- Poland -
Urszula Honek (b. 1987) comes from Racławice near Gorlice. She is the author of three poetry books: Sporysz (Ergot, 2015), Pod wezwaniem (Dedicated to, 2018) and Zimowanie (Wintering, 2021) and a collection of short stories Białe noce (White nights, 2022).
Her debut Sporysz got to the final of the K.I. Gałczyński Orfeusz Poetry Award (2016) and was shortlisted for the “Złoty Środek Poezji” National Literary Competition for the best book debut of 2015. Honek won the Grand Prix of the Rainer Maria Rilke Poetry Competition (2013), the Adam Włodek Award (2021) and the Stanisław Barańczak Award. In 2022, Zimowanie was shortlisted for the Gdynia Literary Award.
Honek currently lives in Kraków. She loves dogs.
Urszula Honek (b. 1987) is a Polish poet and prose writer from Racławice who currently lives in Kraków. She is the author of three poetry books: Sporysz (Ergot, 2015), Pod wezwaniem (Dedicated to, 2018) and Zimowanie (Wintering, 2021) published by the Regional Public Library and Culture Animation Center (WBPiCAK) in Poznań. Often shortlisted for national poetry awards, she received many such distinctions. In 2013, Honek won the Grand Prix of the 9th Rainer Maria Rilke Poetry Competition. Her debut got to the final of the K.I. Gałczyński Orfeusz Poetry Award and was shortlisted for the “Złoty Środek Poezji” National Literary Competition. Her second poetry book gave her the Kraków Book of the Month award and another nomination for the Orfeusz Award. For her third volume, Honek received the Stanisław Barańczak Award-Scholarship (part of the Poznań Literary Award), her third Orfeusz Award nomination and a Gdynia Literary Award nomination. She held scholarships from the Maria Anna Siemieńska Grazella Foundation (2016) and the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage (2017). Honek also received the Kraków UNESCO City of Literature Prize (2020) and the Adam Włodek Prize (2021). In 2022, she made her prose debut with a collection of short stories, Białe noce (White nights, publ. by Wydawnictwo Czarne).
The ergot from Honek’s debut volume is a spore of a parasitic fungus that infects cereals. When milled with the grain and ingested, it can cause poisoning and/or hallucinations. The title already seems to suggest the nebulous, quasi-hallucinogenic atmosphere of the volume, as Paweł Kozioł wrote in his review. Despite steering clear of complex metaphors, there are times when the book seems obscure or – as Aleksandra Byrska noted in her interview with Honek – even hermetic. Sporysz is only seemingly easy to read, revealing its meanings through terminology related to the rural countryside, animals, old folk beliefs and rituals, as well as nature, which can be either deadly or life-giving (depending on the whim). Yet it is not just the vocabulary that creates meanings here, as it goes beyond broadly understood nature, enabling the readers to at least partially release themselves from the ergot’s influence and find comfort in what they know. Honek’s debut relies on a measure (described by Kozioł) of pushing what is known and clear into the background, of blurring it to highlight the very things that do not fit this blurred image. Apart from the poisonous fumes created by the author, readers are left with an immaterial fear, a sense of terror and uncertainty of further existence. In the volume, the latter concerns both humans and the animals accompanying them, often shown as equals.
Reviewers of Honek’s second volume agree that Pod wezwaniem further develops the author’s cruel, brutal vision of the world. It is portrayed using sparse phrases, with the stories mostly unfolding in the poet’s native village. Critics also highlighted the importance of role and mask lyrics for the author’s increasingly mature poetics. Using this poetic method enables the subject of Pod wezwaniem – as Stanisław Burkot writes – to not just narrate events, but also take part in them or witness them, entering the role of people of various sex, age and background, who react differently to their respective experiences. The role of women in Honek’s poetry also attracts considerable attention. According to Agata Pyzik, in this volume, it has the potential to produce feelings that range from terror to a hypnotising daze.
Urszula Honek’s third book, composed of extremely short, mostly one-line poems, is described in connection with the title “wintering”, understood as survival, waiting something out, gathering strength. Like in her previous books, the world created by the author is still full of death, which – as Wojciech Bonowicz writes – provokes a feeling of loss and absence, yet does not lead to a void that would be impossible to fill. To further quote the reviewer, each space left empty by a dead creature is subsequently populated by animals. In what is Honek’s last poetry book to date, the world is described as a place ultimately meant to serve each of the extremely diverse creatures inhabiting the Earth.
