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'In Praise Of The Unfinished' Proves Praise-Worthy

Polish poet’s first collection in English explores life’s mundane mysteries

“The most beautiful is what is still unfinished / a sky filled with stars uncharted by astronomers / a sketch by Leonardo a song broken off from emotion / A pencil a brush suspended in the air”

So Julia Hartwig’s “In Praise of the Unfinished” concludes, leaving her readers suspended in their own emotions. And yet this momentary captivity is liberating: while emotionally entangled, we achieve intellectual freedom by virtue of the poems. We continue on in our incomplete lives armed with the completing questions. Even at 85, Hartwig still discovers new mysteries of life to explore.

“Unfinished,” an anthology of her selected poems, is the first English publication from Hartwig, a Polish poet best known for her translations of English and French poetry into her native language. Translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter, the book is a window into Hartwig’s interpretation of the real essence of life. Unconstrained by the expectations of social constructs and unencumbered by the tendency to divide everything into black and white, her poems address universal themes in the context of a specific sentiment, image, or idea. Hartwig uses her poems to expose life in all its strange incongruities, rendering it naked and vulnerable to our judgment.

At first glance, Hartwig’s work is unremarkable. The titles of her pieces, which are usually drawn from lines in the poems, are intriguing but hardly riveting. She speaks consistently to those topics poets most often resort to when in need of inspiration: love, life, death, and nature. And the punctuation of her poems, while unorthodox, is hardly innovative. Taken independently, the characteristics that define Hartwig’s writing would hardly be considered noteworthy. But it would be an injustice to allow Hartwig to fade into the woodwork as just another “classically beautiful” poet. Within her seemingly standard framework, Hartwig’s precise diction and conceptual views of the world shatter the “classically beautiful” mold, leaving behind poems that startle and unnerve even as they evoke gorgeous images.

In “A Mistake,” Hartwig draws upon such broad themes as unrequited dreams while describing a painter’s exhibit: “Huge canvases, on which ideally clean colors fill spaces precisely measured out with elegant geometry. / But in a corner of the room, the tender, delicate drawing of a leaf sketched with a quick masterly line, like a last fetish with which he didn’t know how to part, like the trace of a farewell kiss to nature. / He shouldn’t have shown it.” Hartwig’s use of uninhibited imagery wrought with implicit emotion creates a disquieting sensation. Her poems unnerve because they force us to realize the truths we have been hiding, even from ourselves. Hartwig suggests that, like the poem’s painter, men and women attempt to live life constantly behind a screen of pretense. By exposing the painter, she exposes us and forces us to question whether we have remained true to our most deeply held hopes.

Hartwig applies the same critical perspective to the ostensibly mundane. By casting light on the complexities of simple situations, Hartwig compels us to wonder how many times we have performed everyday acts without noticing the underlying implications. In “Philemon and Baucis,” a short poem about a woman getting out of bed to get a drink of water, the man beside her wakes because of her shuffling. At first he’s irritated, then worried that his wife is no longer with him: “Suddenly his hair stands on end. / Is this shuffling real, or is it only a memory, in the past, in nonexistence?” The poem’s Philemon then comes to a realization: “It is real! She really shuffles. So, they are still together. Grateful and reconciled, he falls back into his fragile sleep.” Juxtaposing the tenderness of love and the fear of its possible loss, Hartwig grasps the most familiar parts of ordinary life and presents them in an estranged fashion, reintroducing us to its intricacies as if we were once again seeing them for the first time.

Her overarcing statements read as if they weren’t meant for an audience, but rather as proverbial, unconditional truths of life that ultimately transcend the subject matter of any piece. But she remains entirely accessible, largely due to the number of rhetorical questions present, which actively involve the reader in her philosophical musings. Paradoxically, by presenting an alienated picture of the familiar, Hartwig intrigues and thus draws us into her most existential ideas. She leaves us with chills, suggesting that what is most truly frightening about life is not its cruelties, loneliness, or even death, but rather that life, in its entirety, could ever be“finished.”

—Staff writer Denise J. Xu can be reached at dxu@fas.harvard.edu.
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