More Than Has Met the Eye

More Than Has Met the Eye

The poems of Janusz Szuber and Ewa Lipska depart from the romanticized view of Polish poetry as a witness to history.


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.

I met Janusz Szuber nearly a decade ago in Lesko, a tiny town in the remote southeast corner of Poland. He was just then on the cusp of the public and critical acclaim that followed his writing quietly for the drawer for nearly forty years, though not because of a government blacklist. Szuber's lack of notoriety is a less familiar story. Unlike Lipska, Zagajewski and Baranczak—poets who, following the protocols of their political and literary milieu, were still in their early 20s when they started to make a permanent mark on public discourse—Szuber was mostly invisible to the centers of literary life, in no small part because of his difficulty getting around. At the same time as his friends and classmates were publishing their first books, Szuber was starting to feel the effects of a severe form of arthritis that has long since left him wheelchair-bound in a country where basic handicapped access, let alone a serious public discourse on disability, remains largely absent.

I mention this not to announce that I was the band's biggest fan before its album went platinum but simply to stress that there was never a time when I didn't associate Szuber's poems with the body that produced them. Szuber has said in interviews that he has little interest in making disability a major theme of his work: he has no wish to indulge in what he identifies as the Polish national mania for self-pity. In the American conversation in which this book wishes to take part, however, body politics play a meaningful role in the body politic, even without being the center of attention. The poet Robert Creeley, for example, who lost his left eye as a child, rarely wrote about his limited vision; the attentive reader simply remarks the peculiarity that "eye" appears in the plural in his poems only when he is speaking of other people. Yet the observational logic that characterizes his work is inevitably framed by his range of vision, the word of "the poet's eye" made flesh. Creeley half complains of this limit in a 1951 letter to Charles Olson—"I sometimes think I read, literally, with this one eye"—while another friend and colleague, Charles Bernstein, uses it as the central metaphor of a sharp, brief essay on Creeley's self-regard, in which "eye" and "I" are nearly interchangeable.

Most Polish poets, by contrast, have treated the body as a dirty secret, one that needs to be dressed richly in spiritual or philosophical language before it can appear in public. Szuber doesn't conceal his physical condition, but he doesn't advertise it, either. Once aware of it, a reader is likely to see the poet's body represented, discussed, interrogated or allegorized throughout this work, which might seem to predetermine our experience of the poems. The editorial decision not to reveal these details, however, keeps the reader in the dark regarding an important aspect of the poems' genesis. At the same time, it squanders an opportunity to expand our conversation on the meaning of disability.

This is not to say that Szuber's circumspection is unwarranted: if there is anything that Western readers look to Polish poets to provide, it is the tale of sociopolitical woe. This has made for a peculiar microeconomy within the global literary marketplace, one in which the English-language audience remains willfully ignorant of Poland's oddball punsters, like Miron Bialoszewski, and the entire generation of poets that followed Szuber's own and took Frank O'Hara as their patron saint (some critics have taken to calling them "O'Harists"). Most troubling is that this narrow vision of Polish letters suggests its ideology of envy, with the Western reader unabashedly covetous of someone else's richly marketable history. As the nineteenth-century Polish poet Cyprian Norwid wrote from Paris, where he lived in bone-crushing poverty and grew increasingly deaf and blind, "Emotion travels unironically/The paths another's pains have blazed."

* * *

Such is the path taken in roughly half of the poems in The New Century, a selection of work from the six books that Ewa Lipska churned out between 1999 and 2007. Unlike Szuber, her coeval, Lipska has been an influential presence in Polish literature since the 1960s and has spent long stretches of her career in Austria, Germany and the United States, working variously as an editor, teacher and diplomat, and producing a body of work that swings jarringly between lyrical brilliance and moralistic pandering.

Both extremes are amply represented in this shambolic volume, a collaborative editorial and translation effort between Robin Davidson, an American poet, and Ewa Elzbieta Nowakowska, a Polish poet. The confusion begins with the front matter. In contrast to They Carry a Promise, which refuses to contextualize Szuber's work in any meaningful way, the poems in The New Century are preceded by an embarrassment—if not a "muddle"—of riches. First comes Lipska's "The Absurdity of Beauty," a witty, lively essay that nevertheless bears only the loosest connection to what follows. Then comes a full three pages of acknowledgments, an Academy Award's worth of private gratitude made public. Following that is Davidson's introduction, a hodgepodge of sententious blurbery ("Poetry is not collective life. It arises from solitude; it cannot be planned") replete with a two-page bibliography of mostly unrelated texts. Finally, and inexplicably, there is a separate introduction by Nowakowska, who in three pages elegantly conveys everything that should have been said in the preceding twenty. This is a compact little book with an awful lot of filler.

The same is true of Lipska's poems. Her most affecting and delightful mode is a quick, spare line that can be both observational and gnomic, not unlike American Imagism, as in the opening stanza of "The Holy Order of Tourists": "Landscapes doomed in advance to success./Devotional seacoasts./A crowd of practicing believers." And here is "Dead Stop" in its entirety:

When in the wee hours
you were stuck at a dead stop
a train whistling along the dark rainbow of a bridge.

Today I just want to tell you
that the bedside lamp from your room
was promoted to star.

The syntactic oddity of the first stanza, with its omission of an active verb, is the translators' invention, but it works, properly conveying the uncanniness of a personal tragedy greeted with wistful regard. Similarly, the strangest poems in The New Century move fast, requiring and rewarding repeat readings, and are quite comfortable with their reluctance to connect the dots, as if the poet has absented herself for a time, as she literally does at the end of "2001":

2001, dear Mrs. Schubert, is not only the beginning
of the new century, but also the number of my imagination.
As you know, for some time now my fiction
has resented my flirting with reality,
consorting with useless time.
I therefore inform you that the dead season is coming,
which, as usual, I am spending
on the short-term list of missing persons.

For those who prefer their dots connected, there are plenty of poems that do so, as well as exasperating meta-reflections on word craft, which appear with numbing regularity: "A beginning carpenter of words"; "I feel the dampness/of his words"; "they are woken at dawn by poetry's attendants/for a duel of words." But the more self-consciously explanatory the poems become, giving themselves over to a narrative conceit, the more likely the spare scaffolding afforded by a reticent line wobbles and collapses. Consequently, the decision to limit the selection of poems in this volume to those written over the past decade is puzzling, all the more so in light of Davidson's claim that doing so showcases "the trajectory of Lipska's thought into the twenty-first century." Drawing on Lipska's entire career would have produced a denser concentration of her best work, supplying a fuller sense of that trajectory.

Still, a book that has something for everyone is not without advantages, the main one being that it fosters the sense of range often so difficult to convey in a single volume. Szuber and Lipska are worthwhile poets not only because they help compose a diversity of Polish poetry that has been largely invisible to American readers but also because their work is diverse in itself. Without a taste of the variety that constitutes a career, it is impossible to see the translated poet as anything but a collection of greatest hits. Milosz once suggested that Western maps of Eastern and Central Europe might as well bear big white spots and the Latin inscription ubi leones ("here be lions"); these new publications suggest that it might finally be time to start filling in the blanks with names.

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