The Yeast Factory (Drożdżownia) by Jakub Kornhauser. Wydawnictwo WBPiCAK. 67 pp.
Oh, Mitochondria (Och, Mitochondria) by Edward Pasewicz. Wydawnictwo EMG. 54 pp.
Always (Zawsze) by Marta Podgórnik. Biuro Literackie. 44 pp.
On That Day (Tego Dnia) by Joanna Roszak. Wydawnictwo WBPiCAK. 58 pp.
Dietl’s Delta (Delta Dietla) by Marcin Świetlicki. Wydawnictwo EMG. 96 pp.
During the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s lifetime, it was commonly said that in Poland each of her new volumes was greeted with a rush to the bookshops, with enthusiastic readers even memorizing and reciting her verses. After winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996, her fame spread worldwide. Modest and private, Szymborska found the experience mortifying—she reportedly referred to her Nobel Prize as “the Stockholm tragedy” and kept the medal itself in a drawer.
Szymborska and her fellow Nobel Prize–winner Czesław Miłosz formed two opposite poles (if you’ll pardon the expression) of the postwar generation of Polish poets. Miłosz’s intellectual seriousness and grandiose ego contrasted with Szymborska’s accessible wit and self-effacing charm. But much united them—both survived the Second World War, both embraced and then abandoned Communism, and both endeavored to express their country’s suffering through their work. Though chafing against the idea of political poetry, they shared with their fellow postwar poets a conviction that poetry should tackle the big questions—life and death, freedom and slavery.
By the time Szymborska passed away in 2012, she was one of the last exemplars of that school: Polish poetry had been blown wide open by the collapse of Communism two decades before, and, reconnected with the Western world, younger poets looked abroad for inspiration. They were captivated by the personal, intimate, poetry of the American New York School, in particular Frank O’Hara. This poetry of the everyday, explicitly rejecting the “big questions,” has predominated in Poland for the last quarter-century. It has been part of a broader artistic exploration of self and identity in a country that finds itself—for only the second time in its modern history—free.
Meanwhile, Szymborska’s legacy since her death has been tended by her former assistant, Michał Rusinek, head of the Wisława Szymborska Foundation. Every year, the Foundation administers the Szymborska Prize, Poland’s leading poetry award. Rusinek has more of a taste for theatrics than his old boss, and the Prize ceremony is a glitzy, televised affair—a rare moment in the spotlight for an often-overlooked art form.
The Prize got a double-dose of publicity this year when, at the ceremony on June 11, Jakub Kornhauser was announced as the winner. Kornhauser is the son of one of Poland’s leading poets and critics. A passionate cyclist and outspoken progressive, he is of Jewish descent. He is also, coincidentally, the brother-in-law of Poland’s conservative nationalist president Andrzej Duda. The right-wing press immediately took his win as a symbolic attack on the president—yet another salvo in Poland’s increasingly vitriolic culture wars.
This predictable storm in a teacup unfortunately overshadowed Kornhauser’s poetry. The winning volume—his third, titled The Yeast Factory—is extraordinary in the plain sense of the word: it is unlike anything else being written in Poland today. The book is a cycle of surreal, elegiac prose-poems, dedicated to Poland’s vanished past. It makes a strong contrast with the work of his fellow-nominees: Edward Pasewicz, Marta Podgórnik, Joanna Roszak, and Marcin Świetlicki. Though these writers span three generations, each, in their way, is representative of the turn toward the personal that took place after 1989.
The most illustrious of the nominees is Świetlicki. Born in 1961, he was one of the leading voices of the ’90s (and has been periodically translated into English). He is also a novelist, short story writer, and the lead singer of his own band, and he maintains something of a “bad boy” reputation. He was nominated for Dietl’s Delta, a collection of eleven themed cycles of five poems each. The themes vary between the grand (“Five Poems About Poland,” “Five Poems About Poems”) and the mundane (“Five Dog Poems”). The poems themselves are grounded in Świetlicki’s hometown of Kraków, but they reflect his feeling of detachment from the place, as in first poem, “Not from Here” (all translations are mine, except where noted):
Because here’s not where I’m from. And here I will not stay.
I write all over the walls. I laugh at the locals
Stuck in their local ways, I give them momentary
Pleasure, and as soon as it’s over, they cast me out.
