Happy as a Dog's Tail

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Most of the poems in Happy as a Dog’s Tail are about sexual passion, and this is the theme that has already attracted to it many readers. Czeslaw Milosz, who translated the volume with Leonard Nathan, has described Anna Swir (née wirszczyska) as “fierce, lucid, ecstatic, terrifying.” She dares to capture the intensity of physical passion, and this audacity is the great promise of this collection of poems. Writing about love, and sexual experience, is no easy matter. Young poets are frequently advised to stay away from sex by older poets, by creative writing instructors, and above all by editors, for a variety of reasons. Physical passion—so this advice often runs—is basically a private matter, shared best by the couple but not by others. Sometimes it is claimed that it is not a social theme at all. People are interested in their own sexual lives but not those of others—while voyeurism is a totally different matter. In one of his forays into literary criticism, Joseph Stalin complained that a volume of love poems by Konstantin Simonov, a Russian poet, should not have been published in a big edition: “They should have published only two copies—one for her, and one for him!” Physical love is not easy to describe, especially to communicate to others. Swir wanted to be exact, to be accurate. As Milosz writes in the afterword, “Swir wants to touch reality proper; she is, I would say, naturalistic.” Yet naturalistic descriptions of sex are frequently boring or mechanical. Often there is an enormous disparity between objective, visual imagery and subjective inner emotions.

The great appeal of Swir is that she will hold nothing back, that she will succeed where others have failed as a result of a frontal assault. Her poem “Duel with a God” begins:

He came to her,a young, strong-necked god.“I want to make love with you.”“I do, too.”

In another poem, “Dithyramb of a Happy Woman,” she writes:

I am astonishedup to my nostrils, I snort,a snorting universe of astonishmentinundates me.I am gulping excess, I am choked with fullness,I am impossible as reality.

This is attractive, and she clearly delights in her passion, in the ecstatic, excessive refulgence of her own body, without inhibition or a sense of ridicule or timidity. Her body easily turns into an animal. One of the finest poems in the volume is “A Woman Talks to Her Thigh”; the translation was previously published in Milosz’s anthology, Postwar Polish Poetry (third, expanded edition, 1983). The speaker of the poem addresses her own thigh as if it were an independent entity, endowed with a will, an existence outside her own consciousness. The poem begins, “It is only thanks to your good looks/ I can take part/ in the rites of love.” It ends on a strong note of gratitude, the poet still addressing her own thigh:

The most exquisite refinement of my soulwould not give me any of those treasuresif not for the clear, smooth charmof an amoral little animal.

Although most of the poems in this collection are about sexual passion, Swir has a sharp eye and observes a broad range of variations on the theme. She is acutely aware of the different types of psychology of the participants, with a certain bias toward egoism. The poem “Love Separates the Lovers” concludes:

I will not drown in you.I want you to drown in me.My laughing egoismis my weapon and an adornment of my nakedness,my lifebelt.Skin separates the two beating hearts,love separates the lovers.A beautiful song of the night,a song of combat.

Two completely different attitudes toward physical love are indicated in the first two lines, as well as an awareness of this difference as a weapon to be used in combat with the man. The egoism is frankly and disarmingly admitted. It is one of the most pervasive features of Swir’s poems of passion; when she acknowledges it, consciously taking it into account as in “Love Separates the Lovers,” it is shrewd, sharply observed, a strength. In...

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Happy as a Dog's Tail Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Library Journal. CX, November 15, 1985, p. 100.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, February 16, 1986, p. 14.