Poet's Choice: 'Terminal Etude' by Alissa Valles

By Alissa Valles
Sunday, November 8, 2009

The title of this poem refers to one of the terminals at Fryderyk Chopin Airport in Warsaw, called Etiuda, Étude. I started it while waiting several hours for a delayed flight from Warsaw to New York. I had been working for months on a translation of a magnificent long poem by Miron Bialoszewski (1922-1983), a Polish poet who remains virtually unknown to American readers, although a few of his more unassuming poems were included in Czeslaw Milosz's anthology "Postwar Polish Poetry," and his prose book "A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising," one of the masterpieces of modern Polish literature, was published in the US in a remarkable translation by Madeline Levine. The poem I have been struggling with now for years is called "Sen," which means both "sleep" and "dream." It is a mournful, erotic and yet comical poem describing how the poet's dead lover visits him while he sleeps, flitting over his bed. It begins "I'm a little dead/and you're a little dead," and like much of Bialoszewski's poetry it is a difficult poem to do justice to in English. I could not get his first two lines out of my head, and it seems that my poem was a way of trying to break that aural spell. It became, oddly, a poem both about the porous barrier between the living and the dead, and about the role language plays in crossing that barrier, which is one of Bialoszewski's great themes. It became in the end also -- or so friends tell me -- a poem about the role of eros in translation.

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Terminal Étude

not on paper but human and bitter

-- Miron Bia{lstrok}oszewski

We're only a little dead:

a shadow broke a window

and found its way to bed

warm enough for a word

narrow enough for a widow

only a fissure in Warsaw


in the middle of Warsaw

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