DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY:
Colonies by Tomasz Różycki (trans. Mira Rosenthal). Zephyr Press. $15.00 144pp.
The Forgotten Keys by Tomasz Różycki (trans. Mira Rosenthal), Zephyr Press. $14.95, 112pp.
As a granddaughter of immigrants, I steeped in Polish American culture growing up in a suburb of Hartford, CT. All the adults spoke Polish, all the cousins spoke English. We went to the Polish mass at St. Cyril to hear my beloved grandmother, Aniela, sing. She would tell me how she risked her life as a young woman in Poland to worship Christ in basements. I thought my grandfather was Pope John Paul II for years. She kept his photograph on her bedside table and kissed it. “Why does dziadzui wear that hat?” I asked and received the disappointing news that my grandfather was the hatless man in the picture on the living room mantel.
Learning Polish never clicked for me despite (or because of) several wan attempts, so I have always read Polish poetry through the prism of translation. I was excited to meet Tomasz Różycki, a poet new-to-me, though he has been available in English since The Forgotten Keys (Zephyr Press, 2007), a collection translated by Mira Rosenthal that samples from a number of his books, starting with poems from his Polish debut, Vaterland (1997). Until recently, The Forgotten Keys was the only English translation available. Zephyr Press is committed to changing that, publishing Colonies in early 2013, also translated by Mira Rosenthal, then with plans to bring out Twelve Stations , rendered by the esteemed Bill Johnston. This relative explosion of Różycki-in-English should firmly establish him among those remarkable Polish poets who have become essential poets in English, from Milosz and Herbert to Hartwig and Zagajewski.
Colonies and Twelve Stations showcase aspects of Różycki that were not as evident in the previous volume, particularly his technical prowess, his wicked humor, and his ability to deliver on an epic scale. The Forgotten Keys does an admirable job of introduction, but a sampling of poems from numerous collections, regardless of how well-constructed, is not the same as experiencing a work as it was meant to cohere. Colonies and Twelve Stations are complete manuscripts, not a patchwork from diverse sources. The difference is astounding.
The poems in Colonies, first published in 2006, were composed during Różycki’s walks to work. A daily route allows the mind to revisit quotidian vistas and places. It influences pacing of thoughts and impacts the rhythm of lines as they unfurl. It also promotes a regularity that can be seen in the structure of the book itself, which is composed of seventy-seven numbered sonnets. The sonnets have often whimsical titles that evoke nineteenth-century travel narratives through the naming of things, such as “Missionaries and Savages,” “The Road to India,” and “Cocoa and Parrots.” Walking also invites attention to the place itself. For Różycki, relationship to place is his central problematic.
Twelve Stations extends the concept of walking: the speaker, a character called Grandson, goes on a modern quest to the east to find his ancestral home. Twelve Stations won the prestigious Kościelski Foundation Prize in 2004 and brought Różycki national recognition. It is a nod to Adam Mickiewicz, the grandfather of Polish letters. Published in 1834, Pan Tadeusz is the national epic of Poland and required reading for generations of school children. Through alluding to the national epic, Różycki connects the quest of his narrator, a speaker with a thoroughly contemporary perspective, with a cultural touchstone and, as Mira Rosenthal has stated, “the restorative intent of the project becomes clear.”
This restorative aspect underscores Różycki’s engagement with his cultural history and context. Part of this engagement involves personal mythmaking, as is evidenced by using the epic form. Epics tell the story of a people; they are a social and public form rather than a private, interior space. What is most striking about Twelve Stations is the voice of the narrator. He is hilarious. It is unlikely that a reader will chuckle overmuch while reading The Forgotten Keys or Colonies; conversely, there are moments in Twelve Stations—and many of them—where I had to put down the manuscript because I was laughing too hard. Villon’s rire en pleurs—crying through tears—comes to mind. This injection of humor is the necessary antidote to what is a tragic story. It is the honey that coats a bitter pill.
Różycki’s rollicking, smart, and bitter humor comes through right from the start, where the narrator, in an apostrophe that nods to Baudelaire, addresses Opole:
City of my affliction! Pathogen of black bile, unhappy tumor
swelling in the soul—how I hate you, city!
To leave you, go, quit you forever! . . .
. . . Oh, city—this city,
witness to all my raptures and all my woes!
Heroic city, thrice awarded the Silesian Order of Brilliance
and twice the Medal of the City of a Hundred Banks and One Bookstore!
City of the Limestone Visage, nestling in the Valley
of the Cement Works, on the border between Utter
and Slower Silesia . . .
Typically a writer’s provenance gives biographical padding—good for trivia but not overtly impactful on the writing itself, though this is less true for translated work where the source writer’s provenance is always of interest. With Różycki, however, understanding where he is from is absolutely central to accessing his work. He can’t be separated from his historical context. His poetic terrain is infused by place and by lack of place, place and displacement. He speaks from a place of permanent exile.
This central concern is directly confronted in the poem “Entropy” from The Forgotten Keys:
. . . I say
we have no fatherland. It went missing during transport,
or maybe the cavalry scattered it in their horses’ manes,
the poets twisted its name, and the typeface in newspapers
shredded it. That is why each of us collected what we could
under our eyelids, earth sand, bricks, whole flakes
of the sky, the scent of grass, and now no one knows
what to do with it all, how to close the eyes, how to sleep
Mira Rosenthal gives the broad strokes of Różycki’s historical context in her thoughtful introduction to The Forgotten Keys. This is particularly helpful for those uninitiated in the terms of the decision at Yalta in 1945, which resulted in whole towns, communities, and families of Germans and Poles forcibly moved due to geopolitical schemes that revised the map.
Różycki is a cultural ambassador of a particular generational experience: that of the grandchildren of the Poles moved west from their eastern cities. His generation, like mine, represents new growth of old family lines in new soil.
In a PEN post from 2009, Różycki talks about the impetus behind the poem Scorched Maps from Colonies. He explains how he went to Lwów searching for his family’s roots, for their homes. He says:
There wasn’t a house, or a shrine, not even a tree remained in the garden—someone had rubbed out all the signs. But I found one of my grandmother’s neighbors, an old woman who remembered how they used to play together when they were young. She showed me the one thing that remained of the house—a brick cellar, half-buried, next to a dirt road that runs today over the spot where the house once stood. It was the only reminder of all the people whose tracks I was searching for.
The lost fatherland is a burden deeply experienced by Różycki, and who better to carry the vestal flame of home than a poet? Who better to bridge the past and the present? Who better to mark the long, sublunar ceremony of a communal death as it plays out in dreams, visions, and ambiguous psychological landscapes? In altered states, perhaps dreaming, “those who hid under the collar of sleep” enter the corridor of the two kingdoms—the past and the present. “. . .They still insist / on the exact same things, as if this house by the railroad tracks, / the garden, and every single tiny object still existed.”
His connection to the experience lends a particular complexity. He is working through generational memory, processing experiences that came down to him in recent stories, likely told by his own grandparents. Różycki comes onto the scene with a non-ironic engagement with how the geopolitical impacts the human who is constructed, externally and internally, by a sense of home and connection to a place and its myths.
Różycki has talented and agile translators invested in him and a strong publishing house behind him. Because of this support, English readers can engage with a poet who is quite different than what they might be used to: one who is intimate and political, humorous and pained, one who can sustain an epic, craft a concatenation of sonnets, and turn out a lyric with aplomb. There is fearlessness in Różycki’s work which is magnetic. He speaks his truth, the truth of a man in permanent exile.
Nicole Zdeb is a poet and educational assessment designer in Portland, Oregon. Her most recent chapbook, The Friction of Distance (2011), was published by Bedouin Books.
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