It’s interesting how young poets think of death while old fogies think of girls.

Bohumil Hrabal 

This morning, on the way to Powazki, I made a little detour via the Antykwariat bookshop in Ulica Wilcza (the Street of the Wolves). There, in amongst the leaning towers of books, I found a couple of tattered paperbacks, a few zloty apiece. One of them was the 1955 edition of The Nature of Living Things by the American natural scientists C.B. Worth and R.K. Enders, and the other was Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself (Piesn O Sobie). On the back and inside covers of the Worth and Enders book, they assured me that it was ‘specifically written for the general reader’ with ‘easy-to-understand answers to questions about plants and animals and their relation to the universe’ (there were no such assurances in Whitman). From the first chapter, simply titled Life and the Universe, I had already surmised that the ‘general reader’ of the 1950s was appreciably more rounded (and well-sighted) than the general reader of today. The chapter (in very small print) opened:

LIFE CANNOT be defined precisely. Living things are familiar objects, but they may depend for their life on important dead components […] Life seems wedded to dead things.

Whitman, from Song of Myself, also speaks of life and its curious relation to dead things:

the smallest sprout shows there is really no death[…] all goes onward and outward […] to die is different from what any one supposed […] [Death] is form, union, plan - it is eternal life - it is Happiness.

When wandering round cemeteries, especially one like Powazki, one learns as Whitman says that ‘all goes onward and outward’. In other words, everything, in effect, stravaigs. These places are not singularly solemn cities of the dead, nor of the silent. To define them as such is to lose sight of the necropolis as a whole, and the ebb and flow of life that exists within it.

On the right-hand side of the great portico of Powazki, there is etched in the stone wall a small quote in Polish by the late Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski. It translates roughly as:

When the memories of people burn out, the stones will continue talking.

On the left-hand side of the gate drawing attention away from this is a huge twelve-foot Roman centurion, relieved from the stone, standing guard. His enormous sword whose hilt forms an equally enormous crucifix has a serpent writhing at its foot. The inscription above the gate’s entrance reads ‘Brama sw. Honoraty’ (the gate of St. Honorat). On each flank of the entrance are candle and plastic flower vendors spilling gaudy colour all over the pavement.

It is perhaps curious to note that St. Honorat (aka St. Germanus of Auxerre), having achieved saintly status for his many miracles, was mentor to St. Patrick, and had, allegedly, taken him to Britain in the fourth century AD to spare him the heresies of the wandering monk Pelagius (who had caused the church great consternation by denying original sin and by advocating free will without divine intervention). St. Honorat, with a group of priests that included St. Patrick, travelled throughout Britain convincing people to turn to God, and expelling the false priests of Pelagius who had become known as snakes.

Powazki Cemetery (pronounced Paw-Vomski) is the oldest and most famous cemetery in Warsaw, dating from the late 1700s. At the last count there were over a million bodies inhumed here (the dead in any given city almost always outnumber the living). Powazki is thus one of the largest necropolises in Europe if not the world. But it’s not the quantity of Powazki that excites, it’s the quality.

During the third partition of Poland (1795-1918) which saw the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth divided amongst Russia, Prussia and Austria, Powazki was the only place where monuments of any ‘creative’ merit could be erected. It is here in the depths of this ‘city of the dead’ where artists gave their works to posterity. As such, the site, which contains several cemeteries of varying religious inclinations, is something of a skansen of sculpture, and architecture, and of a quiet, outspoken patriotism. Powazki is the Pere Lachaise of Warsaw, and like Abney Park Cemetery in north London, it is also something of an arboretum with trees of all species, shapes, and sizes.

Through the front gate, the site peels away into the distance, and its tree-lined alleyways send the eye into infinity. Not far from the main gate are the catacombs and the Aleja Zasłużonych (Avenue of the Meritorious), one of the more ‘upmarket’ quarters of the cemetery. It is here where such notables (the deserved dead) like Leopold Staff, Wladyslaw Reymont, Zwirko and Wigura, and the Polish tenor and actor Jan Kiepura are buried. The opulence of some tombs is both attractive and repulsive.

It is early July, ‘lipiec’ in Polish: ‘the month of the lime tree’. There is growth all around. Some graves are completely shrouded with weeds and wild flowers. The sky in places is almost completely blotted out due to tree cover. There is a sort of shredded sunlight percolating through the canopy, painting the ground with a crooked chess set of light and shade.

The whole place, this cool quiet morning, is like a photograph, an enormous painting in light. On my way to Plot 23 (one of the cemetery’s most sought-after plots) I sweep through the tree-lined alleyways like Swist, the Slavic God of the Wind.

I glance at names as I go, at digits and dates, at tombs and trees. Some of the tombs are big enough to hold a mass in. I pass by the plot of Zbigniew Herbert, the popular Polish poet and essayist. His black marbled tomb simply reads ‘poeta’.

