Poetry of the Incomprehensible

Leahy full
Anna Leahy

I did not discover the work of Anna Swir (Świrszczyńska) until years after she had died, and when I happened upon her book Talking to My Body in a bookshop, I wondered why no one had mentioned this namesake poet to me before. Perhaps, it’s because she died while I was in college, before I thought of myself as a poet. Or perhaps, it’s because she wrote in Polish, and I wasn’t introduced to much poetry in translation until, as a graduate student, I took a class with Phillis Levin. But even then, Talking to My Body hadn’t yet been translated and published.

Swir was a member of the Resistance in Poland during World War II and worked as a nurse in Warsaw. Of this time, Czesław Miłosz—who translated the poems with Leonard Nathan—says in his introduction, “The experience of war radically changed Anna. […] A survivor—once she waited for an hour expecting to be executed—she says: ‘War made me another person. Only then did my own life and the life of my contemporaries enter my poems.’”

But Miłosz makes clear that war isn’t the central concern of the poems in Talking to My Body: “The central theme of her mature poems is flesh. Flesh in love-ecstasy, flesh in pain, flesh in terror, flesh afraid of loneliness, exuberant, running, lazy, flesh of a woman giving birth, resting, snoring, doing her morning calisthenics, feeling the flow of time or reducing time to one instant.” This exploration of the physical self, both subjectively living in the body and objectively observing the body, is why I kept returning to Anna Swir’s poems these last twenty years—or so I thought. Only recently have I realized that her poems are often about the incomprehensible too—and that’s become their even deeper appeal for me.

As I return to Swir’s words in the midst of a pandemic (and often on a coast afire), I find “Poetry Reading” especially poignant. The opening stanza seems to describe something many of us are feeling:

I’m curled in a ball
like a dog
that is cold.

In the midst of uncertainty or anxiety, in the midst of disaster and disparity, I think often about curling into myself. I am shivering.

The second stanza introduces the incomprehensible:

Who will tell me
why I was born,
why this monstrosity
called life.

I notice, as if for the first time, perhaps for the first time, that this stanza ends with a period instead of a question mark. It’s not a question at all but, rather, a statement. And no one has the answer. Then, as the poem goes on, the speaker (presumably Swir herself) gets a phone call to do a public poetry reading, which is how the poem gets its title. When Swir gets to the reading, she realizes,

I am supposed to tell them
why they are born,
why there is this monstrosity
called life.

When I’ve read this poem before, I have thought that there was no answer to this question, that the poem circled around the fundamental unanswerability of our most crucial questions. But now I’m reading this poem during a pandemic, when poetry readings have been reimagined online. I’m reading “Poetry Reading” differently, not as an event I thought I knew inside and out and took for granted. This poem suggests to me that there exist many answers to the why of a given life, albeit partial or inadequate or contingent, and these answers are called poems. Savoring a poem as an answer—tasting its partial wisdom, its contingent joy—depends on our craving for the why of our lives. To me, that’s both what satisfies and also leaves me wanting more.

“Poetry Reading” is not Swir’s only poem to contemplate why any one person exists. One of my favorites is “Woman Unborn, which also appears in Talking to My Body. The poem opens:

I am not born yet,
five minutes before my birth.

And then the speaker goes back ten minutes before her birth and then an hour. My brain kicks it up a notch trying to think about this existence before I was born. I’m both fascinated and panicked by the idea of my own “minus life.” In the next stanza, the poem continues to move back in time, and then:

I walk, my steps thump,
a fantastic journey through epochs
in which there was no me.

The poem challenges me to get outside of myself by imagining never having existed at all. One cannot get further out of one’s own head than that. Of course, it’s impossible to experience nonexistence because imaging is itself the epitome of existence. This poem stretches my imagination to its edges.

Anna Świrszczyńska (1909-1984)

“Woman Unborn” makes the bold claim that “nonexistence so much resembles immortality.” Now, that’s really something to think about. What if a person’s birth and death aren’t evidence of mortality, as seems logical, but just the opposite? Indeed, what does it mean if never having lived resembles living forever?

As much as it asks me to listen to what the speaker has to say, the I of this poem nudges the me of the reader into self-reflection. The I of the poem is me also, both of us trying to understand the incomprehensible. Even the line breaks in this poem encourage the reader to stop, to think. Each line ends where the syntax pauses. Having never existed seems perfectly logical even as it remains unfathomable.

The ending of “Woman Unborn” is spectacular and unexpected. The speaker has pursued the thought experiment exuberantly and gone all the way back to the Garden of Eden—to creation—and then it’s all dark. Here are the final lines:

Now my nonexistence dies already
with the trite death of mathematical fiction.
As trite as the death of my existence would have been
had I been really born.

We can’t really go back into our nonexistences at all. It’s too much to comprehend, or our consciousness cannot imagine so little. It’s magical thinking. Yet, how astounding to think my birth was the end of something without me in addition to the beginning of me. And this also gets me thinking about the beginning of the universe, before which there was not only not me but not anything at all.

