Disruption and Continuity: The Poetry of Krzysztof Piechowicz and Tadeusz Dziewanowski

Tadeusz Dziewanowski
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR

To samo niebie, ta sama ziemia
(This Same Heaven, This Same Earth)
BY Krzysztof Piechowicz
(Warsaw: Korab Publishing House, 1991)


Translator’s Note

These poems in Cerise Press are some of the first fruits of my latest stay in Poland, from mid-August to mid-December in 2008.

First a preamble: towards the end of October, a few days before the Polish Day of the Dead on November 1, I emceed a literary evening devoted to the poetry of Edgar Lee Masters and his Spoon River Anthology, hosted in a Gdańsk art gallery that had been renovated from a Cold-War era bomb-shelter. Indeed, to enter the side-room for the wine and cheese reception afterwards, everyone had to duck under a series of low-hanging ceiling beams. It was dark and claustrophobic, a doorway to the underworld — a reminder of the ongoing frisson of our awareness of death, something that we all feel, and something we respond to in very complicated ways, ranging from dressing up as vampires to talking to our dead husband while we trim rosebushes by the porch.

In America, I have always felt that Memorial Day falls in the wrong season. To honor the dead not just in word but with the body, to bring flowers, clean gravestones, and finally to speak some of the words inside you out loud, is certainly a powerful urge, but it is also a rite undermined by the weather, the mythic force of the season — one of expansion and growth, the acceleration of green grass and the ever-concentrating force of the sun. … during my many stays in Poland I have always been drawn to their Day of the Dead held not in the happy drowse of early summer but on the cold threshold of winter. Further, it is a holiday in which the living move towards the dead, not just vice versa. It is no wonder that Memorial Day in America has become more about industrial-strength cookouts and car and appliance sales than it is about contemplation of the past. That is why during my many stays in Poland I have always been drawn to their Day of the Dead held not in the happy drowse of early summer but on the cold threshold of winter. Further, it is a holiday in which the living move towards the dead, not just vice versa. Even in the days leading up to the commemoration, the cemeteries are full with people scrubbing up their family gravesites with brush and rag, with soap and water, washing off the grit of the year, making the marble and sandstone gleam. Then, on the day itself, the graveyards become filled with the throngs of people visiting not just their own dead but the dead of their close friends, sharing old and new stories with one another. Meanwhile, the smoke from the thousands of votive candles lit by the loved ones’ graves congregates throughout the cemetery, and as the night draws on and the air cools, the candles die down and sputter out, replaced by the sound of glass breaking as the fragile candle-holders explode in the sudden cold.

But the world does not stay the same, and in recent years American Halloween has started to make inroads into Polish culture, tingeing the Day of the Dead observations with a more recreational aspect — as a chance to party rather than to contemplate — especially amongst the young. Indeed, the fact that there was this literary get-together devoted to the ghosts of Spoon River (with me reading the originals in English and an actor from the Gdańsk theater reading the Polish translations) was an attempt on the part of the Gdańsk art community to reference American tradition in a way more genuinely resonant with the Polish holiday than did dressing up in costumes and carving yellow pumpkins.


Yet cultural transfer is always a complicated matter. I recall a conversation I had in late November with Mieczysław Orski, editor of the literary magazine Odra, in which he bemoaned the fact that it seemed the outside world is not turning its attention to Polish poetry in the way that it had just a decade or two ago, the heyday of Czesław Miłosz, Zbigniew Herbert and Wisława Szymborska, of Adam Zagajewski and Stanisław Barańczak. But Polish poetry itself has changed, and for reasons that seem very logical within Poland. The politically-engaged poem, the poem of the big statement, is certainly experiencing a down-turn in the market of literary reputation. …Polish poetry is going in a direction that it needs to go, and this very general comment about it not being so influential to outsiders does not mean there is no wide-open landscape of different poetries and poets at work within Poland today, a landscape much more diverse and complicated than in the past, and one that continues to bear watching, reading — and translating.As a matter of fact, frequently I heard disparaging comments about Zagajewski especially, whose strong ongoing reputation in the West was explained away by his detractors by the notion that his poetry was glib and facile — easy to translate. Of course, contentiousness amongst poets and poetry readers is hardly rare, and the Robert Lowell-esque “raw” versus “cooked” poetry debate often flares up in American poetic discussions.

In Poland, I do think there is a “been there, done that” phenomenon at work, which has created an ironic situation to some degree — at least from an American reader’s standpoint — that as Polish poetry has become more and more influenced by American poetry in some ways, especially the New York Poets vein, it has become less special and unusual, less a place to go to find what there might be a comparative lack of in American poetry. (This question might not be of great importance to others, but it is to me. Polish literature has been my chance to find influences that — perhaps because of my own limitations as a reader — I could not find in American poetry. Indeed, to quote William Matthews from an Artful Dodge interview I conducted with him during my early years as a poet and translator: “Sometimes these resources are available in your own language, but for reasons of literary history you can’t find them.”) In any case, Polish poetry is going in a direction that it needs to go, and this very general comment about it not being so influential to outsiders does not contradict the notion of a wide-open landscape of different poetries and poets at work within Poland today, a landscape much more diverse and complicated than in the past, and one that continues to bear watching, reading — and translating.