Weaving through makeshift trails between rows and plots I come across what I initially think is the grave of Joseph Conrad. The dates and the chiselled bearded facial relief, and of course the name of Jozef Korzeniowski (Conrad’s birth name) seem all present and correct. But it’s not Conrad, for Conrad is interred in Canterbury Cemetery, Canterbury being the town where Conrad lived out the latter part of his life. This plot here is the grave of the Krakovian dramatic director of the same name.

As I walk and weave some more, the beguiling song of a wood warbler (‘swistunka’, named after the god of the wind) lights up the air.

From fifty metres out I catch sight of the tomb of Krzysztof Kieslowski. I recognise the hands, squared in typical filmic pose. Kieslowski died at the age of fifty-four having given to cinema, amongst others, his epic Dekalog (ten short stories made for TV based on the ten commandments, filmed in and around Warsaw), La Double Vie de Veronique (a meditation on the nature of free will, subtly underscored by the haunting music of his long time friend and colleague Zbigniew Preisner), and the Three Colours Trilogy loosely based on the political ideals of the French Republic, liberté - egalité - fraternité.

It comes from a deep-rooted conviction that if there is anything worthwhile doing for the sake of culture, then it is touching on subject matters and situations which link people, and not those that divide people. There are too many things in the world which divide people, such as religion, politics, history, and nationalism. If culture is capable of anything, then it is finding that which unites us all. [Krzysztof Kieslowski]

Standing here looking around, at the tombs and epitaphs galore, I get to thinking that in a world of constant competition (there is no avoiding crass ‘catch-up capitalism’ in Warsaw) death is the one cultural certainty which truly unites everybody. As such, death, as this great coherer, concocts a paradox that, in a world where we struggle to grow together, our decay and death is the only way to do it. Surrounded by the many birch-branch crosses honouring the glory of the fallen, it isn’t difficult to lose it a little in a Warsaw cemetery, to allow the cynic within to get the better of you. But it’s not for long. I spot a jay (or rather it spots me) sitting on the chipped wing of an angel a couple of rows down, shaded by the languid leaves and the broad curving crown of an old Spanish Chestnut.

On Kieslowski’s tomb, there are some flowers, but no epitaph. On the front corner of the black marbled surface someone has placed a small gold coin. It is twenty Hong Kong cents. Next to Kieslowski is someone called Roman Aftanazy (Historyk Kultury), and the epitaph in Greek letters, ‘panta rhei’.

Cemeteries are curious places. There is something placid about them, something natural invested within them, something human within (not least the bodies that are buried there), that conveys amidst the apparent stillness an overwhelming feeling of the ineluctable flux of nature. Of course, not all cemeteries are so readily blessed as Warsaw’s Powazki. As a woodland necropolis it has far more to offer than most in terms of flux. Like Glasgow’s Central Necropolis or Paris’ Pere Lachaise, Powazki (one of Warsaw’s virtual lungs with Brodnowski on the other side of the river) is also a virtual landscape in the city where, due to its sheer size, you can get away from the metropolis and its din of unknowing, and spend an afternoon strolling the car-free avenues of a more silent and serene city. Unlike Glasgow’s Central Necropolis however, Powazki has a great many trees, most over a hundred years old. It is this aspect that paints Powazki, quite literally, in a whole different light.

Cemeteries in summer are particularly curious. They lend a certain overarching beauty to the stravaiger therein. I suppose the same might be said of cemeteries in any season for the changes they bring to the land and tombscape, but I’m not sure if the summer (and maybe the spring) isn’t privileged. As the cyclical period of ‘life’ the season of summer has a communicative effect with a cemetery and its space. There is a profusion of growth (as summer) joining in with decay (as the weathered cemetery and exhausted corpses). Within this larger context there is a sense of the microcosm of the quiet graveyard, of a more rounded whole of inextricable parts, of growth upwards and decay downwards, everything silently moving. A whole which, by its very nature and through its simple concealment in the belly of the city, is magnificently beautiful.

Indeed, in summer, the cemetery becomes not so much a sleeping place (as its etymology might suggest) but a land of activity: of spiders buildings webs, of birds nursing young, of plants overgrowing. It is to this reality that the word ‘necropolis’ as ‘city of the dead’ would perhaps be more readily applicable to the concrete jungle outside.

Consequently, though it may seem trite to say it, cemeteries like this are amongst the liveliest and most fascinating places in all the city. It is not because one is surrounded by the dead (to which one feels correspondingly ‘alive’ - this would only concur with a small-minded view of life), but because one is surrounded by a totality of life (that of life and non-life), and great varieties of it. As Kenneth White, writer, wanderer, poet and fellow necrostravaiger, says in his narrative waybook Across the Territories,

As every transcendental traveller knows, the most interesting places in any town are the library, the station and the cemetery. If you don’t know that you may as well stay at home and watch television.

