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The Library Beneath the Harp

David Morley

The poet Bronisława Wajs (1908–1987) was known by her Romani name Papusza which means ‘doll’. She grew up on the road in Poland within her kumpania or band of families. She was literate and learned to read and write by trading food for lessons. Her reading and writing was frowned upon and whenever she was found reading she was beaten and the book destroyed. She was married at fifteen to a much older and revered harpist Dionízy Wajs. Unhappy in marriage she took to singing as an outlet for her frustrations with her husband often accompanying her on harp. She then began to compose her own poems and songs. When the Second World War broke out, and Roma were being murdered in Poland both by the German Nazis and the Ukrainian fascists, they gave up their carts and horses but not their harps. With heavy harps on their backs, they looked for hiding places in the woods. 35,000 Roma out of 50,000 were murdered during the war in Poland. The Wajs clan hid in the forest in Volyň, hungry, cold and terrified. A horrible experience inspired Papusza to write her longest poem “Ratfale jasfa – so pal sasendyr pšegijam upre Volyň 43 a 44 berša” (“Bloody tears – what we endured from German soldiers in Volyň in ‘43 and ‘44”), parts of which are used in ‘The Library Beneath the Harp’.

In 1949 Papusza was heard by the Polish poet Jerzy Ficowski who recognized her talent. Ficowski published several of her poems in a magazine called Problemy along with an anti-nomadic interview with Polish poet Julian Tuwim. Ficowski became an adviser on “The Gypsy Question”, and used Papusza’s poems to make his case against nomadism. This led to the forced settlement of the Roma all over Poland in 1950 known variously as ‘Action C’ or “The Great Halt”. The Roma community began to regard Papusza as a traitor, threatening her and calling her names. Papusza maintained that Ficowski had exploited her work and had taken it out of context. Her appeals were ignored and the Baro Shero (Big head, an elder in the Roma community) declared her “unclean”. She was banished from the Roma world, and even Ficowski broke contact with her. Afterward, she spent eight months in a mental asylum and then the next thirty-four years of her life alone and isolated. Her tribe laid a curse on Papusza’s poems and upon anybody using or performing her work. ‘The Library beneath the Harp’ partly borrows and reshapes some of Papusza’s introductory autobiography from the Songs of Papusza as well as three of her poems. The title of the poem was found among the opening chapter to Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and their Journey by Isobel Fonseca. I am very grateful to Dan Allum of The Romany Theatre Company for introducing me to the story of Papusza. The first 38 lines where previously published in The London Review of Books.

The Library Beneath the Harp

Songs of Papusza
In memory of Bronislawa Wajs, 1910–1987

I was once besotted with a black-eyed boy. The young men

of  my kumpania stretched him out in an àshariba. Only then


did Dionýzy Wajs, ancient Dionýzy Wajs, pay his coin and court.

He possessed harps, bought my mother and step-father’s heart.


All I possessed were secret books. Dionýzy arranged my bed

as we both wished. There will be no children, he had said.


This is what I swan-sung when I wed: I am marrying

his harp. I died back to life as a child, a bride at fifteen.


I heart-sang, ‘The harp is the abyss. I shall never know

the earth again, not through her notes, not as the notes


from a thrush’s three-fluted throat, or notes of  rain

from a wrung Spring sky, not notes of  my horse’s strain


as she clamps and cleaves the clogged road. I am nothing

but these fingers, fronds furling over a harp string:


those springing strings in my throat where the wind

of  my breath wakes poems’. So the roads unwound,


my beloved books sly in an oilcloth beneath the harp

like prize tools you’d want wiped, spry and sharp;


and my voice swivelled, swelled, stammered into song

while old man Dionýzy Wajs stretched and struck at his strings.


Dionýzy Wajs folds his harpist’s fingers, the fingerprints

wasp-stung while strumming his shimmers and feints


throughout the forest-villages of  Volhynia. Our harps

are hauled upright over our wagons, like rigged ships


of  music moving on breezes between those little ports.

Skilled mistrals finger the strings through starless nights.


