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.

(Editor's note: To see this poem laid out correctly on paper or on your screen, click the Print button in the Toolbox.)

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

who is also a widow

(behind a broken window

she's only a little dead)

I was lying in bed

too tired to read a word


Without a single word

about your being dead

(it's obvious to a widow)

you lay down in bed

and told me about Warsaw

just outside the window


Holding shards of window

you said you had a word

known only to the dead

you whispered it in bed

it sounds a bit like Warsaw

from the mouth of a widow


We made death a widow

more bereft than Warsaw

falling through a window

in the middle of the bed

wrapped in that one word

we raised up the dead


A door leads to the dead

by a fissure in the word

so now all over Warsaw

down to the last widow

we're waiting by a window

till they come back to bed


Now all Warsaw is our bed

and your word is a widow

with a window on the dead

"Terminal Étude" appears in Alissa Valles's "Orphan Fire" (Four Way, 2008).

© 2009 The Washington Post Company