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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Turkey & the meaning of ‘Europe’

Turkey, it seems, wants to be part of the EU but the EU isn’t equally keen to accept it. A recent article in the Guardian explored this ambivalence and its possible consequences. As interesting as the article itself were the comments from readers. These were strongly negative on the whole – much more so than i’d normally expect from a ‘progressive’ newspaper like the Guardian.

I was particularly struck by the claim that Turkey is apparently “not part of Europe either culturally or geographically”. Taking the geographic part of this first: why does this matter? There is no particular reason why Europe the political entity need be an exact match of Europe the geographical entity. States and federations of states are not naturally occurring phenomena like rivers or mountains.

This is something the commentator should have been aware of himself actually as his name indicates he’s from Poland, a country whose geographical expression has been very variable over time. Part of Turkey is in Europe geographically and – rather ironically – the coast of the Asian part of its territory was historically home to some of those Greek states which form part of the ‘common European historical narrative’ which is used to legitimise a pan-European identity.

The second part of the claim is more complicated: is Turkey part of Europe culturally? I find this hard to answer because i honestly don’t know what European culture is. Western Classical Music? For the elite maybe. Indo-European languages? What about Basque?

Many of those who object to Turkey’s candidature lay great stress on a shared Christian history. This is yet another beautifully ironic moment: apart from the fact that many of the “Pro-Christians” who argue this are atheists who are hostile to Christianity in most other circumstances, there’s also the sheer hypocrisy and/or historical ignorance of suggesting that Christianity has been some kind of unifying force in Europe. I’m not one of those people who thinks Christianity or religion in general is bad, but let’s be honest: Christianity has been a factor in some of the continent’s bloodiest wars.

As far as i can tell, all ‘a shared Christian history’ really means is ‘not Muslim’. Yet, hang on for a minute, Bosnia and Albania, both of which lie entirely within Europe geographically, have large Muslim populations – and, more importantly, have had them for centuries. In Albania’s case, Muslims probably make up a majority of the population, although it’s hard to be sure because the data is so poor.

I was going to ask how much cultural unity there is in Europe, but given how hard it is to define what our common European culture is supposed to consist of, i’m not sure there’s any point. I will ask however: how many western Europeans for example feel any deep kinship with eastern Europeans? The article’s comments are telling in this respect, with much hostility being displayed towards new eastern European member states such as Bulgaria and Romania. When i was a child this sort of hostility was rare because these countries sat behind the so-called Iron Curtain and frankly, beyond occasional moments of sympathy for the plight of people living in Communist dictatorships, i can’t remember ever being very aware they existed. Even now, i bet many Western Europeans would struggle to locate their Eastern neighbours on an unlabelled map.

The elephant in the room, which few people seem to want to acknowledge, is the idea that Europeans share a common ethnic origin, or to put it even more crudely are ‘white’. Leaving aside where this leaves the many citizens of modern European nations who are most definitely not ‘white’, how non-European are the Turks ethnically? Here i think the great irony is that the Turks’ own ‘common historical narrative’ works against them, because it tends to encourage the idea that Turks are unambiguously the descendents of the Turkic invaders whose language they now speak. Yet, it’s obvious when you look at modern Turkish people – especially if you’ve also met people from Central Asian Turkic nations – that the Turks are more European – and more Levantine – than they care to admit. The genetic evidence* i’m aware of backs this up. In fact, this is just what you’d expect in a country which was previously the hub of a multi-ethnic empire.

I honestly don’t know if it’s a good idea for Turkey to join the EU: it seems to me that being admitted so grudgingly would poison their membership from the start. I do, however, think that the debate over its candidature could be useful in challenging assumptions about identity on both sides.

* I have seen a few summaries of papers which look at this in more detail via anthropology blogs that i subscribe to, but i don’t have time to track them down right now. Hopefully, i’ll be able to post details in the near future.