Three Poems from The Dye Girl

The Tower of Babel

I can be empty like a beehive and full like a beehive.
Golden bees dance inside my stomach
drunk on nectar and sun
when all of my-not-my daughters
come out to meet me.
At 4:20 in the morning they emerge from the trains
with wet hair and an unfulfilled glint
in their emerald, black and blue eyes.
My daughters dream of immortal fame
and everything still is possible.
No one can deprive them of illusions
when they run like this, Giantesses with evil hearts,
Didos, Valkyries, Sakuntalas.

It’s possible to be a bad woman and a good person, isn’t it?
perversely said the youngest one
while we tried on more coats
and she chose attentively and with reflection:
long, black, with a hood, resembling a habit,
and a green one, with lining in a military fashion,
and a blue one as well, cotton.
In each of these she was a different woman.
Her multiplied silhouette was reflected
in time to the dancing, rotating mirrors.
She gleamed and armed herself as if for war, for great silence, for a ball.
And though she will lose her ring many more times when she swims,
some fisherman will always find it
in the dark and wet stomach of a freshly caught fish.
It is she who will swaddle a son, and the king will regain his memory,
though now he thinks she will bear only brave daughters.

Because my daughters want to have daughters:
Didos, Valkyries, Sakuntalas.
They want to bear children, write books, have a house by the sea,
heal, cure, save.
They want to make sense if only of a bowl of rice
and to watch waves crash against the shore,
wash grains of sand down to the bone, to the core
of existence until only amber beads remain,
or pearls that shine victorious on their young necks.
Because they came from the sea, the depths, the deep, the warmth and the dark.
Their true life is eternity:
this moment when they thread the silver needle,
say goodbye forever, bake gingerbread, kiss,
paint eggs a lovely shade of scarlet,
buy dresses, stockings, and books.

Go out on the balcony, said the middle one
when the rain fell in the fresh, soft garden.
The storm was breaking the pink chestnuts’ branches,
and the thunder reached far into the earth.
Behind us, in the library, a concert.
But she no longer heard the flutes, the strings and French horns.
She saw armed girls ride through the garden,
on horseback or in chariots pulled by wolves
trampling deep blue pansies rimmed in gold.
But the garden still was beautiful, full of fallen heroes
escorted to Valhalla.
I watched the middle one steer a boat through the bloody downpour.
It’s possible to be a bad woman and a good mother, isn’t it?
she asked perversely, laying a hand on her warm stomach.

On a day like this I am full like a beehive and the men who are always there
are not near me now. They went away to war
or they are celebrating their return from a victorious voyage.
They dance around the fire they kindled
from dry wood and crystallized coal.
They dance with medallions on their hearts
where they keep pictures of women.
They love these Didos, Valkyries, Sakuntalas
just as they love the men:
heroes returning home.
My daughters-not-daughters know all of this,
but they must depart for a moment.
They want to go through the forest alone,
to move the fire, the secret, the word.

It’s possible to be a bad woman and a good ruler, isn’t it?
perversely asked the oldest one
when I took her to the station.
She had a backpack and a bicycle: an old bike from Amsterdam
on which she intended to traverse the world.
She was a nomad, a traveler, a gypsy
unable, anywhere, to set down roots.
But I knew that it was she, the oldest,
who would deceive, slice the hide of a sacrificial animal,
found a capital, rule a city
and never let herself be banished.

On a day when I am empty like a beehive, my great-grandmother is afraid.
She is dying in a hospital in Milanówek and forgets her mother tongue.
Or the opposite: she remembers the language of sweet meadows,
dark woods and secret deities.
The language of birds and wild animals,
the roaring Žeimena warm from the sweltering heat,
and dry, chattering boughs
thrown into the fire on winter evenings.
When my father sprints up the stairs, the nurses whisper:
she speaks in some strange language impossible to understand.
But she is three days away from death
and utters careful, weighty words now only in Lithuanian.
Maybe she is praying, or maybe she is remembering.
In any case she is preparing to cross.
My grandmother understands her and my mother understands her as well.
But in me there are no words I could use to reassure her.
I know just one, taken from childhood: apelsina.
A round, orange citrus, succulent and fragrant.
But that is not enough and my great-grandmother is leaving me without a goodbye.
The beehive is empty. The bond is severed.

But when my three daughters come to me
I believe that none of us will ever speak again
in some strange language impossible to understand.
I believe that we will fathom the secret of the Tower of Babel, learn the languages.
I speak to them through the memory of my grandmother and great-grandmother: apelsina.
And I take out the fruit: a round, orange citrus.
Not an apple, not a rib, not a tree, only that strange childhood word.
Apelsina round and life-giving as the sun.

