They Carry a Promise, Janusz Szuber (trans. Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough). Knopf. $26.00. 112 pp.
Reading a poet for the first time, particularly in translation, is like orienting ourselves in a foreign land with a broken compass and unreliable map. We listen for echoes. We look for landmarks, evidence of the familiar, and reassure ourselves we are not lost. The experience is not always unpleasant. Being lost with the promise of finding our way—if not home then at least some place interesting—is one of the reasons we continue to read poems new and old. Good and great poets teach us how to read their poems.
They Carry a Promise is the first book by the Polish poet Janusz Szuber to be translated into English. He was born in 1947, between the deaths of Hitler and Stalin, a generation or more after his nation’s masters among twentieth-century poets, Czeslaw Milosz and Zbigniew Herbert. The author of eighteen books of poetry in Poland, he was a fully formed poet in early middle age when Communism imploded. A good place to enter this not entirely foreign land is through the new volume’s first poem, “About a Boy Stirring Jam.” It represents Szuber’s modest lyrical gifts at their most precise and poignant:
A wooden spoon for stirring jam,
Dripping sweet tar, while in the pan
Plum magma’s bubbles blather.
For someone who can’t grasp the whole
There’s salvation in the remembered detail.
What, back then, did I know about that?
The real, hard as a diamond,
Was to happen in the indefinable
Future, and everything seemed
Only a sign of what was to come. How naïve.
Now I know inattention is an unforgivable sin
And each particle of time has an ultimate dimension.
The sensibility is religious, if not orthodox. It’s not a young man’s poem nor the work of a childish middle-aged or elderly poet. The voice knows loss and regret. It is seasoned—morally, spiritually—in a manner that doesn’t feel American, hermetic or glibly sentimental. In the wrong hands (in the hands of a poet unable to write “inattention is an unforgivable sin”), the poem could have turned into New Age treacle. Instead, it’s a minor species of wisdom literature composed by a writer with a good ear: “Plum magma’s bubbles blather.”
This is the place to acknowledge Szuber’s translator, Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough, who has rendered a generous selection of seventy-nine poems, only five of which exceed one page in length, into orderly, unmuddied English. Their syntax is clear and all ambiguity seems intentional. In a poem titled “I Began?” Szuber writes: “grammar is my / Adopted country.” This is important, because Szuber on most occasions is a poet of small objects, moments and memories, and clarity is essential. In the best poems, large themes lurk modestly in the blank spaces between lines. In another poem Szuber asks, revealingly: “Who in truthful verse will briefly tell / of eternity, impermanent as a broken fan?” One of Szuber’s most winning accomplishments is to “briefly tell / of eternity,” an effort that tends to bring out the windbag in more grandiose poets.
Szuber repeatedly turns to the examples set by his great Polish elders. In “Blacksmith Shop,” composed when he was eighty, Milosz writes: “It seems I was called for this: / To glorify things just because they are.” Milosz’s poem, like Szuber’s “About a Boy Stirring Jam,” concerns a childhood commonplace remembered. Szuber writes: “There’s salvation in the remembered detail.” Note the fondness for religiously suggestive language, which makes Szuber an anomaly among contemporary poets but kin to Milosz. In most of his poems, he’s a mature writer writing for mature readers. Only one poem in the collection, “Cocks Crowing,” carries a dedication: “To Czeslaw Milosz.” Here’s another of Szuber’s best poems, “Readings”:
When my clock neared noon
I found myself among familiar forests.
On the left the great Alighieri paced,
A tame panther bounded along his trail.
On the right a passerby from the Forest of Arden
Was choking with laughter
At the sight of foolish verse on the tree bark.
I was halfway. They were departing.
Dry twigs of berries cracked.
Maybe I’m too corporeal, too grown into my body
For the promise to be fulfilled
Here where a cold cloud grows over an oak,
I thought as I walked alongside a gully
In which Heraclitus’ stream murmured.
I picked up a stone. It was exactly a thing in itself.
I hear multiple echoes of Herbert, not the least of which is the collage of cultural references. Shakespeare set As You Like It in the Forest of Arden, and Herbert titled an early poem “Forest of Arden” and a later one “Oaks.” Szuber’s final line ascends into overt homage. Among Herbert’s best-known poems is “Pebble,” from Study of the Object (1961). In it he describes the small stone as “a perfect creature / equal to itself / mindful of its limits / filled exactly with pebbly meaning.” For Herbert and Szuber, stones and other objects are entirely themselves, self-contained, in a way humans can never be. Their muteness is eloquent and admirable.
In his less successful poems, Szuber turns sentimental and self-referential in a manner reminiscent of much post-confessional American verse. He’s overly fond of the word “rapture,” a sort of Szuberian shorthand for any emotion too exalted to describe. “A Small Treatise on Analogy,” little more than an encounter with a bee trapped in an automobile, is an exercise in bathos. “To Yusef Komunyakaa” contains the most embarrassingly awful lines in the book:
Oh, how delicious, how sweet
this strawberry meringue
pie as flattened out
Katrina whirls over the Gulf.
Szuber’s poems share with many written by his American contemporaries a weakness for unearned epiphany. It’s unearned because the anecdote preceding it is too insubstantial and trivial, too self-absorbingly commonplace, to elicit a genuine revelation. The effect is false and sometimes unintentionally comic. At the end of “A Small Treatise on Analogy,” for instance, he ushers the bee out of the car with his poetry notebook and writes, in an insufferably self-satisfied way: “Halfway believing that one day / Someone will treat me the same way.” Not likely, Janusz, if you keep writing lines like that.
In his Nobel lecture, Eugenio Montale described poetry as “a completely useless product, but hardly ever harmful and this is one of its characteristics of nobility.” The Italian master, in a manner that mingles modesty and pride, was surely thinking of his own work. Nobility is a virtue long out of fashion, one we might associate with Shakespeare and Milton but hardly any poets after them. An exception is Zbigniew Herbert. Through native gift, vast learning, dedication and the mixed blessing of political oppression, Herbert reluctantly became a national poet, the voice of Poland’s conscience, without sacrificing the purely poetic worth of his work.
Szuber is most successful when his voice most resembles Herbert’s tone of Olympian detachment—probably not an assessment he would enjoy hearing. His poems make few overt references to Poland’s recent past—Nazism, Communism, post-Communist confusion. No Katyn, Gomułka or Gdańsk. The enemy is gone, and Poland is a nation among nations. Szuber is left, like most other poets, with a more mundane reality, one less conducive to nobility.
Szuber’s saving grace is his healthy respect for and interest in the quotidian world of birds, forests, books and love affairs. It’s odd to note this as a virtue. It ought to be self-evident, a given for all of us, poets or otherwise, but much contemporary verse dwells in a child’s vision of Cockaigne. When Szuber foregoes jokes and cut-rate enlightenment, he grounds us in a foreign land all of us recognize. As he writes in “The Sun in Its Milky Lampshade”:
The elusive essence of the simplest
Objects and events. Another day
Of another ripe summer.
Patrick Kurp is a writer living in Bellevue, WA, and the author of the literary blog Anecdotal Evidence.
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