Alice Oswald


On ‘Two Potatoes’ by Anna Świrszczyńska


Anna Świrszczyńska worked as a volunteer nurse during the Warsaw uprising. Her book, Building the Barricade, was written thirty years later but without losing any of its war-time clarity. All its poems are plain pictures of people dying and surviving. Her style is no style – it doesn’t decorate or manipulate – but one of her habits is to compress narrative into image, so that a complex series of events becomes both instant and everlasting. So, for example, if you stare at ‘Two Potatoes’, the poem starts to deepen and lengthen. Two mothers are made visible and their selflessness results in selfishness. This riddle (as sharp as Homer and as short as a nursery rhyme)  has left two potatoes in my head and I will never be able to get rid of them. There is after all something cold and tuberous and subsistent about me, although, in common with other humans, I keep it concealed until times of crisis – and most English poetry encourages me to do so. Świrszczyńska, with great compassion, brings the potatoes to the surface – and I’m grateful.


I carried two potatoes
a woman came up to me.

She wanted to buy two potatoes
She had children.

I didn’t give her two potatoes
I hid two potatoes.

I had a mother.

Anna Świrszczyńska translated by Piotr Florczyk

This poem was first published in Building the Barricade by Anna Świrszczyńska, translated by Piotr Florczyk (Tavern Books, 2016).