Translation Tuesday: On the River Boży Stok by Wioletta Greg

I listened to apocryphal tales, to stories about ghosts, about saints, ghouls and vagabonds coming from the other side of the hill.

“In the beginning there was vast darkness./ Gardens of house mites blossomed within./ A river of light flew through these gardens./ Monsters of hay shifted.// In the beginning there was dense silence/ like inside poppy heads.” [1]

That’s how I imagined my beginnings in the stone house by the pond in Hektary in the village of Rzeniszów upon Boży Stok in the Jurassic Highlands, where I was born in February of nineteen seventy four, when the ice covered nearby ponds and cloth nappies froze stiff in the hall and in the attic. My Grandfather, Władysław Lubasparticipant of the September Campaign, marksman of the 74th Infantry Regiment, stalag prisonerwas given three hectares of land during the Land Reform after the war. That was where he built a house of stone with brick corners, the house which looked a bit like a Polish country house. The right side of itthe dining room and two other rooms divided by a spacious hallwas the residential part, while the left side, with a separate entrance and a small window, was a barn. You could say that we lived together with the animals. In early Spring the rooms were filled with the smell of chopped yarrow for turkeys maturing in a cage under the table. A brooding duck sat under the ladder to the attic. Chickens, rabbits, dogs and cats wandered around the house. Up until the 1980s we used domestic appliances made by Grandfather. These were, amongst others: churns, pastry boards, rolling pins, wooden mixing bowls, pails held together by metal bands, stools and troughs. And since my Father’s hobby was taxidermy, there were stuffed martens, magpies and buzzards on the walls, while a stuffed rabbit in formal wear (in a top hat and with a cane) sat on a birch stump. There were beehives in the meadow by the apple trees.

“He would take the caramel to the orchard, /where among the leafless currant bushes/ the hives slept, frost piercing the latent swarm.// Their blood, congealed within chitin bellies,/ glimmers darkened in segmented eyes,/ melting together into an unfathomable whole.”[2]

But it was not an idyllic realm; it wasn’t some sweet and quiet countryside from Jan Kochanowski’s The Song of St John’s Eve. I grew up in impoverished reality of the decline of the era filled with antilogies and disparities. This world, like almost any decadent reality with its perversions and superstitions, was absolutely saturated with melancholy. The Jurassic Highlands, with its quarries, limekilns and clay pits, were filled with the smells of burnt meadows, the aromas of pieczonka (a meat and vegetables casserole) prepared on campfires in cast iron pots, with the sound of singing at funeral trains and at processions to bless the fields, meandering along stone roads in white dust. My house smelled of alum, neoprene adhesive (used for taxidermy) and coal smoke. It was cold inside, which made us all gather by the cast iron heater. In Winter children tobogganed from the Grząś hill on plastic fertiliser bags filled with hay. In Summer they played with rings found in garbage dumps.

The anxiety of the decline was also noticeable in the language, dying away under the pressure of the socialist newspeak and official Polish. All members of my family were duolectal, they knew two versions of the same national language. It was the case of code-switchingdepending on the context they alternatively used literary Polish and its regional version. On Sunday evenings, sitting on a bench under a hazel tree or during goose plucking sessions, adults told stories filled with horror. I listened to apocryphal tales, to stories about ghosts, about saints, ghouls and vagabonds coming from the other side of the hill, about nieludki, strzygi, utopki, about hills and rivers which appeared and disappeared as if they were something living and thinking. Water had a particular significance. It marked the border between the familiar world and the alien one. On the other side of the river, on the other side of the Boży Stok, on the other side of the Wartathat’s where this vague, dangerous world stretched out. Some believed that water springs in the Jurassic Highlands have cumulated the energy of the underground Pleistocene seas. Water entrapped in limestone, in marlstone, in ore-bearing clays, in ammonites was regarded a beneficial power, the foundation for all creatures. It contained the seeds of life. Childless couples prayed in front of holy springs asking for children; young unmarried women on St. Andrew’s Day looked for visions of their future in wells; annual holidays were held by the rivers.

“Waters left our field, as if they no longer/ wanted rivers channelled, no EU subsidies.”[3]; “Over the water sun pinned/ rainbow brooches of dragonflies./ Silver signs of infinity/ glide between the stones.”[4].

For me the epitome of the decline of the peasant culture at the turn of the 1970s and 1980s was bebok, a demon most likely originating from the Slavic mythology, in some other villages called babok or blandurek. It lived near people’s houses, in storage clamps, in quarries, in dark nooks of mows, in post-German bunkers andas the adults used to sayit liked kidnapping naughty children. To me it seemed as dangerous as Black Volga[5], always coming from some dark place, from a limepit. It could jump out from under a broom and no herbs, no spells or charms could protect the little ones, whoas you have it in multigenerational familieshad to work with their parents and grandparents in the fields, weed, take care of younger siblings and animals, sweep the yard with a besom, peel potatoes, help with threshing. Amorphous bebok, in some way a guardian of the village order, a winged devil-angel, as I imagined it, to this day remains my allegory of the decline of the peasant culture, it personifies the fear of what inevitably comes from behind the horizon and tries to bring order to the world which never wanted to be in order, never wanted to be named; of what tarmacs roads, builds sewage systems, names streets.

