Polish poetry & me

I discovered the poetry of Poland via the work of Ewa Lipska. I remember reading her poem Instruction Manual, with its insistent refrain “The nation’s dead”, when i was twenty or so. At that time i was at home with a young son, trying to keep my mind alive by reaching out to a world beyond the small commuter town in which i was trapped. Poetry more than anything was my lifeline: language distilled to perfection. Lipska’s work spoke to me despite, rather than because of, its focus on politics; I sought out more and – naturally? inevitably? – discovered her compatriots Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska. For some reason lost in the mist of time however their work didn’t stick, at least not then.

Soon afterwards i came across another Polish poet whose work did stick: Anna Swir (or Świrszczyńska). I’ve long since forgotten the name of the anthology in which i found her poems and only remember that it was a book showcasing women poets. More frustrating is the fact that i have no idea who did the translations; they (and presumably the original poems) are marvellous – deft, sensual, acerbic, poignant. Three of them i copied out and cherish to this day: A Spring, She Doesn’t Remember and Her Hand. The third of those is short enough to quote in full:

When my mother was dying
I held her hand.
When she died i burnt everything
her hand had touched.
Only my own hands
I couldn’t burn.

A few more years passed and i found myself unemployed and back in my hometown. Up on the city walls there was a little second-hand bookshop and whenever i had a bit of money i’d go up there and spend it on poetry books. Actually, i went up there whenever i got the chance, not just when i had money; but the rest of the time i had to come away empty handed. One of the books i found there was by Tadeusz Różewicz: Poezje wybrane/Selected Poems*, a bilingual selection of his work translated by Adam Czerniawski. This is dark stuff. Forever marked, it seems, by his experience of the Second World War, Różewicz makes lists; he mistrusts beauty. The typewriter-like font (green for the Polish and black for the English) and the delicate paper only emphasises the feeling of austerity. One poem in particular haunts me. It’s called Beyond Words (in Polish: Nad Wyraz) and begins:

What are you doing
emerged from darkness
Why don’t you want
to live in full light

Its final words are even more powerful:

One tear
inexpressible
beyond words

After that – a long while after that – came Zbigniew Herbert, ‘a spiritual leader of the anticommunist movement in Poland’ according to the brief biography which prefaces his Collected Poems 1956-1998**. Herbert’s work is thrilling – comic and grave – yet curiously difficult to quote from; the poems work beautifully, yet if you try to pull out lines to show to people they fall apart. I do like this stanza from I Would Like To Describe, however:

I would like to describe courage
without dragging behind me a dusty lion
and also anxiety
without shaking a glass full of water

(Translation: Alissa Valles)

I too would like to be free of that dusty lion.

Finally, we come to a poet who arrived in my life just a month ago, courtesy of yet another anthology: Anna Piwkowska. The anthology is called Six Polish Poets*** and I found it in the same second-hand bookshop where many years previously i discovered Snow and Summers by Solveig von Schoultz. There is one poem in particular, about the sudden death of young woman as she is getting out the bath, which i think is incredible. It’s called Lament Of That Summer (or in Polish: Tren Tamtego Lata):

She stepped onto the side of death.
Here, one wet foot on the floor,
hair dryer, towel around her hips,
the other foot into the water,
into death, straight from the summer bath.
She managed just once more to run
the wet hand through her tangled hair.
The tea was cooling in the room;
she planned to hang the lingerie,
the light blue nothing, woven
out of fine silk threads.
Summer. Hot quivering morning.
The day had promised joy, and haste;
behind the wall her son called out
about the puppy’s nose in milk.
The dress hurriedly thrown
across the chair, cinnabar, absorbed
the drops of sunshine. The organ
music of Johann Sebastian
flowed across the room, a woman
or some strange furry animal.
The day brought joy. She managed
nothing. Not even a single shout.
Fear or a contraction
as if before a battle or
a trip. But why with no preparing
or good-byes did she let out
this tiny drop of oxygen
like laughter? A small wooden cross
above the mirror. Brief lapse
of attention. Behind the wall
The boy was playing with the dog.

