It is summer and midday when I take an express train to Warsaw to see the poet Irena Klepfisz in the evening.
I had a brilliant idea to buy a ticket for this train for 50 zł, about 12 euros, one month before its departure date, but I didn’t predict the stale air and heat coming from human bodies and the metal roof under July sun. The train doesn’t have air conditioning. Poor people don’t mind traveling by train without a cooling system in hot weather. We really don’t! The train is packed. The trip takes a bit over three hours.
It is June 22nd, Thursday, and Irena Klepfisz is a guest speaker at the Polin Museum. This was also her second appearance in Poland as the Shoah survivor and the only daughter of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising leader and hero, Michał Klepfisz, and her first as a poet.
Seventy-six, and still no way a story begins with her. It makes a start with the parents, with his making use of his body as a shield against the machine gun to secure the passage of his comrades in arms, with her surviving in the countryside. The daughter has to abide other people’s admiration for his one-time act of April 20, 1943. But she cannot shed the awareness of what other people tend to overlook: that he chose his people and a heroic death over a slim chance of surviving for his wife and daughter. She cannot be reproaching him too much if she doesn’t want to come out as selfish.
No point questioning momentary decisions, especially those that cannot be unmade (I’m ready to accept an argument to the contrary in this regard), but keeping in mind that Michał Klepfisz had been one of the strategists of the Uprising, wouldn’t its goal have been better served had he chosen to protect his amazing mind? Living in the shadow of his heroic absence then became her bashert. But perhaps this is not the only narrative. Perhaps we continue to be immersed in a culture of war, regardless of whether we are technically at war or not, recovering from one war, preparing for the next one. If we lived in the culture of peace, then the daughter’s diverse and consistent activism over the years would have been considered heroic, and not in contrast, but in its own right.
She writes poetry. Not only about him, the absent hero, although the two poems entitled „Searching for My Father’s Body” and „The Widow and Daughter” reappear in anthologies. The reading is hosted by Bożena Keff, the author of A Piece about Mother and Motherland, a long poem telling a mother and daughter’s story, father having absented himself in a strikingly similar manner because he was the man of honor, and because he took it upon himself to protect his fellow soldiers (some years after the war). Burdening the daughter with his tragic absence was a casualty. We don’t talk at the reading about this coincidence, about the similarity of these two life narratives: the host’s and the guest’s.
We talk about poetry and unexpectedly Klepfisz reveals:
English was very difficult for me. I wanted to stay in Sweden. I had a lot of difficulty with the writing. So I turned to poetry partly because I felt I couldn’t do anything wrong in poetry. Nobody could tell me that it was ungrammatical. I had more freedom to do what I wanted to do.
I wish I heard this story fifteen years ago, when I self-consciously dismissed the idea of writing poetry in English. I remember thinking that even modern poetry in English had too many rules: the rhythms, the rhymes, all the echoes, self-referencing, all the villanelles.
It was Gloria Anzaldúa who encouraged Kleprisz to write such poems as „Etlekhe verter oyf meme-loshn / A few words in the mother tongue.” This happened at their first teaching creative writing assignment.
Gloria is a genius, but she also has this advantage of Spanish speaking audience. Not everybody who was Chicana knew Spanish. But a lot of people did. You couldn’t say that about Yiddish. You didn’t have an audience. So you either had to find other ways or figure out how to incorporate it. That’s a very intellectual process, and poetry is not such an intellectual process, so in some ways these were two opposing forces.
As a result, Klepfisz uses “a lot more Yiddish” in her prose. This, she says, links also with the fact that she “associate[s] Yiddish with ideas in a very deep-root way”.
So when I think of certain political ideas, I first think of them in Yiddish. And that’s not true in poetry.
