A unique mix of prose and poetry, of the joy of life and the agony of loss, in Mother Departs Różewicz creates a rich and complex portrait of his mother Stefania and of her indelible influence on her extraordinary family.
Weaving together fragments from diaries, stories and notebooks – including moving texts written by his two brothers and Stefania herself – Różewicz creates a portrait of their lives and relationships which is sometimes brutal, often hilarious, and always tender.
Here is an artist attempting to give form, even meaning, to life – and death.
Praise for Mother Departs
World Literature Today’s Notable Translation 2013
Finalist for The People’s Book Prize, Summer 2013, Non-Fiction Category
Winner of the 2000 Nike Prize, Poland’s most prestigious literary award
‘One of the great European poets of the twentieth century’ Seamus Heaney
‘Tadeusz Różewicz is a great anti-poet whose poems have the clipped, intense feel of phrases exchanged in wartime. He sends messages from underground that are like jammed radio signals. Though he would not agree, he has succeeded in writing poetry after Auschwitz.’ Tom Paulin
‘[A] complex, multi-voiced meditation on family writing and modern history in its peculiarly harsh Polish incarnation…The originality of Mother Departs lies in its astute, self-critical arrangement of texts radiating out of the mother’s life. It is, as Polish critics noted, the most personal of Różewicz’s books…haunting volume.’ Clare Cavanagh, The Times Literary Supplement
‘Mother Departs deals with loss and memory and what it means to be a poet, but above all it records the love between members of a family, and its greatest gift may lie in the repeated opportunities that it creates for its readers to recognise themselves in the thoughts and actions of people who are not and never could be entirely strange.’ Steven Lovatt, New Welsh Review
‘Every mother’s son – and daughter – will appreciate this powerful chorus of family memories…Published in 1999, when it won Poland’s leading literary award, Mother Departs also champions Rózewicz’s aesthetic of assembled voices…These fragments are simply, poetically, put together. The cumulative effect is astonishing… powerful and poignant. Barbara Bogoczek’s translation is excellent, as is Tony Howard’s informative introduction. This is a book for anyone who has ever had a mother.’ James Hopkin,The Independent
“Unless it’s broken – smashed,” Różewicz writes, “poetry won’t ever rise up from its grave.” But if he has stripped his verses down to basics, without metre, without rhyme, there is music in his prose. Lyrical, evocative and richly detailed, Mother Departs is a challenging investigation to the monstrous injustices and numbing losses of public events and private life.’ C.J. Schüler, The Tablet
‘It’s an effective collection, switching from personal reminiscence to the immediacy of diary-entries…The collection has a fragmentary feel — much ends (and some begins) with ellipses, to underline that fact — and readers might wish for more filling in the blanks in this century-spanning work, but there’s a satisfying wholeness to the text as is. A touching, often fascinating — and very personal — work.’ M.A. Orthofer, Complete Review
‘I would describe the piece and feel of this book, yes memoir, yes prose poetry. But not fully either, one could almost say the reportage that Polish writers post world war two have often been known for the likes of Kapuscinski or Stasiuk are well-known, has been turned internally on to the family trying to find what the mother was and what she meant to her family…littered with a humour that is dark and the sort that laughs at the bad times…he is a true great and talent.’ Stu Allen, Winstonsdad’s Blog
‘a wonderfully polyphonic memoir as the voices harmonize to tell a greater story. And although the emphasis is on the family, the narrative is deeply influenced by the fascinating period in Polish history starting before World War I and ending just after the fall of communism.’ Isla McKetta, A Geography of Reading
‘a quite remarkable memoir of a family, of Poland in the twentieth century and of life, and death.’ A Discount Ticket to Everywhere
‘we witness the anguish of a man looking at his mother fading away. Both Herbert and Rózewicz, in two completely different styles, narrate with an impeccable choice of words the last days in the life of their mothers. Heartbreaking yes, but the literary value of these books lay within the ability of these authors to talk about death with great beauty.’ Literati
‘a portrait of, and a homage to, a woman – but also to a country and a time. You see, as much as it talks about Stefania, Mother Departs talks to the reader about a shared past. It’s easy to see why it won the Nike Prize – it’s not so much the private memories of a mother, as a collective, nostalgic look at what has been lost.’ Tony’s Reading List
‘This book, which is entirely focused on the inner life of a family, is nonetheless also a reflection of a whole epoch. Through the family’s experiences, the reader is taken on a journey which passes through some of the most important stages of the last century.’ Anna Frajlich
‘Mother Departs is not, as one might expect, a sentimental book. Instead it is about what people are in relation to their parents and in relation to their children, and it is a moving story of how parents in old age become – in a certain way – the children of their own children.’ Janusz Drzewucki
Now, as I write these words, my mother’s eyes rest on me. The eyes, mindful and tender, are silently asking, ‘what’s troubling you, my darling…?’ With a smile I reply, ‘nothing… everything’s fine Mummy, really,’ ‘but tell me,’ Mother says, ‘what’s the matter?’ I turn my head away, look through the window…
Mother’s eyes which can see everything watch the birth watch throughout life and watch after death from the ‘other world’. Even if they turned her son into a killing machine or a beast a murderer mother’s eyes are looking at him with love… looking.
