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Late-Night Whispers from Poland


by Wisława Szymborska, translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Barańczak
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 85 pp., $22.00

Unseen Hand

by Adam Zagajewski, translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 107 pp., $23.00
Joanna Helander
Wisława Szymborska

It is truly remarkable how many fine poets Poland has given to the world in the last century. This is an extraordinary accomplishment for a country used as a short cut in two world wars by both German and Russian invading and retreating armies, who, in addition to redrawing its borders repeatedly and occupying it for years, slaughtered millions of its citizens and deported others. Perhaps, as Czesław Miłosz speculated back in 1965, in the preface to his much-admired anthology Postwar Polish Poetry, a poet crawling out from under the historical steamroller is better prepared to assume the tasks assigned to him than his colleagues in happier countries. For us, he said, “history is extremely real. It may not be to American poets, but for us it is very, very much a part of reality.”

This sounds plausible, although as Miłosz himself noted elsewhere, only a small percentage of human suffering ever gets into literature, while most of it disappears without a trace. Many nations that had undergone similar horrors have remained comparably mute afterward, so the vitality of Polish poetry must be due to many other factors besides its history. Nevertheless, even a cursory look at the lives of the three poets under review here leads one to the inescapable conclusion that the despair and moral outrage provoked by what happened to their nation were decisive for each of them.

In 1944, when Tadeusz Różewicz was twenty-three years old, already a member of the anti-Communist Home Army that had been fighting the Germans since 1941, his older brother was murdered by the Gestapo and his body, with those of many other resistance fighters, was carted through the streets while Różewicz stood watching. In an early poem, “Lament,” he describes his own state of mind and that of many other Poles:

I am twenty
I am a murderer
I am a tool
as blind as a sword
in the hands of an executioner
I’ve murdered a man

Maimed I saw
neither sky nor rose
nor bird nor nest nor tree
nor Saint Francis
nor Achilles nor Hector
For six years
fumes of blood gushed from my nose
I don’t believe in water turned to wine
I don’t believe in the forgiveness of sins
I don’t believe in the resurrection of the dead

Wisława Szymborska, who was born in 1923, lived near the railroad station in Kraków during World War II. From 1943, she worked as a railroad employee in a country crisscrossed by trains carrying troops to the front, the wounded back from wherever they saw action, and civilians seeking refuge from the war or being transported under guard to one of its notorious concentration camps. She saw and heard plenty:

Write it down. Write it. With ordinary ink
on ordinary paper: they weren’t given food,
they all died of hunger.
All. How many?
It’s a large meadow. How much grass
per head? Write down: I don’t know.
History rounds off skeletons to zero.
A thousand and one is still only a thousand.
That one seems never to have existed:
a fictitious fetus, an empty cradle,
a primer opened for no one,
air that laughs, cries, and grows,
stairs for a void bounding out to the garden,
no one’s spot in the ranks.

It became flesh right here, on this meadow.
But the meadow’s silent, like a witness who’s been bought….

Adam Zagajewski’s family roots are in Lvov, where many generations of his family lived and from where, shortly after he was born in 1945, they were repatriated to Gliwice, a small town in Poland, after Lvov became part of Soviet Ukraine. Growing up among homeless and bereaved people, as so many in those years were, who most probably talked of nothing but the war and its horrors, Zagajewski must have been left with a huge and lasting impression of their stories:

I dreamed of my distant city—
it spoke the language of children and the injured,
it spoke of many voices, rushing
to shout each other down, like simple people suddenly admitted
to the presence of a great official:
“There is no justice,” it cried; “All
has been taken from us,” it wailed loudly;
No one remembers us, not a soul”…
(“I Dreamed of My City,” from Unseen Hand)

The selection of Różewicz’s poems is the largest ever to be published in English. The earliest poem in the book dates from 1945 and the last one was written in 2008. Between these two, there are 124 other poems, a number of them several pages long. Różewicz began writing poetry when he was a schoolboy and his first poems were published right after the war. A collection of them, entitled Anxiety, appeared in 1947 and was an immediate success. Their author was understandably much admired for giving a voice to a country that had lived through six years of tragedy and had lost almost six million of its citizens. The poems were short, stripped of the usual poetic embellishments, consisting almost entirely of short statements in a language kept so plain that even someone barely able to read would understand everything instantly. It’s a poetry devoid of mystery, Różewicz explained in one of his poems. It justifies nothing, explains nothing, fulfills no hope, doesn’t strive for originality, but only fulfills its own imperative and says what its author feels needs saying.