The author transposed her trademark literary voice to a recently published prose book, Białe noce, which met with considerable interest from the critics. The plot of Honek’s prose debut is created through individual stories, leaving room for the narratives of their human and animal protagonists. As Maciej Libich concluded, this book – like the previous ones – is accompanied by an obsession with death discovered by the protagonists from their earliest childhood. The critic also notes the ambiguous position of animals in Białe noce. Several reviews point out how Honek blurs the boundary between people and animals, but Libich introduces an important distinction, mentioned by the author herself. Namely, that the human–animals relationship will never be symmetrical.
Urszula Honek consciously and consistently broadens the image of nature, death and the periphery, with all their vital distinctions. She takes part in many festivals and literary endeavours. In the coming years, her public may expect further reading thrills from the poet.
Author: Weronika Janeczko
Translation: Aleksandra Szkudłapska
clunker / gruchot
one of the walls of Mr. and Mrs. S’s house has had a crack
for several years. the house is still the color of wet sand,
although once it was probably a chalky shade of white.
the lights are turned off everywhere at Mr. and Mrs. S’s, and not that long ago
their children were hiding in the corners, trying to stifle
giggles and thrills in the cramped pantry.
they never decided to hang up a curtain in the little
window in the attic. when did their fear grow?
swirl / feeria
in the attic of Mr. and Mrs. K’s hung a rope
attached to a lamp. every day on my way to school
i’d stare at the window, hoping that it would move.
my mother couldn’t explain where Mr. and Mrs. K. had moved to,
or if they had pets or children. in december, a neighbor whitewashed
the fruit trees in their garden, and at harvest time, he wheelbarrowed
the plums, apples, and cherries.
wintering / zimowanie
this house recurs in my dreams. i stand in front of the window and watch
the panorama of the town. the lights go on and off.
i see little boys, a ginger dog and their mother, who never turns
her face to us. the dog barks and wants to play.
the boys stare into the window, focused. i’d like to give a hug
to one of them because i know he’ll be found on the floor where he’s standing.
vacations with Monika / wakacje z Moniką
during the day, we’d lie on the hot asphalt and run away from
oncoming cars. in the evenings, we’d go
to a muddy pond where no fish could spawn.
Mirek and Janek’s clothes were heavy from water.
Monika wore blue eyeshadow. the liner makes the color of the iris
pop and the eyes look bigger, she said.
we cared more about kisses than death.
runaways / uciekinierzy
a boy P. knew got buried in a grain silo.
i try to remember his face or the way
he said my name (how did the sz sound in his mouth?).
in the same way, i try to remember the faces of Janek and
Mirek, who are gone, and with whom i’m setting fire to
cans of carbide and crushing ice on a frozen pond.
disco / disko
Monica and i snuck out.
she put on her best clothes: tight shorts
and a blue crimplene blouse. she put on silver eyeshadow
with a thousand glittery particles.
the night was steamy, the asphalt still warm.
even outside, Monica spoke in a whisper,
as if she didn’t want to wake anyone up.
when she laughed, she covered her mouth with her hand,
to hide a broken front tooth.
she was the most beautiful to me then.
friend / przyjaciółka
B. went into catering after primary school.
on saturdays she attended to receptions and served well-pounded pork chops,
and greasy chicken soup with carrot and parsley.
they say she never spilled a drop and she looked pretty
in her navy blue apron. she got home on a morning bus,
the first rays of sunlight lit up her hazelnut hair. she’d hold the package
with the wedding cake in her lap, and clench her fingers tighter
on the bends. that’s when she stopped coming over.
inside out / na wylot
at Mr. and Mrs. T.’s house, fleas were everywhere: on the beds,
floors, and in the children’s clothes.
M. had red spots on her body and held
herself as if she were cold.
when she grew older, she’d set up a tent behind the house in the summer,
but even then her boyfriend wouldn’t marry her.
only once did i see her cry. she was standing with her back to me,
and her shoulders shook up and down.
goodnight / dobranocka
Mrs. Z. had lived alone for quite some time.
her daughters came every third Saturday to mow
the lawn or vacuum the carpets. Mrs. Z.
never came round to having a dog, but towards the end of her life
she took in a stray ginger cat.
did she keep her eyes open for a long time before going to sleep?
did she leave the doors to all the rooms ajar at night?
she was covered with a brown checkered blanket her youngest daughter
and i lay on basking in the sunday sun.
cold paw / zimna łapa
first frost, end of october. we walk carefully.