In the countryside survival is the highest principle and in its name, despite feeling a strong tie to the land, a man was capable of thoughtless destruction of the environment, of degrading it step by step, of poaching, cutting down woods and groves. “Roadside ditches and edges of our woods are filled with old settees, wardrobes, sinks, wellington boots, tyres, stacks of broken jars, holey pots, leaky basins, as well as empty artificial fertiliser bags and bags full of domestic rubbish.”[6] It has to be said that it wasn’t just the progress of civilisation, it wasn’t just the outsiders, but the peasants themselves, with their scant ecological awareness, unused to the surplus of objects offered in the Eastern Bloc era, who contributed to the destruction of nature. They created illegal cesspits and rubbish dumps in the quarries, in ditches, behind barns; they emptied ash, poured slops and waste out straight onto their yards and into the rivers. Liquid manure streamed into pitches, wells and ponds. Those who lived so close to nature and loved animals so much were at the same time capable of keeping them chained to doghouses, starving them, abandoning them in the woods and drowning them in ponds. They could gut them without batting an eyelid, tan their skins or kill them with one skilful blow of the back of an axe to the crowns of their heads.

Polish countryside, on the face of it Catholic, with a “C+M+B” written in chalk on doors, with aspergillum, with crosses above doors, with blessed Easter palm hung under ceilings in barns, followed the liturgical calendar, took part in church fairs and midnight masses, but in fact had a pagan lining. Its philosophy was close to pantheistic and naturalistic concepts of the world. A thousand years went by since the Christianization of Poland but that was not enough to clear this culture completely of its Slavic elements and ancient rituals, which sometimes took form of miracle plays celebrating life, nature and freedom. Let’s take, for example, rituals linked to the symbolical meaning of various plants: sweet flag, linum, lovage; or symbolical meaning of animals: owl (“An owl on the roof squeaks, somebody will die in two ticks”), eagle, weasel; or lyrics of drinking songs, full of humour, sensuality and eroticism. In the countryside the spiritual matters were dominated by temporality filled with everyday bustling about, with hard work from dawn till dusk, from baptismal gown till the lid of the coffin.

“I was about four years old when I toddled after Grandma to the barn. She wiped the side of the cow with a wisp of straw, removing bits of dung, sat me on a stool, took my four-year-old little hands into her weather-beaten ones and told me to tighten my grip on the teats. I pulled as if the udders were floppy balloons and the stream of milk squirted into a tin pail. I will never forget this moment when I was so close to nature, so close to a living creature, listening intently to a gentle rhythm of the beating heart, to the mystery of the world.”[7]

Such a countryside, on one hand plain and humble, on the other hand debauched and half-savage, which organised illegal slaughtering of animals and made moonshine, could it survive in the socialist reality? The then “engineers of souls” and officials, mostly declassed peasants and farmer-workers, knew that it was too independent, too averse to collective farming, too insolent, even freethinking. That’s why it wasn’t just the progress and TV receivers, but most of all socrealism, at the time “the only and fundamental method of artistic creativity” that screwed it up once and for good, made an ass of it, framed it as if it was a wall tapestry with naïve, didactic proverb. Collaborating critics, entertainment organisers, cultural and educational instructors and all other propaganda experts set off gradually to “teach it a lesson”, turn it into “folk culture”, which started dying out in village halls, in community centres, in open-air museums and in Cepelia folk art and handicraft stores like some weavework roosters and decorated Easter eggs. Rosy-cheeked youth from the posters pushed ahead on their tractors, building a new, “happier countryside”, matchbox labels announced that “food concentrates saved time” and folk art was becoming “the nation’s treasure”, but at the same time on school sport fields, at harvest festivals and in front of village Społem stores the real spirit of the Polish countryside was vanishing.

Translated from the Polish by Anna Hyde

[1] Wioletta Grzegorzewska, Drugi świat Christiny, [w:] Parantele, Częstochowa 2003, s. 23.

[2] Wioletta Grzegorzewska, The late feeding of bees, [in:] ‘Finite Formulae & Theories of Chance’, Arc Publications, p. 45. Translated by Marek Kazmierski.

[3]Wioletta Grzegorzewska, Brownian motion, [in:] ‘Finite Formulae & Theories of Chance’, Arc Publications, p. 41. Translated by Marek Kazmierski

[4] Wioletta Grzegorzewska, Nad Bożym Stokiem w lipcu, [w:] Parantele, Częstochowa 2003, s. 11

[5] Black Volga refers to an urban legend widespread in Poland, Russia,‪ Belarus, Ukraine, and Mongolia,‪ mainly in the 1960s and 1970s. It tells the story of a black Volga limousine that was allegedly used to abduct children.

[6] Włodek Grabowski’s unpublished notes. The author’s archives.

[7] The author’s unpublished diary.

Photo by Barbara Kasprzak


Wioletta Greg (Wioletta Grzegorzewska) is a writer, editor and translator. Born in southern Poland, she moved to the UK in 2006. She currently resides in the town of Ryde on the Isle of Wight. Wioletta has published several volumes of poetry in Poland, Canada and the UK, including Wyobraźnia kontrolowana (Controlled Imagination, 1998), Parantele (Kinships, 2003), Orinoko (2008), Inne obroty (Alternate Turns, 2010), the bilingual Pamięć Smieny/Smena’s Memory (2011), Finite Formulae & Theories of Chance (2014), the collection of short prose forms: Notatnik z wyspy (Notes from an Island, 2011) and a debut novella, Guguly (Unripened Fruit, 2014), in which she revisits the experience of growing up in Communist Poland.

Anna Hyde (Anna Błasiak) is a translator, art historian and poet. She has translated over 30 books from English into Polish (mainly children’s books, including Anthony Horowitz’s South By South East) and fiction from Polish into English (by Mariusz Czubaj, Wioletta Grzegorzewska, Jan Krasnowolski, Kaja Malanowska, Daniel Odija, Anna Augustyniak and Mirka Szychowiak). She has also translated some poetry into Polish (by Maria Jastrzębska, Mary O’Donnell and Nessa O’Mahony). She writes poetry in Polish (Więź, Kwartalnik Artystyczny, Dekada literacka, ArtPapier and Szafa) and in English (Off_Press, Women Online Writing). She lives in Ramsgate in the UK.

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