Poetry by Krystyna Dąbrowska


Behind glass doors—they stand, opaque.
At revolving doors—they stand, unevolving.
At dubious gates—they stand, forbidden.
In the wide open—they stand, hidden.

Mainly refugees from worlds too beautiful.
Experts on the domain of doors and gates.
How many they had to knock at and pull,
how many they had to camp at and wait,
how many batter down, how many turn away from.

Now gripping the golden knob of a door handle,
a band of silver keys.
When the door stops yawning, the doormen yawn,
the door wakes them, the door rocks them to sleep,
the door even dreams for them.


Just like a not quite expert scribe, who makes a mistake
while copying the sacred letters onto parchment,
I failed, willfully writing
my first song of songs.
I worried it was dedicated
to someone who would not accept it.

When the scribe makes an error,
he’s not allowed to throw the parchment out.
It ends up in the genizah—storeroom of writings
too flawed to be used,
but containing the name of God.

A genizah in a synagogue can be an inconspicuous crate
or a spacious room.
The one in me is sometimes small,
and sometimes huge,
with all the unaccomplished songs enclosed inside.

How can they be reached? How parted with?
And when the storage space fills up, a ritual funeral is held
for the spoiled parchments.
Or they accumulate and lie forgotten
until a scholar—a traveler
uncovers the genizah after ages.

If only it were possible to open up your own—
like a stranger who comes from a distance.


In the vestibule
between the street and the shrine
my shoes rest
after a whole day of wandering.

They rest there like boats
at the shoreline of the rug
through which I’m walking
like crossing the water.

They are dirty, yet
the light touches them,
peers in,
tries them on.

What would it be like inside?
I wait, barefoot.
Do they fit? But then it flees.
And the shoes, again on my feet, are burning.

A Man Who Holds Forth

A man who holds forth on each vintage of wine
on the aging of cognac in oak barrels
but touches not a drop of alcohol himself

who crosses only those church thresholds
with a star by their names in the guidebook

a traveler: he fell from Mount Olympus and was bruised
crawled along by mule to the hospital

a worldly man who steals the real glasses from planes
who stuffs himself “while they’re serving” at banquettes
(better to get heartburn than waste it he’s prone to say)
who locks his old bicycle with a cow chain
in the spot where others park limousines
who wipes off his shoes before crossing the carpet

a firm believer in military discipline (though never in the army)
eyes fixed on his wife, day after day he aggravates her

a man of passions who has just five minutes
for four lectures on three continents, goes off to the mountains
between one conference and another, lumberjacks give him a lift
at each pasture—they drink to his health

a moody boy refused absolution

a man hitched to insomnia
who tosses on dreams like he’s sick at sea
who lies in the dark slamming all the doors inside himself

who boasts about the charity he never gave


So many things only you lived through.
I didn’t know you as a cub of a boy
or a red-headed, thin twenty-something.
I wasn’t the one to be your first love.
I wasn’t by your side during the darkest days.
Your late parents I will never meet, though you tell me stories.
So many stories I carry inside:
of lovers, friendships, losses, feats,
of how your daughter came into this world—
all the things that form you; in which I do not take part.

But as we fall asleep in each other’s arms
(legs, hands, thoughts so tangled
that, when we wake, we don’t know whose is whose)
for a moment, certitude: you’ve given me all of yourself.

After the Accident

The body has healed,
memory has not.

Let it be, don’t mend it.

The cracked colossus
in the desert
once sang
with wind through its crevices.

Then stone was affixed to stone—
it fell silent.

Girl in Hijab

There was a girl in Jerusalem who cleaned
the hostel wrapped in a hijab.
Her fair complexion, slightly upturned nose
betrayed that she was not an Arab;
she spoke so fluently in English
that no one doubted it to be her native tongue.
We all kept guessing: American?
Rumors circulated she was Irish.
But she, when asked, cut in: I’m from a lot of places.
Always in black, thoroughly covered,
the smallest strand of hair could not escape,
neck protected, skirt to the ground.
I spoke to her a few times. Friendly, perceptive,
she talked willingly of local life,
but every topic was a scarf, a veil
that gave her freedom to stay silent on herself.
She only spoke to women.
Men she would not look in the eye.
Constantly alert like a half-feral cat
that will not let itself be touched
but keeps searching for survival among people.

The Doorman at the Office Building Takes a Break

After an entire day of keeping to the revolving doors
after an entire day of collecting and issuing keys
of nodding the head just the same
for good day and goodbye
after an entire day of enduring the cherry red livery
with gold trim
he can finally take it off
put on some worn out jeans

After hours of working at the revolving doors
time to take a breather at the revolving doors
Where he stood at attention, now he’s taking a rest
He’s nodding his head for good evening, goodbye
Where keys once flashed, now he hums to himself
guys from the laundry try to drag him out for a beer
but he’ll only agree to go for a smoke
in front of the skyscraper, light as a waterfall
along a street suddenly peeled from the glass
here, at the revolving doors


Krystyna Dąbrowska

Krystyna Dąbrowska is the author of three books of poetry and the winner of two of the most prestigious Polish literary prizes: the Wisława Szymborska Award and the Kościelski Prize. A fourth collection, Podwodne światło (Underwater Light), is forthcoming in 2018. Her poems have been translated into German, Spanish, Italian (La faccia del mio vicino, Valigie Rosse, 2017), Russian, Swedish, Greek, Bulgarian, Macedonian, French, Portuguese, Lithuanian, and Chinese. A collection of her poetry in German, Austausch der Fenster, will be published by Edition Thanhäuser in November 2018. Translations from this project have appeared recently in Ploughshares, Harpers, The Los Angeles Review, The Threepenny Review, Tupelo Quarterly, and the New England Review.

Mira Rosenthal

Mira Rosenthal’s first book of poems, The Local World, received the Wick Poetry Prize. Her second book of translations, Polish poet Tomasz Różycki’s Colonies, won the Northern California Book Award and was shortlisted for numerous other prizes, including the International Griffin Poetry Prize and the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize. Her honors include a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, a Stegner fellowship from Stanford University, the PEN/Heim Translation Fund Award, a Fulbright fellowship, and a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies. She publishes work regularly in such journals as Harvard Review, PN Review, A Public Space, Ploughshares, and Oxford American.

Copyright (c) Krystyna Dąbrowska. English translation copyright (c) Mira Rosenthal, 2018.