist? Personally, I would have nominated Robert Hass. His introductions to Mitchell’s Rilke translations and Tomaz Salamun’s Selected Poems made wonderful and illuminating companions. Plus, he has piles of experience with Polish poetry (and its untranslatable aspects) due to his long relationship with Czeslaw Milosz. Adam Zagajewski, in addition to being a Polish poet himself, is a fine essayist who also has an understanding of American readers. Edward Hirsch would have been good too; he knocks every introductory essay he writes straight out of the stadium. My point is simply that I’m sure they could have enlisted someone very capable.

I’d also like to know how the volume is arranged. I’d assume chronologically, but there is absolutely no way to be sure. There are nine roman-numerically numbered sections, but as we’re told in the short author bio that she has produced twelve volumes of poetry, we can’t assume each section corresponds to a book. There’s also no timeline. Did she publish her first book in 1942, as 21 year old, or did she labor for many years in anonymity? A poem that recollects WWII has a different ethos if we know it was written in 1970 as opposed to 1950.

All these things are a shame because the translations read so smoothly and possess such a clear, human voice. This can’t have been easy, as many of these poems – particularly the shorter ones – make meaning with subtle tonal shifts. Oddly enough, the only poem that I remember finding lacking was the four-line poem “Feeling the Way” that concluded the volume. I say “oddly enough” because the title of the collection is a riff on the poem’s first line. It reads in full:

The most beautiful is what is still unfinished
a sky filled with stars uncharted by astronomers
a sketch by Leonardo a song broken off from emotion
a pencil a brush suspended in the air

Though I get it that the poem itself is supposed to represent an unfinished thing, my chief problem with it is still that it is four lines long. It begins with an intriguing declaration, yet the lengthy meditation such a claim would logically necessitate (think of Keats’s opening to Endymion: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever”) goes entirely unwritten. Reason alone can’t make a poem, just as spices alone can’t make a meal, but often certain meals depend on them. Here we have a situation that requires reasoning. The declaration, as it’s delivered at the outset, requires a series of diagnostic tests to be performed on it. The reader needs to have the poet prove it, or at least – as the opposite could also be said to be true – shown how she arrived at it. Did the sentiment come from the da Vinci sketch? If unprovoked, such blanket statements generally come together after a long and interesting series of thoughts, so she might have applied a basic film structure. I’m referencing how films often show a pivotal plot point as the first scene – say, a betrayal and murder – and then show the events that led up to it.

As for the second line, it is untrue: the stars in our sky have been charted. For astronomers, the celestial bodies visible to a naked eye must have been the equivalent of low-hanging fruit. (Indeed, science has long since moved on to galaxies of stars whose light will never reach us.) Now, will all stars ever be charted by astronomers? From what little I know, this seems unlikely, and obviously this is what the poem is trying to mean. But here the poet or translator should have had a second thought, scratched out the phrasing, and written a truer line. A line like the first, simple and declarative, would have worked:

The most beautiful is what is still unfinished.
There are stars that will never be charted by astronomers.


I am going to ask your forgiveness in advance for the following analogy. “Beer goggles” refer to those cases when a person, having consumed too much alcohol, finds himself or herself sexually attracted to people s/he wouldn’t find attractive in a sober state. Likewise, there are also “poetry goggles,” which cause us to find certain poems more attractive than we otherwise might. With “poetry goggles,” the distorting lens is typically 1.) the poet’s stature 2.) the fact the poem is from a different era 3.) the fact the poem has been translated. If I read a poem for the first time that I know is by T.S. Eliot or W.B. Yeats, I will be more eager to latch onto its virtues than its faults. If I don’t understand a line, my immediate thought won’t be that the poet has written unclearly, but that I am deficient as a reader. If I flat-out disagree with an assertion, I generally can’t even notice. I’m instantly too busy re-processing what I know of the world according to what has just been told to me, extruding all my experience, like raw pasta into intriguing shapes, through the device of the claim.

Although the lens is created in the first place by the poems, the thickness of it corresponds directly to a poet’s reknown. In most poetry workshops it’s pointed out that if “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” or some other agreed-upon masterpiece were brought in typed in Times New Roman and printed out on a sheet of computer paper, a student who had never seen it would un-cap his red pen and begin wreathing the poem with commentary. “I’d can the women talking about Michelangelo,” he’d jot. “Where is all this yellow smoke coming from?” This is simply because a poem on computer paper signals to a reader something different than the same words would were they printed in an anthology. “Change me,” the formatting says, “Read me as if to change me. I’m not done.” Reading this way (perhaps you couldn’t even call it “reading”) is like aiming a high-beam flashlight at a patch of dark yard: faults come wriggling out en masse. Poems are like people; when they’re new to the world, everyone has an opinion as to who or what they should grow up to be. When they’ve grown old and published, we allow them their quirks and compulsive tics. We even love them for it.

A poem’s age encourages us to put on a different set of “poetry goggles.” Time is the one editor that most readers instinctively trust, so antiquity automatically implies stature. The mere fact the poem has survived must make it worth our effort. But there also purely exists what has been called “the sheen of temporal distance.” This is the one aesthetic quality that an artist has almost no control over. As a work of art ages, it secretes something like a mist that hovers between, in this case, the reader and the poem and alters every aspect of what is read. To a young man encountering Frank O’Hara in the 21st century, his poems, with their profusion of “period” details, will call to mind black-and-white movies of that same era. For now, this contributes an outstanding feeling, as fifty years ago has not disappeared from our collective rearview mirror. (Who isn’t charmed by those film images of crowded city sidewalks back when all men wore hats and read newspapers?) If a reader opens a book of ancient Greek lyric poetry, he’ll be dazzled by every emotion that he recognizes as familiar. “Amazing! This person two-plus centuries ago was feeling the same things I’m feeling,” he’ll think. What is communicated is a sense that little hasn’t changed about the basics of the human experience in 2,500 years. Archilochus or Sappho might have predicted as much, but it wasn’t what they set out to communicate.

As for foreign poets, I think Americans implicitly trust them for the same reasons that we trust people older than we are when they reflect on an age we haven’t yet arrived at. Their sense of history most often runs deeper. Or perhaps, we trust them for the reason that we tend to trust advice from friends’ fathers more than from our own fathers. Or perhaps we trust them because so many have proved to be trustworthy. It is true that if a translated poem compares a heart to a stone I will overlook the fact that it is a cliché much more readily than with an American poet.

I worry that I have ended this review on a sour note. If so, this wasn’t my attention at all. Hartwig writes with a compassion that is rare, and the translations read as excellent poems in English. I’d give this book 9 out of a 10 if there had been an essay and a note on arrangement. And who knows, perhaps these things were added after the uncorrected proofs, and you’ll be very confused if you pick it up and purchase it. Which I think that you should. (Pick it up I mean.) To encounter a world loved is a good step towards loving the world, and there is love in her work. Like Cavafy and Milosz and Rilke and Pessoa, Julia Hartwig is one of those poets who belongs on every poetry reader’s bookshelf. Hopefully In Praise of the Unfinished is the first step towards that.