Six Polish poets (2009)

Translated by: Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese, Bill Johnston
Published by: Arc Publications

Edited by Jacek Dehnel (whose Lala we read in 2018), Six Polish poets features poems by Jacek Dehnel, Agnieszka Kuciak, Anna Piwkowska, Tomasz Royzski, Dariusz Suska and Maciej Wozniak, with translations by Ewa Chruściel, Bill Johnston, Karen Kovacik, Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Mira Rosenthal, George Szirtes and Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese, and an introduction by Jacek Dehnel. Published in 2009, it made available in English the poetry of a generation of poets who whose first collections (with one exception) were published in the first decade of the 21st century.

Unlike the poets of the previous generation who, in the period of new-found freedom after the fall of communism, adopted a highly individualistic, anarchic, sometimes brutal style, the poets represented here re-examine and experiment with traditional poetic forms, themes and cultural references in poems that are refined and witty, moving and informed, ranging across every aspect of human existence.

Parallel text: Polish / English

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Zielony Balonik book club notes:

Anna Piwkowska

‘Rosja’ / ‘Russia’, pp.22-3
Of all the poems her, Piwkowska’s are the most song-like, musical – no surprise that she has studied Akhmatova. Her poems are easy to read (but doubtless hard to write). The first two lines read like an abbreviated 19th century novel (perhaps Oblomov). Then a shift in spatial awareness, from whole estates to a single kopeck. Why Kursk? (WW2 tank battle…) Bitter herbs perhaps link to Passover. Why does she choose the pike image at the end? Stuffed pike is a Polish rather than Russian custom – everything is removed from the skin, cooked, then the skin (with the head retained) is stuffed with the cooked meat. In the poem there is a sense of the fish decaying from within; Eternal Russia, eaten up from the inside. The poem was written in Moscow in 1995, at a time when people would display belongings for sale on the street.

‘Ostanie Lato’ / ‘The Last Summer’, pp.32-3
We read this longer poem aloud in both languages, which brought out the rhymes, easily overlooked reading the English version on the page. Piwkowska, a young woman of about 32 when she wrote the poem, writing about a young woman as the object of an old man’s shy attention; she’s seen from his perspective. Sensory elements – the colours blue and yellow, the sounds of the cracked record and the tapping stick. A poem about the sadness departure brings, but happiness held in memory.

The lines in ‘Co Przynoską Mężczyźni’ / ‘What Do Men Bring?’, pp.34-37, resonate at the present, though the finality envisaged is probably wishful thinking at the moment.
… One autumn,
… we put on tar-lined coats
and kindle fires to finally expel
the plaugue from the city, to bury it for good.

Dariusz Suska

‘Zejść do piwnicy, poświecić latarką’ / ‘Go Down to the cellar, shine the flashlight beam’, pp.50-51
About his brother’s death?
l.7, Pele, going back in time somewhat, the image of a great sportsman forgotten, discarded, incapacitated.
l.10 Unusual in Polish to write the letters x and y as words (‘iksa z igrekiem’)
ll.11-12, a car crash involving just one person, one half of the couple ‘X and Y’, suggesting sheer carelessness)
Seeing the name of the poem’s translator Bill Johnston prompted memories of reading, over a decade ago, Wiesław Myśliwski’s A Treatise on Shelling Beans, which Johnston also translated. Perhaps we should on occasion have a Rereading Day, when we choose a book some of our long-standing members read in the past, and which will be new to others.

Tomasz Różycki

‘Żaglowce Jej Królewskiej Mości’ / ‘Her Majesty’s Fleet’, pp.80-81
Leaders, like Trump, folling themselves (and their supporters), seeming reasonable to start with before identifying his enemies (a wide category). A good poem for the classroom, to think about attitudes, actions, and how we justify our actions. Reminiscent (given the mention of ‘serfs’) of Peter the Great, someone not poor but isolated. A composite fantasy, involving games and real-world politics, contemporary and historical figures. Why ‘HER Majesty’s Fleet’?

Agnieska Kuciak

‘Wroniecka’ pp.122-3
Jenny was dissatisfied with the translation so she made her own, focussing on meaning (rather than, as Karen Kovacik, rhymes); e.g. for KK’s ‘Hasidic cloaks’ Jenny gives ‘Jewish beards’.
We carry the dead with us, especially in Poland.
The need to stay on top to survive.
Echoes, not blaming anyone – what right does Kuciak have to say this? Not quite forgiveness either, but they have a peace now beyond judgement. Bringing certain things to the surface, the mother speaks to the child, unaware, about how one can live in the world. The ‘wall / of tears’ recalls the Wailing Wall, but isn’t that specific site.
The child sensing spirits in the shifting shadows (reflections on the tiles glinting like fish) recalls Goethe’s ‘Erlkönig’.

‘Mięso’ / ‘Meat’ (pp.120-3)
l.4: A play of words in Polish impossible to replicate in English: ‘wołowiny, winy’ / ‘beef, guilt’.
The acts described in the poem are performative.
l.11, ‘zasromane’, given in English as ‘red-faced’, but in Polish it conveys a stronger sense of shame.
ll.13-14, Osiris weighs souls after death, but here he weighs flesh (‘bloody hearts’); ‘oneiric’ relates to dreams; so the scales guage the level of ‘dream’ (imagination, spiritual insight?) contained in the flesh.
ll.15-16, ‘ofiarnego kozła’, scapegoat, rather than ‘sacrificial lamb’; meaning sacrificed, as it were, to create a (near-)rhyme, lamb / son. Relating also to the sacrifice of Isaac.
ll.17-18 Shocking final image, the fever of intimacy in a love affair gone wrong.

Jacek Dehnel

‘Brzytwa Okamgnienia’ / ‘A Razor-Sharp Glance’, pp.154-7
Magda’s comments:
Okamgnienie – blink of an eye (Augenblick in German).
In Polish the title is literally'(A Blink-of-an-eye Razor’
l.1 spójrz – for see read look
l.5 oni – they (not translated by GS)
l.7 łodzie ratunkowe – for rescuers read rescue boats
l.11 sztaby kryzysowe – for base station read crisis committees – yes, them, as seen (or not seen) on TV
Leica could now (2020) be iPhone.

He’s good, but pretentious.
Each of his poems ends with a note as to when and where it was written.
At readings he always chooses ‘Szczęście’ / ‘Happiness’. Its initial denigration of its subject, who nonetheless is sympathetically, even tenderly presented, recalling how he wrote of his granny in (the biographical novel) Lala.

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