A dead tree, with two treecreepers crawling its length foraging for food, stands skeletal in front of me. Aside it stands a two-metre high statue of a soldier in full uniform holding a flower.

There is an old ecosophical saying that says that in a dead tree there is more life than in a living one. The same could be said of humans if they didn’t insist in marbling themselves off when buried. Not content with living as long as they can, they seek now to die as long as they can too. Even in death, by virtue of air-tight coffins and marbled tombs, people want to live forever. Humans have become non-biodegradable, plastic-coated, non-recyclable. Abridged from the greater earth they are part of, there is something of a prolonged decomposition at work in modern-day graveyards.

An extended putrefaction is something the tree does not readily go in for. For a start, it doesn’t have the money. In the US alone, death is a $25 billion industry. In Poland too (a country slipping deeper into America’s pocket), following my visit to the enormous Brodnowski Cemetery on the fanatical ‘Day of the Dead’ (1st November) death has cornered a substantial market too. Not content with opulent coffins and tombs, a cyclical market has developed with tens of thousands of candles in plastic holders filling the air with a putrid almost toxic smell and smoke. Plastic flowers carpet the cemetery.

Memorials for the Warsaw Uprising and Katyn and the late Pope John Paul II are a flower and candle-sellers’ bread and butter. Huge great metal bins lining the alleys are filled with mangled plastic containers, and plastic flowers that have withered. Death is well and truly alive here. On days like these (of which throughout the Polish calendar there are several) with torrents of people coming and going (depositing their non-biodegradables), it almost verges on the taphophilic. For this tree however, dead in front of me, teeming with life, death is no industry at all. Dying is as simple as living.

I move down deeper into the cemetery, passing snails in mid-path, down to the edge it shares with the Jewish cemetery. We are now in the darkest (most lightest) depths of Powazki in plot 347. There is a large wall separating the two cemeteries which makes it virtually impossible to see into it. We are (and I am reluctant to say this) at what is arguably the quietest corner of the city of Warsaw. It is the city’s biggest secret. Another blackbird pierces the air, before silence again. Not in any of the public parks can you get this glorious sense of isolation, of uninterrupted nature within such a serene citified sylvan setting. It really is something special.

With a helping hand from the headstone of the dearly departed Zygmunt Muczynski I scale the wall in a single bound and I can see that the Jewish Cemetery is even wilder than this one. Tombs lie scattered all over the place, most having toppled or fallen against each other, now propping each other up precariously. Flecks of sunlight are dashed against them having infiltrated the thick canopy of tree cover overhead. Ludwik Zamenhof, doctor and creator of Esperanto, is in there somewhere.

At this point in the stravaig I decide to embark upon an old Slavic tradition. Sitting on the tomb of Jerzy Nowacki beneath the frilled canopy of a stag-horn sumach I take out my sandwiches and lunch upon the grave of the dead. In the past, and in some areas still continued, it was considered fitting within Slavic circles to eat with the dead, to keep them company, and indulge them in a little conversation, albeit slightly one-sided. It is a tradition that at its core seeks to impart the thought that death is not the end. It is also simply a tradition of eating, drinking and being merry for one day we will, like Jerzy and all his co-tenants, surely die.

I carry on skirting the perimeter before delving back into the centre. Some tombs I pass are completely shrouded with fern and overgrown with wild daisies. It’s as if the dead had been planted, and are now sprouting flowers. The botanist Carl Linnaeus in his Västergötland Journey often mused on the subject of death:

When I dig the soil of churchyards, I take the parts which have constituted and been transformed by human beings into human beings; if I take them to my kitchen garden and put plants in them, from this I get cabbage heads instead of human heads, but if I boil these /cabbage/ heads and give them to people, they are transformed once again in to people’s heads or to other parts etc. thus we come to eat up our dead, and in so doing we prosper.

In Powazki, admittedly, we are a little lucky in having such growth and spread of life. Warsaw is a city of some forty cemeteries, including three of the largest in Europe. Most are so well-tended that any sign of wildness or ‘out-of-controlness’ is soon expunged by its caretakers. In fact, some cemeteries in Poland are so well-tended that some of the tombs and decorated mausolea look quite inhabitable.

It is not unusual in Poland for schools or scout groups to be awarded a cemetery to look after, particularly those graves of families who have breathed their last or have moved away. Cemeteries are national monuments, and on certain days throughout the year they are bustling with families and friends of the dearly departed. The glow from candles on a day of remembrance (of which there are several in Poland) could power a small reactor. On the gate of the cemetery in Zakopane in the Tatry mountains there is a small wooden plaque which reads - ‘a nation is its people and its graves’. So, here in Powazki, overgrown, is hardly typical of a Polish cemetery. This is further reinforced as I jump onto the 180 bus outside to go a mile up the road past the Tatar and Muslim cemeteries to New Powazki, formerly Warsaw Military Cemetery. It is pristine.