When a mother turns her eyes away, her child starts to stray, becomes lost in a world stripped of love and warmth.
Tomorrow’s Mother’s Day. I don’t remember if when I was a child there was an official day like that… When I was a child every day was Mother’s day. Every morning Mother’s day. And noon and evening and night.
You know Mummy, I can tell it only to you in my old age, and I can tell you now because I’m already older than you… I didn’t dare tell you when you were alive. I’m a Poet. It’s a word that frightened me, I never spoke it to Father… I didn’t know if it was decent to say something like that.
I entered the world of poetry as if into the light and now I’m preparing to exit, into darkness… I trekked across the landscape of poetry and have seen it with the eye of a fish a mole a bird a child a grown man and an old man; why is it so difficult to utter these words: ‘I’m a poet’, you search for synonyms to help you come out to the world. To Mother. Of course, Mother knows. But to say something like that to my father was unthinkable… So I never did tell Father ‘Dad… Father… I’m a poet’. I don’t know if my father would even have noticed… he’d be so remote… he’d have said (while he read the paper, ate, dressed, polished his shoes…) ‘what’s that you’re saying (Tadziu)?’ After all it was just silly ‘what’s that again?’ but of course I couldn’t repeat it, let alone louder, ‘Dad, Father, I am a poet’… Father might have looked up from his plate, his paper… looking surprised or perhaps not looking but nodding and saying ‘good… good’ or saying nothing at all. I wrote a poem called ‘Father’ (in 1954) ‘Walking through my heart goes/ my old father…’ I never knew if Father read that poem, he never said a word… anyway I never read it to Father either… now it’s 1999... and my voice is so quiet that my Parents can’t hear my words ‘Mum, Dad, I’m a poet’… ‘I know, Darling,’ Mother says ‘I’ve always known’. ‘Speak up,’ says Father, ‘I can’t hear a thing’...
a poet’s promises
For years I used to promise my Mum three things: that I’d invite her to Kraków, that I’d show her Zakopane and the mountains, that I’d take her to the seaside. Mum never got to see Kraków. She got to see neither Kraków nor the mountains (with Lake Morskie Oko in the middle) nor the sea. I didn’t keep my promises… It’s been nearly half a century since Mum’s death… (anyway, clocks, calendars, I’m losing interest). Why didn’t I take her to Kraków and show her the Sukiennice, Saint Mary’s Church, Wawel Castle, the Vistula.
Oh yes. Her son lived in Kraków… and the young ‘promising’ poet… a poet who wrote so many poems for his mother and so many poems for all mothers… didn’t bring Mum to Kraków not in 1947 nor 1949... She never insisted, never reproached me.
Mum never saw Warsaw. Mum never flew in an aeroplane, sailed on a ship. I never went with Mum to a café, restaurant, florist, theatre, opera… Or a concert… I was a poet… I wrote a poem ‘A Tale of Old Women’, I wrote a poem ‘An Old Peasant Woman Walks Along The Beach’… I didn’t take Mum to the seaside… I didn’t sit with her on the beach, I didn’t bring her a seashell or a bit of amber. Nothing… and she never will see the sea… and I’ll never see her face and eyes and smile as she looks at the sea… a poet. Is a poet a man who writes lamentations dry-eyed, so that he can see the form clearly? Who must put all his heart into making sure the form’s ‘perfect’…? A poet: a man without a heart? And now the wailing in front of an audience at a book fair, the poetic indulgences, the Literary Stock Exchange. I can’t even fool myself that ‘in the other world’ Mum is strolling through the Planty Gardens, through Kraków, to Wawel… Is there a beach in ‘heaven’ where our Mothers can sit in their poor old fur stoles, coats, slippers and hats…? But even now I’m writing – dry-eyed – and ‘correcting’ these beggarly lamentations of mine…