Cyprian Norwid: 'Chopin’s Piano' (redux), with commentary

Translation from Polish by Jerome Rothenberg & Arie Galles


La musique est une chose étrange! -- Byron
L'art? ... c'est l'art - et puis, Voilà tout. -- Béranger

Bound to your place those penultimate days
Whose plot was impenetrable –
– Myth-full,
Dawn-pallid …
– Life’s end a whisper summons its start:
“I will not render you – no! I will raise you! …”

Bound to your place, those days so penultimate
Once when you mirrored – each moment, each moment –
That lyre that Orpheus lent us,
Whose force like a missile struggles with song,
And its four strings commune with
Each, striking each other,
By twos – and by twos –
A murmur slipping toward silence:
“Did he begin
To pound out a note? …
Of what sound was he Maestro! whose playing’s repelling? …”

Bound to your place in those days, oh Frederic!
You with your hand alabastered
In whiteness – possessing – and shuffling –
Your touch scarce a touch – ostrich feather like –
Brushing me blurred in my eyes with your ivory
Keyboard …
And you like that figure
From marble’s own womb
As if hammered
Would pull back your chisel
Your genius – eternal Pygmalion!

What in that, in what you have played, and then what? –
A first note recited – and what? he’ll express it
However its echoes set themselves up, will be different
From when with your own hand you blessed
Every chord –
And played it through, simple
And perfect like Pericles,
Like a virtue drawn from a deep past,
Set foot in a village, a log cabin home,
Told herself as she entered:
I was reborn in heaven,
Whose gate changed into my harp,
A ribbon – a path …
Where the Host – I could spy through pale wheatblades –
Emanuel he who now dwells
On Mount Tabor!

And Poland within, from that zenith
Perfections of history, ancient, arrayed
Rainbow’s ravishment – Poland –
Wheelwrights transformed!
Selfsame, certain,
Gold bee!

And – now – you’ve ended the song – And I
No longer can see you – only – can hear
Hearing what? – like when boys battle boys –
– The keys still resisting
The source of their yearnings unsung
They softly push back on their own
By eighths – then by fifths –
And murmuring: “He – has he started to play?
Or uncaring – cast us aside?”

Oh You! Love’s profile
Fulfillment your name:
These – Art dubs them style,
Who penetrate song, who shape stones …
Oh! You – who in chronicles sign yourself Era,
Where you are, aren’t, history’s Zenith,
Are Spirit and Letter in one,
“Consumatum Est” …
You! Oh – Exquisite fulfillment,
Whichever you are, And where? … Are a sign …
In Phidias? David? Or Chopin?
Or a scene out of Aeschylus? …
Evermore – vengeance upon you: PRIVATION! …
Globe’s Stigma – penury:
How it hurts him! … Fulfillment? …
He – who prefers to begin
Forever to throw out before him – down payed !
– “Ear of Corn”? … like a gold comet ripened,
Wind’s breath barely stirs it,
A rain of wheat sprinkles down grains
Perfection alone sweeps away …

Over here – Frederic, look! … This is – Warsaw:
Under a star blazing forth
A crazed brightness –
– Attend to it, organs in parish halls; look! it’s Your nest:
It’s elsewhere – old houses patrician
As commonwealths,
Pavements of squares deaf and grey,
And Sigismund’s sword in a cloud.

Look! … from alley to alley
Caucasian horses break forth
Like swallows ahead of a storm,
Ahead of their regiments, darting,
By hundreds – by hundreds –
– The town house caught fire, died down,
Then flared up again – And there – Under the wall
Saw the foreheads of widows in mourning
Pushed back by rifle butts –
And again, smokeblinded, I saw,
As it moved past the portal, the pillars,
A contraption that looked like a coffin
They were heaving out … crashing and crushing – your piano!

That one! … that championed Poland, he from the heights
All-Perfections of history
People-bound, anthem ecstatic –
O Poland – of wheelwrights transformed;
That same one – crushed on the granite squares!
– Over there: as the thoughts of the just man
Are drowned in the popular anger
Or as, from age unto age,
All its angers awaken!
And right there – like Orpheus’ body,
A thousand nailed passions tear him to shreds
And each one howling: “Not me! …
Not me!” – with a clatter and chatter of teeth –
Is it you? – is it me? – then let’s strike up a Judgment Day song,
Urge them on: “Rejoice, o you child who will be! …
With groaning – stories gone deaf:
The Ideal – now brought low on the pavement” –


with Jeffrey C. Robinson

All things in this world become beautiful in their patterning after a beauty of a higher order, after non-material beauty. Only when they attain the metaphysical grounding, do they attain their own real being - an infused spiritual beauty, a beauty infused by God. In this manner then, aesthetic beauty becomes fused with moral beauty, with Goodness, with Good itself. ( C.N.)

(1) In the search for which, Norwid (1821-1883) developed a complex surface in his poems – hard to conceive for those of us cut off from him by language – whose darkness, verging on a self-proclaimed obscurity (sancta obscuritas he called it), brought him ineluctably to a new knowledge & practice of reality. If that was his goal, the means he used involved a panoply of what the twentieth-century Russian (Chuvash) poet Gennady Aygi called Norwid’s “poetry of sound,” or Czeslaw Milosz: “the impenetrable obscurity of his style and his jarring syntax, until no one would publish him.” Writes Danuta Zamojska-Hutchins of the range displayed here: “Latinizing syntax, ellipses, foreign language infusions, multiple neologisms, twisted sentences often contrary to the grammar of the Polish language, the use of inversions and punctuation antics, but, above all, variations of the morphological and syntactic functions, the exploitation of the rhythmophonic and expressive qualities of language , all of these are the key emblems of Norwid's poetics of darkness.” (Italics ours.) But the attempt here, in a line from the Romantics to the present, was not only to make the writing new, but to renew the language – or language itself – by repeated & precise acts of defamiliarization, & through that altered, often nonabsorptive language to renew our image of the world. A poet of “Socratic Christliness,” as Bogdan Czaykowski names him, “he thought of himself as a reader of signs, of traces left by God for human beings to recognize and decipher.”

The comparison to Hopkins, often made, seems to hold true on many levels.

(2) Like other Polish Romantic artists including Adam Mickiewicz, Norwid – poet, dramatist, painter, sculptor – spent a life in voluntary exile, a Polish nationalist at a distance, leaving Poland at 21, wandering through Europe & even the U.S., settling at length in Paris where he died in poverty. In that Paris milieu, however, he became an intimate of Frederic Chopin, who fulfilled for him the definition of a modern artist – Norwid wrote about him in at least three pieces – totally absorbed in the lyric “perfection” of the composer’s work which nonetheless, he thought, “voiced Poland,” vulnerable to contemporary brutality yet impervious to it over time. And his remarkable free-verse experiment “Chopin’s Piano,” presented here, dramatizes the impinging turbulence that modifies but does not destroy Chopin’s music as his piano is (actually was) hurled to the Warsaw streets by the army of the Russian Tsar. Little of Norwid’s poetry appeared during his lifetime; indeed, scholars published the complete edition of his poems only in 1962.


[Reprinted from Poems for the Millennium, volume 3]