We travel all day. We pay back the night with our numbers.

I sing at the dark while Dionýzy Wajs flickers and flexes.


My husband’s harp hangs on a high hook. He tensions

the strings to one fugal tonne of  force. He polishes


the teeth of  its buzzing bray pins, the plane of  strings

perfectly perpendicular to the soundboard. I sing


and his fingers follow me, melody murmuring on a thread.

He tilts the forepillar like a sight from which he can read


my every glance. A fleshy pluck, he says, will wake the warm

wan note; while a pluck from the finger’s bone-tip releases


that strong, strewn soundburst: a drum’s boom across the wires;

a door deepening on darkness; our windows as the winds slam.


At each stop we bartered my threnodies and melodies

for the orts of  oats, lines for linen, for a mew of  news.


In these villages, nothing happened but our music

until the Germans came. They murdered the men folk.


We gypsies couldn’t flee for fear, nor fiddle for food.

We freed our nags from our carts. We dove into the wood,


those heavy harps banging on our backs; tumbled into the trees.

No water, no fire; hungers tensioning across frames and faces.


Chased by Ukrainian bandits, one gypsy lad laid his harp’s head

to the lie of  the land. From that shallow sniper’s nest, he shouted,


‘We’ll shoot all of  you with this carbine!’ And those bold bandits

outgunned by his humming harp, scampered downhill like rabbits.


Then a German came to see us: ‘I have bad news for you.

They want to kill you tonight. Don’t tell anybody but I too


am a dark Gypsy of  your blood. God help you in the hell

of  this black forest’. Having said this he embraced us all.


Everything was rags. We yearned to drink from the Milky Way.

Only the river learned of  our lament, and maybe the sky.


For two then three days, no food. All slowed sleep-hungry.

Unable to die, we stared at the moon… I curse-sang silently


Ah, you, my little star. At dawn you are immense. Blind our enemy.

So the Jewish and Gypsy child can live, confuse him, err him astray.


Whose eyes saw us as enemies? Whose mouths cursed us?

Do not hear them, God, I cry-sang out to the night. Hear us.


On such a dark hark of  frost a little daughter dies.

Over four days, mothers fold four small sons into the snows.


All the birds were praying for our children. Numb night came.

Old gypsy women death-sang their fairy tale: Golden winter will come.


Snow, like little stars, will cover the earth, the hands. Black eyes will freeze,

the hearts will die. So much snow; it buried the women’s warm bodies.


Years later, the moon shook in my window. She didn’t let me sleep.

Someone looked inside. I dark-sang, Who is come crying my kinship?


Open the door, my dark gypsy. Open the window where it bangs and glows,

where shapes with shovels are slamming and slotting the locks on savage doors.


You have come only for bed, for that would be bread enough.

You have come only for my song, for that would be dream enough.


Ice-lakes lapse. Linnets alight on flicked and flickering branches.

A lone lizard waits. Women from a village woke us from our trance


whispering that the war was won. We spied down to the valleys

where falcons flung their talons into the meadow’s nurseries.


Family by family, the kumpania fossicked from the forest’s shadow.

We lit our first campfires. Nobody machine-gunned us from below.


Last year, I was panicked through a summer-sly woodland, chased

on three flanks by fascists. I kicked forwards at the softest pace


arrowing my feet between the pine cones’ grenades, the mine-trap

of  twigs. Hovering a minute on my haunches, I placed my held harp


against living bark. I tip-touched the forest’s floor with my fingers.

As if  dipped in iron filings, manacled by a million tiny pincers,


wood-ants wove their ropes up my arms and neck, tilting me westwards

with the harp’s heaving wood a fat feast for these workers.


I ran and the red-hot ants hung from me as they tore at the territories

of  skin and hair… Now we are told: it is Spring again. The valleys


of  Volhynia and Poland are veiled under dust from half-treads and tanks.

A red army climbs in a column. The linnets listen in their branches.


Havering hare, worn low by a hundred hidden harms,

I want to paw into the earth, lie fallow in my form.