Ruta curls her paw, espies a bird that is fumbling in the ground.
i say: leave it alone, it wants to live too, just like you. how do you know
that dogs and birds want to live? i imagine my dog’s bloody
muzzle and the relief the bird felt.
Uście Gorlickie, 2019
a currant garden, a small cemetery / porzeczkowy ogródek, mały cmentarzyk
to a sort-of-dachshund
i asked my father: make a small hole, i’ll come late,
it’ll be too dark to dig. i took out a bundle from my navy blue
duffel bag and put it in the ground.
quite an eye my dad has when it comes to death. but did he also think
that a young walnut planted by the edge would have
a growth spurt and the roots would eventually loop around the body?
imagine: a low and wispy plant
that’s good at sniffing.
the day we looked in the same direction / dzień, w którym patrzyliśmy w tę samą stronę
To Andrzej – my dad
we’re watching deer with binoculars. the whole family, i say.
one of them stops. she looks straight at us. you could easily
take a shot and hit her right in the heart. will the others come back to say goodbye?
startled, they abandon their young and then keep calling for them.
her entrails could be spread over the field. you could go back to the same place
in a month or two and see that death does not distinguish
between animals and people.
i hand you the binoculars so you can see what i see.
but it’s endurance – not the end – that’s on your mind.
*** / ***
for Karol Palczak – the author of Świetlówka
it’s late evening in the stable. i stand in the doorway and call my mother.
an old fluorescent light is glowing in the stable, it keeps flickering.
i look out for motion which would confirm that my mother’s alive.
i wait for her to come out of the darkness and put a can of milk
before me. her clothes will smell of cold,
as if she’s returned from the underworld.
finders, keepers / znalezione, nie kradzione
on a frosty november day, my mother and i get on our folding bikes.
we go to clean the church floors, the sacred ornaments,
wipe the dust off the feet and wounds of Jesus Christ. i like the
the purple hue of his robes, and the tears that never fall.
on the way back i ferry in my jacket pocket wafers found
on the sacristy floor (mother, so far, suspects nothing).
vacationers / letnicy
every saturday Maria and i used to go to Mr. and Mrs. L’s.
the basement apartment smelled of sour milk and gray soap.
Maria counted change in the corner and stuck cheese wrapped in
cloth in a plastic bag. now the children of Mr. and Mrs. L.
visit only on vacation. the house was insulated, someone regularly
trims the lawn and turns the water supply off for the winter.
priority / pierwszeństwo
the place will have to be cleaned out, eventually.
they’ll have to carry out the furniture, gnawed by moths,
mink and fox fur coats that used to protect her delicate neck in winter.
take down the bird feeder, attached to the netting, opposite the window
from which a flock of sparrows and titmice sluggishly took flight.
where did the birds go?
spook / straszak
i most like to sleep when the rooms are
filled with sunlight. A. is figuring out that she’s dead, but she’s calm.
the dogs sleep on the armchairs in the kitchen. Pimpek is about to die,
his muzzle is all gray. we call him with the boys,
he drags himself off and wags his tail. the boys are speaking more
and crying less. they like to look into the empty well,
when suddenly someone goes boo behind their back.
vixeys / witalisy
only after their passing did the foxes dig two burrows
right next to the house. at night they get inside
and scour every room.
they jump on the beds and, like dogs, curl up in a ball,
they lick jam jars and empty cans.
the light was on the second night in a row, whispers a neighbor into the phone.
in the morning they return to their cold burrows,
turning off all the lights.
summer. the beginning / lato. Początek
this is what i was taught: always be slinking.
that story took everything away. my love was waning.
you could have been faithful, like all our women,
locked the door when strangers came to the house.
you didn’t return then. i drank a lot of
vodka and walked in the fields. i called out.
it was quiet, as if you had already died.
i could have followed you, sent out dogs to track you down.
when they were taking you away, you were all wet.
i didn’t know the harm was yours, but not the blame.
i was standing by the barn and you waved at me.
maybe you would have been better off gone. disgraced
babygirl. under an empty sky, in a shallow lake
they would have found you thin and slippery.
night after night i thought of you screaming.
how far it carried.
babygirl / moja mała
she was an ugly dunce of a girl, they said. she walked in the woods,
scared whoever she could, stole children and men.
pour mercury down her throat – she will tell the truth. she will howl,
she will crawl all the way to where the body was dumped.
she was an ugly dunce of a girl, they said. she went to the pond,
drowned old men and unfaithful wives. let me see what’s under your dress,
let me see what’s in your heart. from the sand she arose, into wet she turned.