I have no time for aesthetic values,” he claimed, even though later on in life he became a successful avant-garde playwright and scriptwriter. Naked truth is what he was after in his poetry, the firm conviction that for those who saw truckloads of dismembered people, even art is suspect. Led to slaughter, as he said of himself afterward, he survived, losing forever something that our civilization failed to protect. Religion, philosophy, culture, and the entire moral and ethical heritage of the Western world struck Różewicz as fraudulent. He writes of being amazed that he could still see and hear, that he could wipe the sweat off his forehead, drink raspberry soda, buy pretzels and fuzzy peaches, and go out dancing with a redhead. “That old woman/pulling a goat on a rope,” he says to himself in a poem, “is more needed/is worth more/than the seven wonders of the world/anyone who thinks or feels/she isn’t needed,” he concludes, “is guilty of genocide.”

Różewicz’s nihilism is tempered with such outbursts. His poems overflow with compassion for suffering humanity. There are many elegies in his selected poems, many poignant poems about his mother, tributes to dead and living friends, and love poems to various women. He speaks to his readers without putting on airs, disclaiming any special power or insight as a poet, which makes his poems, even at their most banal, charming.

As he grows older, he writes more and more about the way the world he has known is changing. The longer, prosy-sounding later poems ponder such subjects as mad cow disease, the paintings of Francis Bacon, Ezra Pound’s sanity hearing, Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, Samuel Beckett, a visit to the zoo, and the inauguration of George W. Bush as president of what Różewicz calls the “sobbing superpower.” These poems are as easy to read and as entertaining as an article in a Sunday newspaper or a weekly magazine. They also demonstrate the limitations of his poetry. Depending solely on their content, as they usually do, his poems once read give the reader little reason to return to them, either in thought or on the page, since what one encounters at first reading is pretty much all there is.

In this country, Wisława Szymborska is the best-known and most-read Polish poet; one of her volumes can sell over 80,000 copies here. It is not just that she won the Nobel Prize; her compatriot Miłosz did too. It’s the kind of poetry she writes: it is as open to the reader as Różewicz’s, and yet much more satisfying and original. In addition, she translates well. Or, perhaps, it would be more accurate to say that her two translators, Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh (who is also Zagajewski’s translator) give that impression in the five books of her poetry they have collaborated on so far. Extremely smart, witty, and levelheaded, she seduces us by her wide range of interests, her atypical lack of narcissism for a poet, and her cheerful pessimism.

This is how she begins a poem called “View with a Grain of Sand” from an older book of hers:

We call it a grain of sand,
but it calls itself neither grain nor sand.
It does just fine without a name,
whether general, particular,
permanent, passing,
incorrect, or apt.

Our glance, our touch mean nothing to it.
It doesn’t feel itself seen and touched.
And that it fell on the windowsill
is only our experience, not its.
For it, it is no different from falling on anything else
with no assurance that it has finished falling
or that it is falling still.

Szymborska often writes as if on an assigned subject—a grain of sand or Hitler’s first photograph, or something more speculative like the existence of our souls, or the silence of plants around us. She then proceeds to examine the subject more closely. First she describes what she sees, then she recalls what she and other people know about it, making sure the reader is following every turn of her mind as she untangles the thread of her thoughts on the way to some surprising conclusion to the poem, either witty or grim. If this sounds like poetry’s equivalent of expository writing, it is. More than any poet I can think of, Szymborska not only wants to create a poetic state in her readers, but also to tell them things they didn’t know before or never got around to thinking about.

They call it: space,” she writes in a poem from the new book, thinking as she lies in bed about the next day’s journey: “What the devil does it border on?,” this space that awaits her, “empty and full of everything at once?” Go to sleep, she tells herself, “tomorrow you’ve got more pressing matters”: “touching objects placed close at hand,/casting glances,…listening to voices”—in other words, real, concrete things. In a world in which no two days, two clouds in the sky, or two blades of grass under our feet are alike, nuance is everything. She has high regard for both reality and imagination; nevertheless, she insists on making sure the two are not confused. Comparing the singing of Ella Fitzgerald to Billie Holiday’s in a short review of Fitzgerald’s biography, Szymborska also says things that are true of her own poetry:

Yet at some point in the sixties some listeners’ taste began to change. People started noticing certain limitations in Ella’s singing. Not in her voice, which surmounted all obstacles with ease, but in her manner. Take, for instance, Billy Holiday, who poured her heart, soul, and various other organs into her songs. But Ella wasn’t histrionic. She always kept a little distance from the text; she never worked the song into a lather. And thank heavens. I see this as yet another leaf for her laurel. Expressive singing is a slippery slope; once you’re on it it’s hard to get off.
  1. *

    Starvation Camp Near Jaslo,” in Poems New and Collected, 1957–1997, translated by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh (Harcourt Brace, 1998), p. 42. 

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