The woodlands and plains were singing. The river and I sang

our notes as one word after another, the river stones enjambing,


poring over the poems of  itself  in whorls and whirlpools. Free to sing

we parleyed through broken Poland, the Red Guards punctuating


our road’s unravelling story. For years my voice burst their barriers. I sang

in bribe as well as rhyme. I sang in time and I was always smiling


although my song was frozen as those buried children; although my song

whiplashed with woe and the whickering drones of  the dead waking


as if  called back crawling from their bone-ash to my resurrecting song.

Unnoticed, we were noticed. Unwritten, we were written. That Spring


I started placing my poems into printed pages, sheaves of  silent song.

A gajo, Ficowkski, plucked my poems from my throat as I was singing


and those children, grey-faced in green graves, broke into song.

How that cold country listened! How the grim guards started staring!


Sealing them into a book, Ficowksi’s ink dripped over my songs

prising them into his pages’ prisons – mute, unmoving.


Ficowski’s key clattered in its lock. His footsteps fell away. I sang

to no-one in the night of  that book’s covers, but I sang Papusza’s Songs.


In this spell of  a song there is a speck of  poison. In that poison

lurks the white space of  a lie. In the lie there is a proposition.


In the proposition – a blurt of  blood; a dagger driven –

What is the Gypsy Question? asks nobody yet the question is asked again.


Papusza’s poems point out that her people are problems for the gajo.

Like a victim seeking celebrity in his sainthood, Ficowski says so.


Those gypsies should settle, they should be gouged from their vile vardos.

They have endured enough. Look at Papuzsa’s. Ficowski says so.


Someone close to you betrays you so casually, believing himself

a favour-framer, a fame-thrower. I am called before the Council,


the Gypsy Kris, for my sin against the tribe. Here, I say, are crimes:

I longed for love; I longed to live; and I longed to read and rhyme.


I looked to the first too bitterly; to the second too slightly; and

to the third blindly. Love-thrawn, death-drawn, word-blind


I stand before you willing it your wish that I be cleansed

of  all my songs and poems and all my books and pens.


The straw on which a Romani gives birth is burnt. A gypsy dies;

the caravan with all goods and clothes is flashed into flames.


They’re unclean. It’s unclean to step over a hammer or scissors;

unclean to defile cookware with a cloth for cleansing the floor.


These things are burnt or thrown away. You cannot live unclean.

Dionýzy Wajs sits behind the Kris, unstrung, his white hair hanging down.


His caravan and carved harps are on fire; the scorched strings whine.

The chief  gypsy stares past me. His decision: mahrimé: unclean.


My tribe treads around me. The gypsy children chirr like squirrels,

Your name is Papusza. Your name means doll. You are a reading doll!


I am beyond my kind, beyond kindess.

My heart is hewn in half.

Now that you know me you do

not know me. Listen to the harp:

There is Papusza who sings for you

and Papusza who sings for her kind.

Now there is invisible, cursed Papusza

stuttering on a stick through Poland.

You cannot write of  Papusza.

She is without language or kumpania.

These are stuffed in her mouth:

a sickle, a hammer, a word-dagger.

There is nothing to be said of  her

and less to be written or heard

or her own curse will course through you

even after Papusza curls up cold.

This is my answer to my enemies.

I am stained and unstrung:

your ink etched in every fingerprint;

my nails, their moons eclipsed

in your ink; each tendon torn, untethered

from its bone’s bond. I grasp

this pen, and it ungrasps my fingers

as if  I moved it with my mind.

Who is this nurse with her notes

her knives? I snatch at a hard hand

but it is already wriggled from its wrist.

Electricity earths through me;

I writhe on its bright rope’s end.

Bronislawa Wajs, can you still hear me?

The doctor said this so carefully

Papusza almost loved herself.

The doctor smiles. My tears begin

falling in myself  all for myself.


It is raining in the underworld. I stare up at a burning star.

I approach the abyss with my husband’s harp. I shall tell him about Papusza.





Romany translation: àshariba: wrestling match;

kumpania: a band of  families travelling with horses and in caravans.

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