More Than Has Met the Eye
Polish poets publish too much. Such a generalization flirts with heresy in a country with so many lionized bards, and where for much of the twentieth century state censors steered extraordinary poets into long careers of writing "for the drawer." There are certainly exceptions to this overexposure, including Adam Zagajewski, Wislawa Szymborska and the late Czeslaw Milosz. But some of their colleagues haven't been so prudent. In Poland it is not uncommon for a poet to "debut" (their term, thankfully, not ours) by the age of 25 and to crank out a book every eighteen months thereafter. One consequence of this prolificacy is the staggering volume of garbage that floods bookstores, including many D-list poems by A-list poets. Another is that if a poet aspires to be noticed—and poets, like children, want desperately to be noticed—he or she often becomes a rejectionist within a generation, publicly denouncing predecessors, rivals and younger upstarts.
Janusz Szuber and Ewa Lipska generally stand to the side of Polish poetry's warring aesthetic camps and scripted career moves. Though of the same generation as the "New Wave" that emerged from the late 1960s and included Zagajewski and Stanislaw Baranczak, Szuber and Lipska rarely share their peers' lyrical sensibilities or political preoccupations. They Carry a Promise marks the first substantial publication of Szuber's work in English; but for a couple of slim volumes released in England, the same is true of Lipska's The New Century. Both books therefore strike an essential, if not always consistent, blow in favor of a broader appreciation of individual poets from Poland and against the romanticized view of Polish poetry as a resolute "witness to history" that still overshadows the publication of translations of Polish poetry in the United States.
The seventy-nine poems in They Carry a Promise typically play with two contradictory modes. They are often descriptive, sketching the details of an image or event in quick, efficient gestures, not unlike ekphrasis as it was practiced by early Greek rhetoricians. Or else the poems are so deeply invested in existential imponderabilia, in the dream of perfect self-equivalence, that even their discoveries sound tautological, as if the whole point of leaving home were to come back. Occasionally Szuber attempts to hold these two modes in perfect balance, breaking the surface of things only to be deterred by their impenetrable totality. When he fails—as when any of us fails repeatedly at something truly ambitious, before we surprise ourselves—tragedy becomes farce, and the poem, a parody of its thwarted vision. "The Fog" opens beautifully against "the silhouettes of the mountains/As if they were just forming out of dull matter,/Saturated with light at their frayed borders," only to crash into tedious solipsism:
—To tell myself to myself
As if I were those whites, browns, blues, and blacks.
Savoring the sweetness and bitterness of sounds.
Accepting pain and love and death.
To tell not myself to not myself.
Or to dream myself. To be dreamed.
Without myself in myself.
Readers sensitive to hearing "myself" repeated seven times in seven lines—and there is a great deal in postwar American poetry to make that sensitivity acute—will find Szuber testing their patience. Indeed, the risk posed by tautological phrasing is that the repetition tends toward nullity, if not always of thought—"He was born and then/It was too late for anything/But acting himself without himself within himself"—then at least of sound—"I am I but why am I this 'I.'"
One reason Szuber is consistently impressive in Polish, despite the English rendering of "The Fog" into something akin to the graduation speech of a high school valedictorian, is the degree of emotion, rhythmic delight and intellectual provocation he can pack into a phrase. Granted, the English is what we have before us, but it is worth noting that there are genuine rewards behind the breakdown of lyric sensibility more than occasionally evident in the selection, arrangement and translation of these poems. In the book's most arresting poems, the perspicacity of Szuber's vision is astounding; the timing of his redirection of our focus is perfect; and Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough's inventiveness in reproducing the poet's richly alliterative, assonant lines deserves applause. As the title of one poem suggests, we sense that we have "Everything Here":
The gray building of a pig farm, inside
Grunting and growling, almost black doughy mud
Through which they slogged, in squelching rubber boots,
That wet summer abounding in frogs, they worked
By accident on this farm, not quite a farm, in a poor
Region of dwarf pines and junipers,
Partly withered, at the edge of sloping
Pastures and soggy meadows, over which,
Once or twice a week, border patrols flew
In the potbellied dragonflies of helicopters, everything here,
Despite the emptiness stretching on for miles,
Barren, nobody's, was filled entirely with itself,
And when you sat over beer under the roof of the makeshift bar,
Without the need to prove anything,
All this had something in it that could neverv Be trapped by metaphor.
The poem emphasizes that the poem doesn't include everything in the scene, that there is always "something...that could never/Be trapped by metaphor." There is nothing special in admitting the inevitable failure of language to grasp what it seeks to represent. In Szuber's most moving poems, however, failure does not merit pity but rather the celebration of the wondrous elusiveness of a world too abundant for our efforts to rein it in with words and indifferent to our unavoidable need to do so. Thus another barroom poem, appropriately titled "Tautologies," smiles upon the objects on the table, "bread, salt, bones, and a crumpled tablecloth./In the unsaid between 'already' and 'still,'/They also were what they were, idem per idem: the rose of identity."
Wonderment in the face of "the rose of identity" is an old saw of modern Polish poetry, and readers of Szuber's poems in the original will almost certainly hear him in dialogue with other prominent voices, notably those of Milosz and Zbigniew Herbert, and challenging their dreams of pure essence. In "Pebble," one of the most renowned poems of the twentieth century, Herbert declares, "The pebble/is a perfect creature//equal to itself/mindful of its limits//filled exactly/with a pebbly meaning." In "Secondary Exhibitionism" Szuber responds: "It's not true, I thought for the hundredth time, that only/Stones are sealed in their perfect skin." "And so it befell me," Milosz writes in his prose poem "Esse"—the title is the Latin verb "to be," and the root of "essence"—"that after so many attempts at naming the world, I am able only to repeat, harping on one string, the highest, the unique avowal beyond which no power can attain: I am, she is." Here's Szuber, in "New Labors":
For hours I can contemplate a ladle,
Its triumphant, inaccessible esse,
Which can't be possessed with words.
Different from my I was, I am, I will,
It arouses disinterested admiration and humility,
Respect for things existing outside me
And amazement that I've been given exactly this
As an advance payment for something or a promise,
Representing as it were a timid introduction
To private metaphysics.
Lacking an introduction, notes or editorial apparatus of any kind, They Carry a Promise shrouds allusions and echoes that a reader new to Szuber or contemporary Polish poetry might benefit from having revealed. This is a shame, because the allusions and echoes are an important aspect of Szuber's engagement with the life of poetry in his home country.