I’m not sure any other poem has asked me to do the sort of marvelous mental somersaults of “Woman Unborn.” How unexpected that a poem about death—or at least never having lived—could bring such immense joy or pleasure in the experience of reading it.

Another of Swir’s most delightful poems has also taught me how poems push readers to think in unexpected ways, in part by playing with the relationship between the speaker and the reader. “Happy as a Dog’s Tail” opens with the following lines:

Happy as something unimportant
and free as a thing unimportant.

Who is happy? The dog whose tail is in the title—or perhaps the tail itself is exuberant? There’s no sentence subject here, so maybe the implied I (the speaker) is happy, or maybe you—the implied reader, the witness to the scene—are happy.

Look also at how the poem repeats the word unimportant at the end of the first two lines, a repetition that could so easily ruin the poem with redundancy. How funny it is to make the word unimportant important by repeating it. At first, happiness seems something not important, but the repetition turns unimportance into something worth saying again. And then unimportance becomes freedom. The poem also uses the same sort of repetition with “no matter what” at the end of the first stanza. The title works as the poem’s second (and last) stanza, another repetition, which increases my joy over this little poem that isn’t about little or simple things at all.

Anna Świrszczyńska (1965)

In his postscript, Miłosz writes, “Opening myself to her verses, I have been more and more conquered by her extraordinary, powerful, exuberant, and joyous personality.” Personality suggests not flesh but spirit, some wonderfully quirky interplay of intellect and emotion. As I go back to Swir’s poems again and again, that’s my experience too. How might a poem—or a person—almost comprehend the incomprehensible and remain exuberant, joyous, full of personality? A poem is an answer, and there exist many possible poems.

Writing Prompt

Write a poem that attempts to comprehend something beyond your understanding. It might be something no one really understands, or it might be something you’re pretty sure someone understands but that you don’t. It might be conceptual but need not be; it can be something tangible or describable, something big or small, like eternity or a subatomic particle. It should be real because that ups the stakes on our expectation of comprehending it. Gibberish, for instance, is made up; since it’s not supposed to mean anything, there’s no irritation in not understanding it.

At some point in the poem itself, admit that something is incomprehensible without giving up the attempt to understand it. When the limit of understanding becomes part of the poem, that shifts the poem’s striving. Perhaps, that shift heightens tension, or perhaps, it increases empathy.

If your poem feels especially untethered, dedicate it to someone else who tried to understand the same incomprehensible thing, but not necessarily someone who wrote poems. Such a dedication may necessitate research, which, in turn, might lead you to write about the incomprehensible thing differently.

If you want to further challenge yourself, build in a secret subject that helps you write about the incomprehensible thing—and perhaps vice versa. Perhaps both subjects are incomprehensible, or maybe you really do understand the secret subject. And then suggest or reveal that secret subject—or don’t.

Here’s my own poem that underpins this prompt. It appeared in the limited edition art book Your Body Is a Space That Sees, which is a collection of cyanotypes by Lia Halloran and writings by eight women. A spiral galaxy is my incomprehensible thing, Adelaide Ames was an astronomer who studied spiral galaxies, and the secret subject is terminal cancer, from which poet Claudia Emerson died in 2014.

Lifespan : Spiral Galaxy

                        Adelaide Ames, 1900-1932  

Yours is the majestic          pinwheel          sunflower          whirlpool
though lesions make them hard to see, a milky, messier view.

its heat to consume early that scant
much of you fragile lace-like1

Your arms fill with stars and new stars, and you’re haloed
and haloed again with gasses and dust to dust and dark.

You’re a fast half-million miles an hour in spots, but the spin
is large and far, and you’re patient. You write          metastasize

stars for years and millions of years, lighter. A star is far
from another star; galaxies are within spitting distance of each other.

—reject the suspension of exacting form
and return to the possibilities of motion.2

Companions shape you, and you’re always looking for the connection
you already have: We must be friends! A promise. You’re common,

you’re typical, tipped, edge on or staring yourself
right in the face. What’s your best angle? A grand or grander design

is impossible          to know          when you’re inside one,
with its exacting motion and the possibilities of form.



1 Claudia Emerson, “Metastasis: Worry-Moth,” Poetry Magazine (December 2014).

2 Claudia Emerson, “The Medical Venus,” Virginia Quarterly Review (Fall 2008).

Works Cited

“Poetry Reading” by Anna Swir from Talking to My Body, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan. (Copper Canyon Press, 1996).

“Woman Unborn” by Anna Swir from Talking to My Body, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan. (Copper Canyon Press, 1996).

“Happy as a Dog’s Tail” by Anna Swir from Talking to My Body, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan. (Copper Canyon Press, 1996).

Anna Leahy

Anna Leahy is the author of the poetry collections What Happened Was:, Aperture, and Constituents of Matter. She is also the author of the nonfiction book Tumor, and her essays have won awards from Los Angeles Review, Ninth Letter, and Dogwood. She directs the MFA in Creative Writing program at Chapman University, where she edits TAB: The Journal of Poetry & Poetics. See more at www.amleahy.com.