My Lungs Are Full: It’s Wonderful

Pandemic Advice from a 1976 Polish poem

Since March, I’ve been reading and re-reading a 50-year-old Polish poem. Written by Edward Stachura — a troubled bard recovering from a painful divorce — it appears as the final track of “Birthday,” his 1976 album.¹ Here’s my translation.

Song for the Quarantined

It’s wonderful:
My lungs are full!
I have two hands,
I have two feet!

Loaf on! There’s bread
And cheese to spread,
For drinking — rain.

The night descends,
With it, a chill;
I have two hands,
I’ll hug myself.

I’ll hide myself
And nestle in
My bristled fur.

Daybreak is far,
Can’t see a thing;
I have two feet;
We’ll make it there.

There’s barking mutts!
There’s flying mists!
Keep sleeping, miss!

My lungs are full:
It’s wonderful!

I don’t think I need to explain why this poem in particular has been on my mind over the past few months.² Instead, let me tell you about my shifting interpretations, and how they led me to a kind of hope. Perhaps you might find your way there too.


First, a confession. In Polish, the poem’s title is more like “Song for the Infected (with a contagious disease).” I’ve taken some liberties with the translation so that I could dedicate it to all of us, including those locked down not by a diagnosis, but only its possibility.

It’s a hopeless title to translate, anyway. “Zapowietrzony” — “infected” — literally means “aired up” or “over-aired.” The word has its roots in the old-fashioned belief that infectious diseases spread through bad air, or miasmic vapors.

Just the song for us, potential victims of an airborne pulmonary disease.


Edward Stachura

The first time I read the poem, I thought it was an exuberant song, a pared down hymn to asceticism. Stachura finds joy in the (seemingly) smallest things: air, bread, a healthy body, the sound of words. He may be cut off from his fellow humans, but he reframes his loneliness as an opportunity for self-reliance.

If this version of Stachura were alive today, he might say: it’s wonderful: our lungs are full! How sweet the air tastes when you don’t have a pulmonary infection… or a policeman kneeling on your neck! How wonderful to bake your own bread, to taste all the pleasures of solitude! How grand, at the end of a Zoom call, to still have two hands for hugging yourself!³

Can you read this with a straight face? I don’t think I can, and I’m not sure Stachura could, either. The poem has a knife-edge quality: one foot in grateful exuberance, the other in irony. “Thanks for the air,” it says, forever hovering between “thanks for everything” and “thanks for nothing.”


The second time through, I listen to Stachura sing — or whimper — his poem, and the positive interpretation evaporates. All joy abandons me at “I have two hands,/I’ll hug myself.” Has there ever been a sadder couplet? These are the words of the tantrum-throwing child who thinks he can make it without his parents.

Between the verses, a chilling refrain: “Yoohoo!” It sounds like a wolf howling, choosing solitude to mask his loneliness.

In the song immediately preceding “Song of the Quarantined” in the album, air “sticks, bonelike,” in Stachura’s throat. This Polish idiom suggests that air is an annoyance or irritation; after his painful divorce, the poet doesn’t want to go on living. 

Howl it angstily enough, and “My lungs are full/it’s wonderful” will communicate the same thing.


“Quarantine Jungle.” Oil on canvas, 16″x12″

For the first few months of the pandemic, my own moods swung between gratitude and despair as wildly as my poetic interpretations. One day, I’d go on a baking spree. I’d make art. I’d feel almost a moral obligation to be happy; after all, I was young and healthy and could work from home. The next day, I’d read every news article I could get my hands on. I’d watch the death count rise and the minutes trickle away in a haze of dread. I’d feel almost a moral obligation to be unhappy. After all, people were dying, the economy was collapsing. I had no right to be the one untouched by this.


A person swinging between emotional extremes is an unhappy sight. Not necessarily so for a poem. It’s as if “Song for the Quarantined” can hold anything, emotionally. It taught me to do so too.

The lesson began with this couplet:

I have two feet;
We’ll make it there.

Who is this unexpected “we”? This isn’t the first time I’ve tripped over a Stachura pronoun. In “Time Passes and Kills Wounds,” he addresses a couple of “unknown friends,” would-be suicides, urging them to delay their act. The poem ends with the heart-wrenching

For it would be such a,
such a, such a loss –
to lose us!

The “unknown friends” vanish into thin air. Stachura has invented them. He is the one who must be dissuaded from suicide. They are simply conduits for his self-talk, arm extensions so that he may better hug himself. So too in “Song for the Quarantined” — we’ll make it there because how else do you cheer yourself on, if not through a division of the self? It’s a song for the quarantined, not of him.

Or maybe not. The friends may be unknown, but they do exist. Stachura offers his poems up to all the abandoned, all the would-be suicides. To those readers, finding an “us” at the end of a poem really can make the difference between life and death. Stachura leans on them, but he’s only able to do so because he knows they can lean on him.


