In 1944, 23-year-old Tadeusz Rozewicz’s older brother was murdered by the Gestapo. It was one body among many that the Polish resistance fighter saw carted through the streets; nearly sixty years later, the aging poet faces his own coming death, but he is not taking it any more quietly than while fighting the Nazis. In his recent poem “The Gates of Death” he writes:
the secret of their construction
is that the gates are not there
and at the same time that they are
wide open to all
they are so narrow
that they must be squeezed through
in the sweat of one’s brow
in bloody labor
for years on end squealing
or screaming in fear
Rozewicz is one of Poland’s premier poets (and playwrights), but he is little known in the United States. Hopefully, Archipelago’s new collection, the modestly titled new poems, will change that. In these poems, Rozewicz does not only rage against the dying of the light; he also comments on everything from contemporary politics to religion to the writing process. It is a fascinating introduction to a strong voice in Central European literature.
Translated by University of Indiana professor Bill Johnston, the collection consists of three books published separately in Poland (“the professor’s knife,” “grey zone,” and “exit”), as well as five new, previously uncollected poems. In all, new poems is a substantial, potentially overwhelming collection that readers would do well take in slowly. But this is only one of the reasons that these poems should be lingered over.
Indeed, their spare style could easily be overlooked if one rushed through them. The first section, “the professor’s knife,” introduces some of Rozewicz’s themes: time, poetic invention, the recycling of history, and memory. In “grey zone” the going is a little lighter, as the poems tend to be more wryly humorous, more grounded in place and time. The poems in “exit” seemed to me the finest, most poignant works, but perhaps this was only because it took some time to acclimate to Rozewicz’s style. The Polish cultural website fittingly calls him a “poet of silence”—Rozewicz’s words frequently seem as important for delineating the outlines of the unsaid as for what they do say.
Most striking, however, is his use of enjambment, which creates a cycle of tension. One untitled poem begins with the line “white isn’t sad,” then ends with:
and oh so slowly
By slowing down our reading and to focus on the ever shorter lines, Rozewicz creates an anxiety over the unsaid, which resolves, like a chord, in the last line.
As with any good collection, the gestalt in new poems is more than the individual works; following themes around this book is a pleasant and instructive experience. One of the main themes here is endings, both as they play out in death and history and as they relate to new beginnings. On one level, these poems, written by a poet in his eighties, reflect the fact that Rozewicz is nearing the end of his life. In “the poet’s other mystery” he watches his friends grow confused and die; in “tempus fugit” he muses wryly:
I’ve been inside for 83 years (like
all the living I’ve been put away
for life)—with no prospect of
eternity I stare at the ceiling
Without God, heaven, or hell, death is neither a beginning nor really an ending.
Often in new poems, these individual concerns about beginnings and endings merge with history: Can Poland (and the rest of Central Europe) escape its history? Is that even a valid question, implying as it does that history is over? This question is taken up in “eternal return,” which begins, “Nietzshe is back in fashion again,” while in “Der Zauberer the Magician” Rozewicz begins with Christo’s wrapping of the Reichstag in fabric, cycles through the building’s 20th-century history, and then suggests that history can never be left behind; rather, it is contained within Christo’s seemingly ahistorical act.
Grand historical perspectives are also shrunk into the space of a single moment, as in one untitled poem that begins with the lines “and once again / the past begins.” In it, the poet describes his grade school music teacher who has “been smiling / at me since 1930,” stretching this childhood experience into infinity. Structurally, the poem parallels the historical ones by having the same cyclical nature and the same ambiguity toward the very possibility of something being new. It ends with the lines “when will the past / finally end”; with finally signifying both at last and ultimately, it cycles us right back to the beginning of the poem.
This cycling us back to the beginning is by no means peculiar to just this poem—indeed, the structure is writ large in the collection as a whole, as individual poems themselves are filled with references and quotations to other works by Rozewicz. And as Rainer J. Hanshe points out in a review of the collection that appeared in the June issue of the journal Hyperion, none of these poems have closing punctuation. It is also worth noting that neither are most titles and first lines capitalized, and many poems are untitled, a willful negation of the possibilities of either true beginnings or endings.
Although his repetition and historical perspective suggest that nothing can ever be new, Rocewicz’s own language is fresh, full of puns and playfull inventions for which Johnson should receive much credit for rendering into English. For instance, “building the Tower of Bauble” contains the lines:
her patron was Kundera
and the thoughts of Haripoter
Chagall’s flying cows
She read the daily lama
The writing becomes at time epigrammatic, but the problem with epigrams is that though they are clever, maybe even wise, they’re not original. By contrast, the best of Rozewicz’s poems are simple and concrete. In “luxury,” about the pleasures of taking a day off, he writes:
I read a page from the calendar
a highly aromatic plant
known to antiquity
can a person recall
the taste of life
the taste of angelica vodka
Here, the dry calendar language is a catalyst for a sensual memory, far more alive for its very indescribability.
Archipelago chose Rozewicz’s collection as one of their picks for the 2007 “Reading the World” program, a three-year-old collaboration between publishers and independent bookstores that seeks to encourage readers to explore works in translation. It was a wise choice: while reading new poems, the reader is not only pulled in, and occasionally transfixed, by Rozewicz’s own voice, but also becomes aware of the entire Polish literary tradition. Rozewicz is a sort of literary nexus: in poem after poem he alludes to other major Polish writers, both living and dead. Most readers will need to rely on Johnston’s notes to understand the bulk of these references, but Rozewicz would need no guide to our culture, as his own knowledge seems encyclopedic. The poems contain German quotations and references to Shakespeare, they speak of contemporary European politics and the War on Terror; reading Rozewicz, one is ashamed that we have so little knowledge of his world. Either as a work in its own right or as an open door onto a hitherto unknown national literature, new poems is well worth reading.
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