Gone are the small weathered benches, sitting skeletal before the tombs. Gone is the beautiful decay of headless angels and fingerless Christs. None of the residents here are pushing up the daisies, nor the ferns. Everything has been manicured and graphed. There are no more earthen paths leading off the cobbles. One is afraid to stand on the grass lest it incurs some kind of penalty. But still, all this tidiness aside, New Powazki has much to offer. It is here in plot A29 that the roving Pole Ryszard Kapuscinski was buried recently. I’m pretty sure though he would have been more at home pushing up daisies in old Powazki.

Kapuscinski, a roving reporter famous for his ‘involvement’ in twenty-seven revolutions and coups all over the world had died earlier this year in Warsaw after a serious illness. He had been likened to a modern day Herodotus for his capacity to storytell with such authority (and perhaps a good deal more truth). In fact, Herodotus and his Histories (which Kapuscinski succinctly re-translated as Investigations) had accompanied him on his adventures ever since starting out as Poland’s only foreign correspondent for the Polish Press Agency in 1964. Then, he was responsible for fifty countries over the next ten years (at about the same time he was also secret agent for the Polish Communist intelligence service). As someone who had grown up with war, and who had been deeply affected by it (Kapuscinski was born in Pinsk, now Belarus, in 1932), he was rarely to leave its penumbra. Throughout his life he was forever within range of ‘the machinery of death’. He could boast to having been sentenced to death not just once but four times, to having reported on 27 revolutions (as well as making several of his own); to having travelled the world, observed and documented its earth-shattering events; he might even tell you that he had evolved from having grown up wearing bark for shoes to getting into the bark itself and entering the ‘silva rerum’ (the forest of things as he liked to call it) of the planet. ‘To capture the world’, he used to say, ‘you have to penetrate it as completely as possible’.

In his writings, the roving Pole was ever-present (he used to claim that his tales would be authenticated not by any witnesses or satellites but by ‘its being lived’). This was not to say that he wrote for himself (rather he wrote for ‘people everywhere still young enough to be curious about the world’), but that his presence within his journalistic tracts was as essential to the story as everything else. His plurality of vision saw through the most opaque of shapes. It was here that Kapuscinski seamlessly wove from the geopolitical to the geopoetic much of the background of the situation he was caught up in. A poet more than anything Kapuscinski firmly believed that it wasn’t the spectacle that was important but the story which surrounded and gave birth to it. He had a greater commitment than simply reporting for a newspaper. If Kenneth White could coin the term transcendental travelogue for the waybooks he wrote, then Kapuscinski would have been deserving of the title of transcendent correspondent for the obstacles he surmounted and the tales he wove around them.

Lying in ‘Professorial Alley’ in New Powazki, Kapuscinski is accompanied by such notables as the journalist (recently killed in Iraq) Waldemar Milewicz, Jacek Kaczmarski (the poet/singer who beat the heady drums of the solidarity movement), and the philosophy professor Stefan Amsterdamski, one of the founders of Towarzystwo Kursow Naukowych (‘the flying university’). To my surprise, Kapuscinski does not yet have a tomb or epitaph, just a heap of earth and grass (perhaps more fitting for a man of the earth). All there is is a little wooden cross with his name on it signing him off with the dates March 4, 1932 - January 23, 2007.

As a possible epitaph, here is one I read which summed up the open-ness of Kapuscinski to the world out there, and his capacity to penetrate it. Indeed, the world out there for Kapuscinski soon became the world in there too, for it passed right through him as he passed through it.

A good writer. He had a whole lot on his mind, but he always kept his eyes and ears open. And his skin, too. Nobody could drop half-dead of malaria in a trackless waste like that Kapuscinski guy.

From plot A29, as I walk in the general direction of the entrance, I pass by some gargantuan stone figures lurching towards something, rifles and flags in hand. Their faces are a mixture of fear and pride. The date 1944 is emblazoned across the headstone. Out of the corner of my eye I catch sight of a small green woodpecker on the neat grassy verge before me. It sees me and flaps upwards to an overhanging branch. As it goes to work on the rotting wood I squeeze the binoculars up to my eyes and watch it claw-hammering away for the next how many minutes. It seems oblivious to my presence, indeed oblivious to anything else other than what might be crawling beneath that piece of gently rotting bark. It is perfectly concentrated with the task in beak. It has me completely absorbed until I too am completely oblivious to everything around me, though in this oblivion there is also a complete consciousness, a complete awareness of the essences surrounding. Just like the woodpecker who feels you coming it’s as if I can feel the woodpecker. As if to bring me back down to earth (though I would argue that I had never left it), the woodpecker lets out a piercing laughing yaffle which illuminates the graveyard before flapping off through the trees.

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