Jacek Dehnel’s ‘Timepiece, or a Minor Liturgy of the Hours for the Non- Practising’ was composed in May and June of 2006, when the poet was twenty-six, just after the death, in 2005, of Barbara Tarczyńska, the mother of Jacek’s boyfriend, Piotr. Just as Piotr was coming out, his mother was diagnosed with cancer, and because he didn’t want to add to her anxiety, he never revealed his sexuality to her. Jacek’s poem, addressed to Barbara, casts the seven sections of the traditional prayer – Matins, Terce, Sext, and so on – into twelve rhymed couplets each. The original Polish employs the classical meter of the thirteen-syllable line, which in translation I’ve adapted to a relaxed iambic pentameter.
Why the form of the liturgy of the Hours, also known as the Divine Office, prayed seven times throughout the day? According to the Apostolic Constitution of the Catholic Church, ‘The purpose of the Divine Office is to sanctify the day and all human activity.’ Jacek’s secular Hours allows him to imagine Barbara’s presence from morning till night and to sanction his relationship with Piotr by enshrining it in cadence and language.
While translating this poem, I found myself thinking of Rilke, specifically his ‘Requiem for a Friend’, addressed to the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker after her death in childbirth. It’s a long poem written in blank verse, which, as Robert Hass has noted, ‘proceeds in bursts: it has the awkwardness of grief, which seems to exhaust itself and then breaks out again’. Rilke, like Dehnel, uses a liturgical title (from the Mass for the dead) for his poem, and, in 1905, had published his own Book of Hours. Yet Rilke’s ‘Requiem’, however intimate in its direct speech to Modersohn-Becker (‘Come into the candlelight. I’m not afraid / to look the dead in the face’), ultimately asks her to return to the grave because the poet sees death as a perfected realm that, like art, exists outside the messy demands of life.
Dehnel’s ‘Timepiece’, by contrast, never loses sight of the daily annoyances, quirks, and pleasures of living in Warsaw with Piotr Tarczyński: the snoring neighbour, the dirty elevator, the way Piotr puffs out his cheeks before shaving, the rituals of the Christmas vigil, where the traditional foods – mushrooms, poppyseed, and dried fruit – all bear a resonance of death. There is also the practice of setting an empty plate at the feast for a wandering stranger or an ancestor back from the dead. Instead of urging Barbara to return to the grave, Dehnel invites her into their lives, even asking if she spies on him and Piotr when they’re making love.
The practice of coming out has many layers: first to the self, then to close friends and sometimes to family, and, finally, to the culture at large. Same-sex marriage is still not allowed in Poland, and discrimination against LGBT+ people is pervasive. Last November, after fifteen years together, Jacek and Piotr were married in London. During the months I wrestled with this poem, I’d sometimes call to mind Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s words in Obergefell v. Hodges, the case that ended the prohibition against same-sex marriage in the United States:
‘Until the mid-20th century, same-sex intimacy long had been condemned as immoral by the state itself in most Western nations, a belief often embodied in the criminal law. For this reason, among others, many persons did not deem homosexuals to have dignity in their own distinct identity. A truthful declaration by same-sex couples of what was in their hearts had to remain unspoken.’
Or, as Adrienne Rich, writing lesbian love into the literary canon, observed in the first sonnet of Twenty-One Love Poems: ‘No one has imagined us.’
‘Timepiece’ demands nothing less than a full imagining of the couple at its heart – with legacies familial, legal, literary and liturgical. The poem is simultaneously cosmopolitan and also specifically Polish, with its references to the language’s intricate grammar and polite forms, the objects in the Dehnel-Tarczyński home inherited from previous generations, the holiday rituals, and even the Catholic prayer. This cultural dimension, of course, makes coming out political as well as personal, for a full imagining of same-sex love requires a society to break its timeworn fetters and to warm to a fuller embrace of all its citizens.
By Karen Kovacik
Hass, Robert. “Looking for Rilke.” Twentieth-Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry. Ecco Press, 1984, pp. 226-268.
Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 U.S. 2071. Supreme Court of the United States. 2015. Supreme Court Collection. Legal Information Inst., Cornell U. Law School. Web. 19 Mar. 2019.
Rich, Adrienne. Collected Poems: 1950-2012. Norton, 2016.
Rilke, Rainer Maria. The Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke. Ed. and trans. Stephen Mitchell. Vintage, 1982.
Read The Queer Riveter in its entirety here.
Read Timepiece, or a Minor Lithurgy of the Hours for the Non-Practising by Jacek Dehnel in Karen Kovacik’s translation here.
Karen Kovacik is a poet and translator of contemporary Polish poetry. Her books include Metropolis Burning, Beyond the Velvet Curtain, winner of the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize, and Nixon and I.