Krótka historia liścia
(A Short History of a Leaf)
BY Krzysztof Piechowicz
(Publishing House "AB,"
Sofia, Bulgaria, 1999)

Which brings me to poets Krzysztof Piechowicz and Tadeusz Dziewanowski, poets I have decided to translate because over the years I have become attracted to their work, though for very different reasons. Krzysztof Piechowicz’s “The Day of the Dead, Powązki Cemetery” and “Ash Wednesday” are from a four-poem cycle that originally appeared in the Summer issue of the Warsaw-based journal Twórczość. Religious in their subject matter, these poems are even more so about intensity, about ecstasy in a lyrical sense, the outpouring of that which has been quelled and frustrated. Piechowicz’s poetry is often like a Renaissance painting whose images, perhaps even the brush strokes, are suddenly set in motion, a feel that works powerfully with his obsessions as a poet, with the way that spirituality often bleeds into eroticism and back again. Not that these are contradictory tendencies; rather, his poems are above all about a spiritual anguish that is often incarnated in the body, about how love cannot be separated out into the traditional categories of eros and agape. This ferocious baroque — its pressurized journey from the poet to the reader — also shows up in the forms of his poetry, the way that his frequent metaphors are couched in short and heavily enjambed lines, a structure that provides constant torque and disruption to the narrative flow of the poem. It is also a challenge to translate; to enjamb these poems in the English version in the same spots as in the original would not do service to either language. The two languages just do not walk the same walk. But I do think that the poem in English tries to recreate the feel of the way the voice moves in the original, its vibrant onslaught. I hope too, that Piechowicz’s language, arising from the Bible in Polish, has also landed into the language of the King James version of the Old and New Testament in an effective way, exhibiting not just Piechowicz’s echo of the Święte Pismo — the Sacred Word — but the variation he inserts as well.

FROM Całopalenie jaszczurki
(The Holocaust of the Reptile)
BY Krzysztof Piechowicz
(Poland, Szczecin: Glob Publishing House, 1989)

While Piechowicz’s poetry is built on a dynamic of fluidity and disruption, Dziewanowski’s poetry is more about connection, about continuity, especially that between the past and the present. This sensibility certainly comes into play in his “Four Dreams of the Borderlands,” a poem in which his own family experience merges with Polish history of the past several centuries, including to a time in which both country and culture extended much further to the East than its current borders, not just in terms of settlement, but also as a place where many Poles ended up being sent into exile, or even worse, suffered under the various Romanov, Soviet and Nazi oppressions that rolled over the country. But the last line of the poem is especially hard to render to an American reader without a footnote, since it references a very famous short story by Bruno Schulz (1892-1942), himself a Jewish resident of these borderlands (of Drohobycz, currently in Ukraine) who wrote in Polish and perished in World War II. For a Polish reader, the image of the street of crocodiles renders up an image of both the absurdity and reality of a situation involving the everyday nature of danger. Just imagine having to shop on a street where there are crocodiles. In fact, Schulz himself perished while carrying home a loaf of bread, shot by a German officer who recognized him, and that he was a Jew illegally outside of the ghetto.

While Piechowicz’s poetry is built on a dynamic of fluidity and disruption, Dziewanowski’s poetry is more about connection, about continuity, especially that between the past and the present.

This continuity also shows up in “Two Journeys.” (Both of these poems, by the way, appeared in the Gdańsk-based literary journal Topos). Here, though, the past and present merges not in the pages of a family album, but in a journey on a train travelling over bridges that now exist only in memory. About interpreting the poem, Dziewanowski writes, “We participate here in a combination of the real and unreal, common for the world of dream as well as poetry, where no one element of ‘reality’ has the right of total control, and where everything has the same importance in revealing the mystery.” Thus, is the man and woman outside the train window an adult couple with their dog? Or are they the poet and his daughter with their own dog, who also appears a few lines later on the train? Dziewanowski pointedly declares that he does not know the answer to this question, and that it is not even the most important question to ask.

Dziewanowski’s vision of poetry and art does not center solely on what is happening on the page, but also about what goes on beyond the borders, about how poetry spills over into performance art (a part of his background dating back into the 1970s) as well as into his work in the tongue-in-cheek Gdańsk literary group of the late 1980s, The Tavern of Psychonauts, a period when I first made his acquaintance. It also spills over into his own non-writing life, the traditions of his own family. In fact, at the same time I was working on translating the two poems appearing here in Cerise Press, I also had the pleasure of attending what turned out to be my Thanskgiving holiday for the year — one of the theme-based dinners he often stages with his family. The theme for that evening was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, extant from 1867 till 1914, and as such one of the powers in control of partitioned Poland, split in three by Russia, Austria and Prussia. His sons cooked all the meal — potato soup, hot barbeque-intensity Hungarian goulash, baked fish with lots of bones, a potato/onion/mushroom casserole, and for dessert an omelette topped with prune jam and apple slices. There were also copious amounts of wine, including Kagor, the sweet plum wine from Moldova, purple and luscious like velvet. Everyone was dressed in costume. All through the dinner, Austro-Hungarian jokes kept flowing fast and furious.

Still, I do have a complaint about Tadeusz Dziewanowski. It is not that he needs to write more, but that he does need to set his poetic dinner table for those outside his family more often. Both these poets certainly deserve wider recognition — in Poland and elsewhere.

— Wooster, Ohio, 13 June 2010

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