An astonishing thing about the first day of teaching my first-ever creative writing class in Poland is that students came at all.
University COVID policies, tangled bureaucracy, and technical failures forced me to cancel our initial meeting. But, via email, I’d invited any student who wanted to chat informally during class time to find me at a park near our campus. Look for the American with a book and a laptop seated near the bust of the Polish poet, Zbigniew Herbert.
I had no expectations. That afternoon brought near freezing cold and a breeze to the bench where I sat. Also, it was four days since Putin had launched his invasion of Ukraine.
A drive from Kraków to the Ukraine border takes about three hours, closer than Baltimore is to Manhattan. Ukraine’s nearest city, Lviv, was once Lwów and part of Poland before the Soviet Union rearranged borders post-World War II and claimed the city. So in Kraków the war has shape and substance: protests, refugees arriving, Ukrainian flags lifted by wind outside businesses and in the central square, display-window mannequins attired in sweatpants, dresses and shirts colored with Ukraine’s sky blue and wheaten gold.
In the park, the sunlight dodged in and out through clouds. Bicyclists passed, and dog walkers, too. Over my left shoulder, Herbert the poet watched us all, his elfin face larger than life, his expression suggesting he had much to think about. In leafless treetops, hundreds of crows cawed as one, an alliance of complaint.
Just after class would have started, a student arrived. I’d met Marcin before; he’d arranged a December workshop I’d given for students at a bookstore cafe in the old town.
“How are you these days?” I asked in English. All the students I’ve met here speak elegant English. Marcin hesitated, smiled in that sweet painful way people do when they try to hide troubled emotions. Behind his eyeglasses, his eyes seemed to moisten.
He did not expect, he told me, to ever live in this violent version of Europe. He thought that particular history had ended, never to return.
Then he told me how he’d been occupying his time: organizing a student academic conference. Months before, with pandemic and climate change in mind, he and his fellows had decided to call the conference, “A Time of Uncertainty.”
“But now,” he said, “I think everyone will present only on Ukraine.”
Soon, Veronika joined us. Poles, I’ve learned, seldom bother with small talk. Within moments, our conversation involved how to live and write poems or fiction or essays amidst turbulence and neighboring horror. What possibly could we have to say? Is it fitting to write about something other than the war, we wondered. Would other subjects — the joy of rubbing a dog’s belly or the heartbreak of a student’s hunger or the complaint of crows — seem trivial? Would war be drawn into our work as breath draws air into our lungs?
I told them what W.H. Auden wrote: “poetry makes nothing happen,” but that “it survives, / a way of happening, a mouth.” People need to keep speaking from those surviving mouths, I said, especially poets and writers. As an example, I mentioned the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski and how after 9/11 his poem “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” gave Americans so much comfort. Though Zagajewski studied at their university, they hadn’t heard of him, so I handed over my phone with Clare Cavanaugh’s English translation on the screen.
Veronika gasped at the last lines, about praising “the gray feather a thrush lost, / and the gentle light that strays and vanishes / and returns.” She said softly, “It expresses this moment, too.”
“Better to write than to doom scroll,” I said, then explained the concept. “Is there a Polish phrase for doom scrolling?”
They didn’t know one, though Marcin smiled. “You could call it,” he said, “the Polish national pastime.”
Though, as a Fulbright scholar, I’ve lived only five months in Poland, it amazes me how Polish history presents itself in ways that seem coincidental, but are not. Here, history is woven, a great blanket over the whole of this land, one thread touching hundreds of others.
For example: Zagajewski, who was born in 1945, wrote his poem not for 9/11 but because as a boy he’d seen villages in Poland’s southern mountains that had once been populated by Ukrainians but which then sat empty, ruins but also beautiful with what he called “rampant orchards.” What sent the Ukrainians away? A forced relocation by the Polish Communist government, an effort to thwart a Ukrainian insurgency against Soviet control.
More threads: Even as Marcin and Veronika and I spoke, a few hundred yards away at a soccer stadium volunteers took donations for people in Lviv. I knew this because my wife and I had carried six bags of groceries, toiletries, and clothes there the night before. Zagajewski was born in that same city back when it was in Poland.
Though the students didn’t know Zagajewski, they knew Herbert, and we left the bench a moment to read what was written about him on a plaque. Among his best-known poems are those involving a character he called Pan Cogito, or Mr. Cogito, after Descartes’ observation, “Cogito ergo sum”: I think, therefore I am.
Herbert was born, too, in Lviv, some twenty years before World War II. He lived there through the horrors of Nazi occupation and the troubles that followed Soviet and Communist policies. Words from his poem, “The Envoy of Mr. Cogito,” in Bogdana Carpenter’s translation, could have been written to Marcin and Veronika:
you have little time you must give testimony
be courageous when the mind deceives you be courageous
in the final account only this is important
We talked for an hour. A few minutes after Marcin and Veronika left, Ewa arrived. “Not the best time for you to visit Eastern Europe,” she said.
“Not the best time for anyone in Eastern Europe,” I answered.
She told me that she’d grown up in a town on the Ukrainian border. Her family — still there — felt safe, but you never know. Her attitude struck me as fatalistic. Keep living; what’s going to happen is what’s going to happen, what else is there to do? She told me about her flatmate who watches round-the-clock TikTok videos and how so many of those videos spread fake news, how she regularly helps her flatmate parse lies from truth.
A real video, she said, showed a priest explaining why Styrofoam balls must go into the bottles used to make Molotov cocktails. It helps the fire last, she said.
“A priest!” she said, struck by the absurdity. “How things change in a moment.”
Yes, suddenly a priest is a warrior.
How things change in a moment. I thought back to that bookstore where I’d first met Marcin. I’ve learned since that it specializes in Ukrainian writers. Its name, Nić, means “Thread” in English and is used in its tagline: “Thread binds us together!” The day before, I’d stopped by because I’d heard the bookstore was serving as a collection point for items to help Ukraine. When I’d met Marcin and his fellow students there, we’d talked about John Keats and Elizabeth Bishop. Now, piles of boots, sleeping bags, and medical equipment cluttered a hallway that is usually an art gallery. We aren’t collecting for refugees, a man told me, only for military. “What do you need most?” I asked. He showed me on his phone.
If all goes well, our class will meet next week as scheduled. I hope so. There’s so much more for us to learn about these things we’ll never understand.