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":