Świetlicki is perhaps a little too fond of his outsider status, and his poems can verge on the petulant (for instance, he dedicates several poems in Dietl’s Delta to taking potshots at his critics). But overall, and against a field of younger poets, his craftsmanship, polish, and sense of humor consistently shine through.
Another more established poet whose work is also grounded in Kraków is Edward Pasewicz. He too takes an outsider’s perspective, but a more creative (and perhaps convincing) one than Świetlicki’s. In Oh, Mitochondria, Pasewicz’s moving, emotional reflections are interwoven with biological and physiological imagery. He is one of Poland’s few openly gay poets, and his love poetry mixes the social, emotional, and biological perspective into a unique, heady mix, as in this excerpt from “View from Wolnica Square”:
I know, I know, you have two sons,
I have broken-down windows and I can’t sleep
For thinking how much they’ll cost to fix.
Your wife knows nothing, not that you lay your hand
On my knee and begin each sentence
By looking me in the eye.
[. . .]
What is breath, when I know
Billions of blood cells speed through your veins
That in your neurons, sorrow battles with
Joy on the limestone steps.
The tender tone is characteristic of Pasewicz’s work. So, too, is the earthy dignity of the biological imagery, which could so easily have come across as a gimmick. Pasewicz is a practicing Buddhist—yet another layer of alienation in heavily Catholic Poland—and perhaps his faith allows him to bring a cool, cosmic perspective to the inner workings of the human body.
Pasewicz and Świetlicki both let form take a back seat in their work. This is less true of the two women nominated for the prize this year. Joanna Roszak’s On That Day is mostly made up of very short poems, often with only a few words to each line. Roszak clearly has a thing for dogs—the cover features pixelated images of a labrador, and dogs are major characters in many of her poems. More seriously, she is a scholar of German Jewish literature, and Jewish imagery and themes recur powerfully in this volume—for instance in a pair of poems titled “Ruch”and “Ruach,” playing on the Polish word for movement and the Hebrew word for the spirit of God. But the substance of her poems is rarely grandiose. In “Name,” she manages to combine both Jewish imagery and dogs in a way that’s characteristic of her humorous but insightful style:
we named the dog koheleth
so he’d remind us every day
there are things even more final
the house hangs
By a single poem
a peace conference on
taking down the laundry
This mix of depth and wit was characteristic of Szymborska, and while Roszak is certainly not on that same level, her work is the only one of this year’s nominees to show the Nobel Laureate’s same playful spirit.
Marta Pogórnik’s collection Always shows a determined effort to engage with form: she is the only one of the poets to use traditional structures of meter and rhyme, and her collection includes sonnets, looser rhymed poetry, free verse, and prose poetry. She engages liberally with wordplay, repetition, internal rhyme, and other structures. Her writing is also perhaps the most removed from personal experience—she often works intellectual themes (such as mocking the idea of a literary classic) or puts on characters (such as an opera singer). A Drop of Sorrow focuses on a woman’s bitter reflections on life and death. The poem features a chorus (the first stanza of the excerpt below) as well as certain phrases and images that repeat with slight modification each time, building up to a passionate climax:
She went in autumn after all, a photo hangs above the sofa
Always knowing she would leave, no ifs or buts, she laughed although
A painful thorn stuck in her heart She laughed with a scratching, bitter rasp
At the back of her laugh
I still enjoy this world, although I have a little drop of sorrow
I remember still the acrid taste her warm blood left inside my mouth
And yet she laughed when the painful thorn stabbed like a finger in her heart
You do not know at whom you’ll laugh when you laugh the final time.
In general, Podgórnik’s poems are too earnest to be consistently compelling, and her use of form and wordplay lacks Roszak or Świetlicki’s sense of fun. But she is an established, popular poet in Poland, and an illustration of the younger generation’s re-engagement with classicism.
Overall, each of the four poets mentioned so far fit somewhere into the turn toward a more personal poetry that took place after 1989. They’re divided by generation, relationship to formalism and, frankly, level of sophistication, but they have more in common than separates them.
