Paraclete Press and Poetry magazine have recently given us access to the profound Christian vision of life developed by Polish poet Anna Kamieńska (1920-86) through translations of excerpts from her published journal and selections of her poetry.1 In the midst of the terrible oppression suffered by Poland in the twentieth century, Kamieńska drew upon the integrated powers of intellect and emotion (especially grief), and the spiritual nourishment derived from a close reading of the Bible and from the intensity of her dreams to revitalize the search for God and to portray her rich experience of God's elusive but ineluctable presence.
Both the journal entries excerpted from the two volumes published in Poland as The Notebook (1965-72, 1973-79) and the poems give evidence of Kamieńska's engagement with philosophers both ancient and modern-Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Pascal, Goethe, Husserl, Heidegger, Simone Weil, and Edith Stein (among many others)-appear as markers of great intellectual incursions, although the almost aphoristic style of the writing in The Notebook (Kamieńska in one entry suggests the title "Hieroglyphs" in recognition of this style) precludes extended philosophical discourse in [End Page 5] her writing. Kamieńska seems focused on the humble encounter of philosophy with revelation, expressed powerfully in a poem titled "Doctor Edith Stein" (Astonishments, 41). The two halves of the poem balance the two names of Stein first as the student of Edmund Husserl who earned her doctorate under his tutelage and then through the name she assumed after her conversion and her entry into a Carmelite convent, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. As the poem imagines Stein's experience as part of the mass executions at Auschwitz in 1942, the poet expresses the Christian submission of philosophy to revelation concisely.
She was silentthe best pupil of Husserlwho understood even before the masterthat one should stop playing the philosopherwhen God approaches
but then returns to a reaffirmation of the importance of intellect as we struggle to know God.
Great sisterI'd like to ask you so many questionsespecially when the grace of meaningdeserts the pages of daysand the leaves even of wise books
A second elegy titled "The Death of Simone" (Astonishments, 75) imagines the slow death of Simone Weil in 1943 and captures the sharp intellect of Weil. "She could be brusque impatient/especially when talking with those who didn't know Plato," and then conveys in comic but affirming form the way in which intellect and faith encountered one another in Weil's life.
She was a teacher prepared to teach even treesand to argue with a wayside rock about God's existence [End Page 6] though the idea itself is absurdsince the rock knows better and doesn't need words
Another display of intellectual acumen that stands behind Kamieńska's writing is evident in her undertaking the study of Hebrew during a period in the 1970s when she was forbidden to publish or participate in civic life by the Polish authorities because of her involvement with the democratic opposition movement (Astonishments, xii). An entry in A Nest of Quiet: A Notebook expresses the motivation for this labor of learning. "The Bible is the origin, the source. But each beginning is also within us, each of us holds our own Bible, our own Ecclesiastes and Revelation." It seems understandable that in the context of the immense suffering experienced in Poland through both Nazi and Soviet occupation, the figure of Job would be especially prominent for Kamieńska in this intense encounter with the Bible. She composed a cycle of poems titled "Job's Second Happiness," translated into English in what I believe was the first extensive published English translation of her work by Flambard Press in England in 1994.2 The poems (cited here from those included in Astonishments) imagine Job in the period after he was restored by God, who continues at the end of each of a series of poems to whisper but then finally shout, "Lord Lord."
Jobyou sufferedso your heart could growand could contain everything[...]I see you departing...