(Vilnius-Warsaw, 2007)


A rusty rose bush, the frosted scent
of pale pink petals, the first notes of fall.
In the old woodshed a bicycle, wet coats in the hall
and dogs like in paintings of old masters. Apples
on the casement windows, rats settling in basements,
leaves reddening in vineyards left neglected.
Everything a bit frozen, a bit dead, too indisposed
to transform flowers into fruit, to ripen in time
to retain the world’s order. Chaos overthrows
even the scarlet leaves, the tangled roots
of oleanders, maples, and frozen boxwoods
and the wilted leaves of dry, brown carpets.
Diana rushes to the hunt, a deer runs into the line
of fire, breathing heavily, afraid, and we too move out
for hunting. It is autumn, the grape-gathering time.
We remove our smiles, disguises, clothes,
and staring straight ahead, peeled of skin,
unabashed by utter bareness and inherent sins,
we hunt for kisses, we nourish ourselves
with thick clay, oily and red, to make it by winter,
when we will be like moles, blind, mute,
autumn’s barbarians dipped into the earth.

(Nieborów, November 2007)

They’ll bury us, bury, scatter into ash

But today or tomorrow or in ten years
they’ll bury her and nothing will be left of her,
nor of that saucy one in the red skirt. (…)
And above all, not only they, but I, too,
will be buried and nothing will be left.

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

They’ll bury us, bury, scatter into ash,
and you, little girl with the blue jump rope,
and the boy who likes to look at the portrait
of another boy in the vast gallery
when the September sun softens and dissolves
contours, stains, and defines shadows.
And what do we want, what do we all want
when we laugh, when we harmonize
in high whispers and low voices, slightly hoarse
as if to mute the joy, just in case,
and we mete out day after day but the nights
embraced or alone drive salty troops
of tears, a soaked cavalcade of horses.
And children yell immortally like animals,
ruining their divine throats, those cotton larynxes,
to be, in just an instant, certain
of solely this, that they’ll also bury their children’s children.
And fragile is our faith or there is no faith,
and weak is our love, no, there is no love,
there is fear and peril in the silence of miraculous noon,
like then, when sheltered in the Altamira grottos,
stubbornly they painted red bison
on stone oriels blue in the light
fleeing through steppes, fatally wounded,
because they already knew that they’ll bury them too,
bones and skin, and if they could only ascend
with a small, clay bowl
or the head of a woman carved from stone
and a bear figurine, a bone statuette,
birds with round holes to wear around the neck,
to hang on a string for the complacent dead,
because they are not lonely
with a bird on the neck, with a bear figurine.
And only here can we bring our peril
and only here can we hide our love
and shelter fragile faith inside objects and in colors,
in Liguria and Toirano where there are footprints
and symbols marked with warm fingers,
and scratches from fragile, broken nails
trying to etch the outline of a bear.
Only there, where there are graves and burial mounds
and menhir lanes and plain stones
and blocks of ochre good for dyeing
bodies or walls in abysmal, colossal caverns,
only there where a person is alone with his fear
where a prisoner of his own terror leaves marks in the clay,
so we continue to dot sheets of paper
to fill the void with a painting or poem.
Only there does a person encounter his god.

(August 2007)


Anna Piwkowska

Anna Piwkowska (b. Feb. 3, 1963) is a Polish poet, novelist, and essayist.            The Dye Girl (Farbiarka) is her eighth published book of poetry, which revolves around meditations on love, death, mothers, and mythologies. Piwkowska graduated from the University of Warsaw with a degree in Polish language and literature, and her poems have been published in numerous leading Polish literary journals. She has received numerous prizes for her poetry and prose, most recently having The Dye Girl acknowledged with the 2009 Warsaw Literary Prize. She has also published a novel, and a nonfiction book about the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. Though much of her poetry has been translated into German and Russian, most of it remains untranslated in English. Piwkowska currently lives in Warsaw.

Iza Wojciechowska

Iza Wojciechowska is a graduate of Duke University, where she received a degree in English and psychology. She currently lives in New York, where she is pursuing a creative writing MFA at Columbia University, concentrating in creative nonfiction and literary translation. She can be reached at her website:

Farbiarka. Copyright (c) Anna Piwkowska, 2009. English translation copyright (c) Iza Wojciechowska, 2010.