Woman with a pearl. On Anna Frajlich's poetry
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no-image, Woman with a pearl. On Anna Frajlich's poetry
Anna Frajlich: the name itself is like poetry. The German adverb "freilich" means "indeed" or "of course" but it comes from the adjective "frei" - "free"
An adverb as a name? Such ridiculous names were given in the XIX century by Austrian and Prussian officials to Polish Jews who did not buy themselves out (supposedly the funniest names were invented by E.T.A. Hoffmann). They lasted as proof of Jews' assimilation and, at the same time, of their separate identity. The name Anna - Anne - is a Latin form of the Hebrew word which means "grace", "favour". Anne was the name of Mary's mother who was present in the Jerusalem temple during the circumcision of Jesus. She is often shown in Christian art together with the Virgin and Child (Sant' Anna Matterza): she has Mary on her knees, and Mary holds the infant Jesus. In other Western representations she is shown with a book in her hand. In the well-known Coptic fresco from Faras (symbol of Polish archeological excavations in Nubia in the sixties) Anne puts a finger to her mouth which may signify guardedness of speech, but she speaks more eloquently with her wide eyes, open to the world. And finally the meeting of Anne with Joachim at the Golden Gate in Jerusalem: the pictures show a pregnant Anne. An adequate name for the Polish poet remembering Jewish cultural traditions, for the woman forced to emigrate, who writes in Polish and returns to the country from which she was expelled, for the woman aware of the meaning of female element in history.
- Pearl of timeGirl With A Pearl Earring is one of the greatest and the most mysterious of Vermeer's paintings. But of interest here is not the pearl earrings of an enigmatic model. Anna Frajlich's poetry is a kind of literary pendant to accompany another set of two Vermeer's paintings where pearls also figure: Woman With A Pearl Necklace (Berlin) and formerly called The Goldweigher or Girl Weighing Pearls (Washington). The painting depicts a pregnant woman holding pan scales. Since it was established by microscopic analysis that the scales are empty, the picture is now called Woman Holding A Balance.
Both paintings are not simple genre scenes. They have allegoric meanings concerned with issues of vanity. The women in both pictures are momentarily motionless in the process of doing something: trying on a pearl necklace, weighing precious materials. They both stand in front of mirrors - a symbol of Vanitas, scantiness of worldly goods. The woman trying on a pearl necklace is still as if she had suddenly spotted death in the mirror. The woman with scales does not look at the mirror, she is concentrated on her unborn child, thinking about its future, its life and afterdeath. The scales do not hold pearls but the woman has a pearl inside her - her child. An alien body that got into her and grows with her, a grain of sand that will become a separate world.
Henri Bergson, thinking about intellectual representation of permanence, used Vermeer's metaphor of pearls and wrote:
"we line up, one after another, states which have become distinct like the beads of a necklace and therefore require, in order to hold them together, a thread which is neither this nor that, nothing that resembles beads, nothing that resembles anything whatsoever - an empty entity, a single word. Intuition gives us the thing whose spatial transposition, whose metaphorical translation alone, is seized by the intellect." ("An Introduction to Metaphysics. The Creative Mind. Introduction (Part II). Stating the Problems."  Translated by Mabelle L. Andison)
Bergson's metaphor was taken up by Maurice Halbwachs in his work about musical memory (La mémoire collective chez les musiciens, 1939). He says that when we hear a piece of music for the first time, there is not much left afterwards - melodic motives get divided, and their notes scatter "like pearls from the necklace with a broken thread". Similarly, we return to poetry in order to know it better.
Anna Frajlich continues this dialogue in her poem From Bergson and from the metaphor of physical time goes to the organic meaning of time:
Time is not a string of pearls
Employing a woman's intuition, our poet does the same that did Vermeer in his painting Woman Holding A Balance. In the painting pearl necklaces spill from a jewel case onto the table but they are absent from the scales. They are symbolically substituted by one pearl developing inside the woman. Instead of a linear string of time we have time as fluid mass that grows around "seed of incomprehensible wound", filling the vastness - time presented in the metaphor of pregnancy. Nine months of the new world being born.
but a single pearl
around a seed of an unbelievable wound
its fluid mass seeps
eternal and protean
the unnamed immensity
with its duration.
- Traumatic experience of rejectionAnna Frajlich's pregnancy happened almost at the same time as the worst experience of her life, the traumatic experience of rejection and expulsion. Her son was born in 1967 and Anna Frajlich left Poland with her husband and small son in the autumn of 1969, after events known as March 1968. In her autobiographic text March began in June she writes:
"First there was exile from a definition. We, Polish people of Jewish origin, became suddenly Zionists. I was pregnant then and this whole witch-hunt, together with 'spontaneous' demonstrations of Arab students, frightened me."
Leaving Poland (described in the first poem of the cycle Return - the sentimental journey) was for Anna Frajlich the most important but not the only stage of her life wandering which - like biblical flight into Egypt - led westwards. (It is worth mentioning here that the motive of the confrontation between East and West is one of the themes of Frajlich's book: The Legacy of Ancient Rome in the Russian Silver Age, 2007, based on her PhD thesis.)
The theme of flight into Egypt returns many times in her autobiographic poetry. In the volume In the November Sun there is a poem Rest during the Flight into Egypt, written while Frajlich was impressed Luc Olivier Merson's painting of the same title. With geometric precision Frajlich expresses Merson's mysterious game of glance and its absence, reality and dream, knowledge and silence:
Mary fell asleep at the Sphinx's feet
- she dreams about the Fate's riddle -
and the Child
with eyes wide open - knows
what the Spinx conceals.
- Return through poetryHymn of the Pearl - an apocryphal text from the beginning of Christianity, known in Poland thanks to the Czesław Miłosz's translation - is a story of an oriental prince who goes to Egypt to get a precious pearl guarded by a dragon. After a number of inevitable troubles and humiliations the expedition ends successfully and the royal son comes back to his fatherland with the pearl, dressed in a magnificent robe.
Anna Frajlich said in an interview:
"The year 1968 was a slap in the face that one had to react to. It was the biggest wound in my life. Gashes do not heal. They leave scars."
From that gash, like from grain of sand in a clam, the pearl of poetry was born. In her earlier poem On Pearls (a kind of poetic commentary to Vermeer's Woman With A Pearl Necklace) the poet asks:
Pain that begat them
Those poems, modern in form, are very melodic, and in spite of their seemingly austere look they have a traditional metric structure, with rhymes that at times sound old-fashioned.
ceased to be pain
so why do you keep
trying them incessantly
must they pay so dearly
or for their coldness
on your neck?
"I used to be ashamed of rhymes - says Anna Frajlich - and I tried to hide them in the middle of the verses, in the same way as in my early youth I tried to wear loose blouses to hide my breasts."
Time of pearl strings, small and uniform, passes. The single pearl of poetry, pearl provoked by resentment, pearl that has to be born in pain in order to create beauty - such a pearl stays for ever.
Author: Jan Zieliński, October 2009, translated by Alicja Skarbińska-Zielińska, October 2009