she was an ugly dunce of a girl, they said. she rubbed her hands with tallow,
attracted insects. all of you wolves, all of you motherfuckers,
anointment / namaszczenie
for many days i gyrated in the same place,
picking clothes like they were my coffin outfit. i watched fathers with their children,
turned behind them, pretending to tie a shoe
or tightening the dog’s collar. i was told: when a man
kisses a woman, you should cover your eyes. when a man
touches a woman, you need to hide behind a closet, under the floor,
in a room overrun with rats, go to a gully,
find a hollowed stone. come back at night. don’t bathe,
don’t pull down your panties, don’t check your potato and water stock.
no one’s croaked here of hunger or cold.
swedish road / szwedzka droga
in this forest i could have been naked,
if you had said: child, take off your clothes.
i could have undressed in the winter,
dug up a hole and let you look from up high.
i got sick / zachorowałam
you’re standing in front of the window, it’s late march,
there’s a draft from the kitchen. don’t go, i say. don’t go,
you say. i open the faucet, you won’t hear the crying.
hunger strike / głodówka
i wake up at night to think about a father who won’t be
the father of my child. i wake up to smoke cigarettes
and put out embers under the tap. my stomach’s empty,
because i haven’t had food or drink.
blinded / oślepiło
i hug you on a january afternoon.
my women cry out: leave it, spit it out, swallow.
my women approach the bed,
when at night you have to get up and turn on the lights
for those who have returned to find their way.
i pick up their scattered rags, broken dishes,
crumbled soap. sow a child in her. let her know
that she’s not alone. sow in her a home and sultry evenings,
when no one feels like crying.
men come when we sleep embraced on the floor.
everyone knows where the basin with hot water is.
wash your face, wash your hands. tighten your muscles like it’s childbirth.
after a goodbye / po pożegnaniu
his eyes were glassy, as if he had just woken up
or cried. you’ll only remember his eyes,
because the body’s forgotten faster. or maybe you’ll remember
that you were cold or that for a moment
you told the truth.
forgetting / o zapominaniu
it’s going to rain, i say. we stand side by side
like people who are about to part.
he had glassy blue eyes, i say again.
he pours water into the basin, takes off his clothes.
here’s what’s going to happen: you’ll immerse yourself and open your eyes
so as not to see him.
ours / nasze
you’re probably thinking about something else, father says.
in the morning we’ll be gone. the dog’s sleeping on the porch.
dawn will roll in like a pageant of strange men
or freezing carolers that no one
will let in.
they won’t even leave a trace. no matter at whose
funeral they sang. it’ll be quiet like now,
when you bury your hands in my hair to feel
that she’s gone. was she ever here?
i think of those who tomorrow will say
neither a word, nor a prayer. barking will be heard by a
a young, ugly girl. will she hear?
to die is too nice a word, after all.
Živia / żywia
it’s over, yet you’re still crying.
even in sleep you couldn’t reach his hand.
he’s not dead, but already distant.
maybe it’s growing inside you. it won’t be silence,
which now interrupts every dream.
you’ll hear crying. you’ll get up and go
outside the house. you’ll strip naked to accept
everything that life can enter.
you’ll find a chipped tooth in the kitchen.
no one has died here,
no one’s been born.
mine / moje
for the first time i don’t think of anyone to love me.
for the first time i don’t go to the kitchen to smoke cigarettes
and inhale the winter air. you’re not mine, i say to the child,
but I’ll make you mine. every now and then i check his breath with a mirror.
he is. alive.
lamium / jasnota
our neighbors have had a baby,
it may be the only proof that for a moment there was love.
in our house no one’s cried for a long time.
we each go our separate ways and both
up close / z bliska
you say the coffin must be nailed shut.
i find some rusty ones in the shed.
i prepare the hammer.
the shed was demolished many years ago, rats were breeding
and entered the house. that’s why before
putting on our shoes, my brother and i’d always check
if there weren’t any inside.
you say that the face must be covered with a blanket.
that you’ll smell where we’re standing: next to
dedicated / pod wezwaniem
when you sleep, i touch your body. i lie with my eyes open,
then i get up. i look at the residents who are fast asleep,
in the darkness they feel for someone’s hand or an urn with ashes.
they’ve waited a long time for love. where is it, where is it.
i go outside the house. the sun’s blinding,
i cover my face. i talk to the dog that drags his
hind paws. what have you done to deserve this.
the morning smells of the market and fish brought in
for sale. today a dog will be tied
to a tree and left behind.