What makes Kornhauser’s work so remarkable is it could hardly be more different. The Yeast Factory is a cycle of prose-poems, set in a semi-mythical, semi-imagined pre-war Jewish Kraków. The reader is led through this poverty-stricken, ruined world by a narrator who appears to be part of a gang of young kids. Places, characters, and images recur in a way that suggests continuity, but attempts to tease a story out of the cycle are in vain. The effect is of a dream, with evocative and sometimes eerie imagery merging to create an atmosphere of mystery and loss.
50 Smolenia Street
The villa had been built a century before. A fat rabbi lived there with his family. Cats rattled the window, begging for milk. The rabbi’s wife wore a wig, apparently with wires and pens protruding from it. Three spruce trees grew by the road, tall and untrusting. That meant the house was pale, it could hide from the sun. Beavers would show up on the riverbanks. Their lodges made the water build up, damaging skillfully constructed cesspits. There were gap-toothed boys from the cheder, Mr. Peerbaum—who smoked a pipe and coughed, and a Volkswagen Beetle to keep the newlyweds happy. However, we found the old menorah long after, somewhere at the bottom of a drawer in a large room.
Kornhauser’s book is divided into seven sections, most associated with places—”50 Smolenia Street,” “Villa R,” “The Cathedral.” Four of the sections consist of poems inspired by works of pre-war expressionist and surrealist painters: Chaim Soutine, Kazimir Malevich, Egon Schiele, Paul Klee, and James Ensor. But while sometimes Kornhauser makes direct reference to their paintings, just as often, they are a simply jumping-off place for a further exploration of his strange, abandoned world:
White Square on a White Background (Malevich)
The bulb has gone out in the cellar. Rat poison, dust. I don’t know which bicycle is mine, they all look the same. I look for the super, but he’s gone off to his family. I keep dice in a box, stumble over someone’s skis. I was sure I had the keys, forgot to take back the kefir empties. A tall staircase: best to skip steps, I almost tumble. Typewriters (I’m at a flea market). Someone’s arranging broken alarm clocks on an oilcloth, someone else is singing. I’m looking for light bulbs, but they only have taxidermied frogs and moles. They’re fixing the roof with acrylic sweaters, and I have to catch my train.
(translation by W. Martin)
Kornhauser has said he is influenced by the interwar surrealist poets, above all the Frenchman Max Jacob. But in a Polish context, this disjointed wandering through a mysterious, lost world is strongly reminiscent of Wojciech Jerzy Has’s 1973 film The Hourglass Sanitorium—based on Bruno Schulz’s book of the same name. In the film, the main character visits his ailing father in a crumbling, remote hospital, and is pulled into a dream-odyssey of his father’s past. Schulz, who was Jewish, was murdered during the War, and thirty years later, Has filled his movie with references to pre-war Jewish life and its brutal destruction.
Like Has, Kornhauser resists allowing his audience to decipher a story from his images, characters, and scenarios. That such a rich atmosphere defies attempts to grasp it is surely the point. As Faulkner might have put it, Poland’s Jewish past isn’t dead, or even past. It still wields irresistible power, but is apt to be seen only in snatched glances, half-memories, bits and pieces. Above all, it is refracted through centuries of political distortion, historical revisionism, and outright denial. How else to relate to it except through surrealism?
Kornhauser is part of a chorus of voices, not only in the arts, reassessing and re-engaging with Poland’s past and present. It’s unclear whether in poetic terms this represents a turn back to the old Polish tradition—far predating Szymborska and Miłosz—of Polish literature taking History (with a capital H) as its primary subject. Kornhauser may be an outlier—he is somewhat lukewarm about poetry, considering himself a literary critic first and foremost. And his collection, though compelling, is not entirely satisfying, leaving the reader with no clear larger perspective or sense of closure. Still, Kornhauser writes with a freshness of perspective and style that sets him apart from the other poets on the Polish scene. Given his youth, it is also likely we will hear more from him, reluctant poet or not. Whether others will follow his lead is an open question.
Sean Gasper Bye is a translator of Polish literature. His translation of Watercolours by Lidia Ostałowska is forthcoming from Zubaan Books, and his translation of History of a Disappearance by Filip Springer is forthcoming in 2017 from Restless Books. He has published translations of fiction and literary reportage in Words Without Borders, Catapult, Continents, and elsewhere, and he is a winner of the 2016 Asymptote Close Approximations Prize.
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