(Translation: Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese).

There you have it: the story so far, spanning two decades, of Polish poetry and me.

* Poezje wybrane/Selected Poems: ISBN 83-08-01777-0;  Tadeusz Różewicz; trans. Adam Czerniawski; pub. Wydawnictwo Literackie (1991)
** Collected Poems 1956-1998: ISBN 978-1-84354-833-6; Zbigniew Herbert; trans. Alissa Valles; pub. Atlantic Books (2008)
*** Six Polish Poets: ISBN 978-1-904614-50-0; ed. Jacek Dehnel; pub. Arc Publications (2008)

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Your mother’s face

We never really look at those we know and love, yet will gaze at other passengers on a train noticing all their little details. Take this carriage and the people sitting facing me. One woman has black-painted nails gnawed down to the quick. The man next to her – pink shirt, tiny cut on his throat where he presumably nicked himself while shaving – is beginning to lose his hair. It’s fine and blond, and a bit tousled. Perhaps he overslept? Had to get ready in a hurry? That would explain the cut too.

And so it goes on. I notice their clothes, their lips, the length and shape of their fingers (as they fidget, write a text, turn the pages of their book). I wonder where they’re going. All but two of the people are blue-eyed. The exceptions are both girls: they’re sitting together but I don’t think they know one another. The one nearest me has brown eyes – in fact they’re almost black – while her neighbour’s are green (i think). She has turned her face away and is staring into space.

‘What is she thinking about?’ I wonder.

Describing people

Just started (what I assume) is the latest lnspector Sejer novel* by Karin Fossum. Normally, I love her books, but I’m struggling to get into this one, mostly because for the first time I’m noticing the mechanics of the story, the stuff that, when you’re swept away by the writing, goes undetected.

There’s an excruciating passage on page 5 where she’s trying to flesh out two minor characters, a couple who are about to discover a dead body (lucky them!). She writes:

She brushed her long hair away from her cheeks and forehead. It was thick and brown with auburn streaks. She was petite, her face was small with a high domed forehead and round cheeks. She had tiny hand and feet, and indeed her husband would in more affectionate moments call her his ‘doll’. Reinhardt, too, ran his fingers through his hair. A short, sandy-coloured tuft stuck up at the front, it looked like a shark’s fin.

Why doesn’t this work (for me anyhow)? The answer: it’s too obvious that she’s describing people. It feels to me as if Kristine (that’s the woman’s name) and Reinhardt are messing with their hair for no other reason than to give Fossum an excuse to remark on it – and in Kristine’s case to tell us just about everything else she can think of about her appearance. Making it worse, this occurs in what feels like an interminable passage in which our two protagonists do almost nothing but stand by a lake while we hear all about their troubled marriage, Reinhardt’s domineering and childish personality, Kristine’s lack of self-confidence – when all we really want is the body that we know is waiting for us out there somewhere! Sorry if this sounds callous, but this is crime fiction after all.

I think that the only time that a writer can normally get away with extended descriptive writing is at the beginning of a scene, when we have not yet focused in on specific people, specific perspectives, but are peering at the scene as a whole, watching it come into view. I’d compare this to the kind of sequence you get at the start of some movies, where the camera pans around the setting for a while, before dropping down into the story itself. Once we enter the characters’ world, descriptive writing only feels natural if there’s a reason – a convincing reason – for one of the characters to notice the attribute being remarked on.

For example if characters Smith and Jones have never met before, it’s quite believable that they might notice something striking about one another’s appearance. A third character, MacDonald, who accompanies Smith but doesn’t join in the conversation might conceivably notice even more: this does tend to be the case when we are observing rather than participating. But if Smith and Jones are alone, know each other well and nothing in particular is happening – and yet the novelist starts describing one or the other of them in detail, the information feels incongruous. Who is noticing these details? You might get away with it in the kind of story where there is an intentionally intrusive narrator, but if the storytelling style is naturalistic then this kind of descriptive ‘anomaly’ will quickly undermine its authenticity.

* The Water’s Edge (ISBN 9781846551703)