Art is under no obligation to mirror life. It may be also that Anzaldúa’s path was—simply—simpler. It was forward to the mainstream culture and back to your origins. Wasn’t Klepfisz’s first language Swedish—because Sweden was the first country which took them in, mother and daughter, after the war? She was already going to a Swedish school, reading and writing in Swedish. As to the parents, they had spoken Polish at home, in their pre-war Warsaw home, which had such a reputation for its intellectual fervor it was known as a petit Paris, and it was only in New York, as she puts it,
the survivors’ community was very split about their feelings about Poland, and there was some amount of people among whom I grew up who refused to speak Polish here after the war—they just rejected it. And there was a lot of pressure on my mother to stop speaking Polish to me. They were Yiddishists, and they wanted me to speak Yiddish at home. My mother was committed to Yiddish, and she sent me to the Yiddish schools, so I went to the public school during the day, and five days a week in the evening I went to my Yiddish shule. I learnt to read, I learnt to write, I learnt to speak, but I was never as comfortable with it. I continued speaking Polish with my mother as a main language. It’s interesting because I was always very attached to it. But Yiddish played a very interesting role because although Polish and English were the two languages that I functioned in, all the politics, all intellectual discussions that I heard in my early years, let’s say from eight to eighteen, was done in Yiddish. I don’t think I ever heard an English intellectual conversation. So I always associated somehow politics with Yiddish because that was the medium.
If Irena Klepfisz had stayed in Warsaw, she would have been friends with Bożena Keff. She would have been acquainted with Agnieszka Graff, and Krystyna Kofta would seek her out. She would have been teaching in gender studies at Warsaw University, and then later perhaps also in Kraków. We would have been friends when I still lived in Warsaw. If she had been there, perhaps I would have never left Warsaw. And she would have been friends with Maria Janion.
In „Warsaw, 1983: Umschlagplatz” she writes:
This street might have been my home.
This street might have been the beginning
of my journey to death.
I must remember:
it was neither.
We spend the rest of the evening at a somewhat Jewish-somewhat French restaurant (little Paris?) at Grzybowski Place and have a wonderful time. We (minor writers, independent publishers, provincial academics) pause to talk about Zoe, or Zohar Weimar-Kelman, and her unusual, reversed journey, back from the diaspora, her explorations of Yiddish women poets, which brings a brief centering moment to our table. Earlier on, at the reading, Irena told us how in her case this interest in women writers had sprung from social activism:
So by the time I met Gloria and she said, “What about Yiddish?” I thought she was nuts. It took me decades to master English. But at the same time I have to say that at the movement, and I was very involved in both the women’s and the gay movement, everybody was looking at the communities that they came from, at their background (was it patriarchal, was it sexist? yes, of course). I started to look at that, and I could barely name one Yiddish woman writer. I was just sort of appalled. Because people would come to me and say, “Tell me about Yiddish women writers.” So I had to start doing research. And it was really the movement that pushed me.
After the dinner, with Olga Kubinska, we take a night train back to Gdańsk, like a pair of unlikely entrepreneurs, risk takers, meshugenes, because who else travels on a train that arrives at its destination at 3.47 in the morning? Tourists traveling on the cheap, of course, or smugglers (that’s a WWI narrative overlapping), or people who have jobs that begin relatively early in the morning.
On the train, past watching The House of Cards, which has lost its dystopian thrill of impossibility, past a brief moment of sleep, past the low humming of my two train companions (I’m relieved that I cannot make up the subject when I look at their bland faces), I’m thinking that we could start reading Irena Klepfisz via yet different modes, these suggested by Adrienne Rich (in no way am I now reinventing the wheel) in her introduction to A Few Words in the Mother Tongue: the path of activism, the path of desire, and self-sufficiency, and the kinship of women and nature, which is bordering on telepathy, and the association with caged monkeys, with their intricate network of relations and tortured emotional lives.
What I want to carry from this reading, as my own smuggled goods, is the poet’s fierce affinity with the excluded, the banned, and the shunned, exemplified in the figure of the sister in „they did not build wings for them,” the Palestinian woman in „East Jerusalem, 1987,” or a humble cactus, a fixture in the Brooklyn flat („Self-effacing it didn’t demand much / Used to just the bare essentials.”
If our bashert is to be like that cactus, so be it.