During the pandemic, I turned to almost-praying for solace. Loving-kindness meditation isn’t addressed at a higher power, so it’s not quite prayer — but it’s close enough. I simply sit down and think about various people: “May you be free from suffering. May you be happy.” I do this not so that God or the universe might hear my wishes, but that I might hear them myself. As long as I can access the part of myself which aches for others’ well-being, I will be okay. Then, I can help you be okay too.

Shutterstock photo by Cynthia Kidwell.

We all need something greater than ourselves to take refuge in, to nestle in. “Greater” doesn’t need to mean “grandiose.” It can be as simple as the set of all people — united by shared suffering, fear, loneliness. Or merely — by humanity.

Like any “lone wolf,” Stachura howls to establish a new pack: a pack of the lonely. Which, right now, is just about all of us.

That’s why we dance over Zoom, sing from our balconies, write poems.


We. That single word anchors the otherwise desperate poem in hope. The second anchor comes in the final couplet: “My lungs are full:/ it’s wonderful,” symmetric bookend to the opening “It’s wonderful:/ my lungs are full.”

The reversal might be driven by poetic structure, but to me, it represents a powerful transformation.

The first lines move from wonder to full lungs. It must be wonderful, I can’t allow myself dark thoughts — so let me find something, anything, to attach my wonder to. I must be happy, so let me list 200 wholesome activities I can engage in during lockdown.

This sort of inference is inherently unstable. It can tip into irony at the slightest breeze: it must be “wonderful,” so let me add every small personal sorrow to the global grief of a pandemic.

“My lungs are full: it’s wonderful.” The wonder follows the air. Hope follows realism. Exuberance flows from neutrality. When Stachura inhales, he doesn’t assume it will be a miracle, doesn’t compare himself to those who can’t breathe. He simply experiences it; the miracle follows.


The third time through, the poem is exuberant. Some of the most profound moments of my life have been moments of simply breathing the air. During a ten-day meditation retreat, the ground beneath my feet felt as profound as a bike ride through Dutch tulip fields. During walks around the block in lockdown, the twitch of a rabbit’s nose or the flutter of a sparrow’s wing can be all the bliss I need. 

If the pandemic helps us access such moments — power to us. But such experiences can be faked. No one but me can tell whether I’m really astonished by a rabbit, whether it’s my wonder that comes first or my full lungs. And if I fake it, I’m doing myself a horrible disservice, substituted the outward trappings of joy for the real thing.


At the suggestion of a meditation teacher, I have added another clause to my loving-kindness mantra: “may I rest in not knowing.” Only if I rest in my uncertainty, risk the air not being enough, can I discover its glorious neutrality.

Since the start of the lockdown, I’ve been baking bread, gardening, organizing a Zoom poetry night. After an evening of poetry, we extend our arms, then hug ourselves. It’s wonderful.

It might not sound like it, but wolves do howl for joy.


Daybreak is far, who knows how far. How do we stop swinging from chirpy optimism to unfounded despair? Stachura’s verse suggests a way towards honest hope.

Daybreak is far,
Can’t see a thing;
I have two feet;
We’ll make it there.

Look squarely at the darkness. Admit how little you know. Then, turn to what you have, to what is, for the moment, still up to you. As long as there are feet. As long as there is air.

Tragically, we won’t all make it there. The hope which is truly honest would cut the verse down:

Daybreak is far,
Can’t see a thing;
I have two feet;
We

Darkness, two feet, and an “us.” Maybe only the possibility of an “us.” I have that much hope. It is, for the moment, enough.

 — 

[1] Since Stachura was a poet who put great care into the lyrics of his songs, I think it’s fair to call these lyrics “poems.”

[2] I drafted most of this essay before the murder of George Floyd. Of course, that tragedy gives the poem another chilling dimension.

[3] Should I, or Stachura, have said “arms?” We Poles can be cavalier about appendages; our word for soccer literally means “legball.”

2 thoughts on “My Lungs Are Full: It’s Wonderful”

  1. Thanks Eve! I enjoyed reading this essay while playing Stachura’s singing in the background. It’s wonderful how you traced your own quarantine experience through reading and translating this poem. The feeling of having almost a moral obligation to be happy at one time and unhappy at another is so real and relatable. A few days into the Wuhan lockdown, I started following some bloggers and vloggers based in Wuhan who documented their lives and city in lockdown, and almost always found myself in tears reading or watching their updates. They weren’t all bad news, there were stories of resilience and hope too, and often these were the stories that I cried to the most. It’s difficult to explain why, but I guess these were also the stories that bare humanity in its utmost vulnerability, the “everything” and “nothing” of humanity, if you will. In this insane time, thankfully we still have meditation and poetry, to keep us, if only temporarily, sane.

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    1. Thanks for the lovely comment! I actually listened to a podcast episode about those Wuhan bloggers (and one person who traveled to Wuhan just before it got locked down to vlog about it) right as the pandemic was hitting in Boston, and had a very similar listening experience! I think I also cry to the stories of resilience the most.

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