Reading Outside the Box: A New Anthology of Polish Poetry

Scattering the Dark: An Anthology of Polish Women Poets, edited by Karen Kovacik.Scattering the Dark: An Anthology of Polish Women Poets, edited by Karen Kovacik. White Pine Press, 270 pp., $20.00.

American readers may be surprised to learn that there are four or five Polish poetry anthologies currently in print in the U.S., and daunted at the prospect of deciding which to choose. Anthologies are always fraught with political or literary line-drawing, especially when they claim to be representative of poets writing in a particular language or hailing from a particular country or region. After all, choosing a writer to translate is never a neutral decision. Omissions are rife. If we were to conduct a poll of poetry readers looking for an anthology, they would, by and large, express interest in reading a volume whose breadth and scope promises not to leave them wondering what they are missing.

Karen Kovacik’s Scattering the Dark: An Anthology of Polish Women Poets enters a field that is not so much crowded as it is balkanized. Indeed, the compartmentation of Polish poetry in English translation does reflect the kind of fracturing that’s endemic to any literary culture. This essay-review is not an occasion to analyze the role of translators in America’s literary marketplace as both benevolent agents of intercultural dialogue and self-serving professionals who may stand in the way of such dialogue; suffice it to say, translators have their own agendas, and these agendas help to establish a given country’s or language’s literary reputation. Someone interested in Polish poetry has no other choice, really, than to reach for Postwar Polish Poetry edited by Czesław Miłosz. The tremendous success of this book, which has been continually in print since 1965, shows how an influential anthology can inoculate readers against previous and later anthologizing efforts. An influential anthology can cement a country’s reputation as a poetic trove for years to come, but it can also establish an understanding of that country’s poetics that’s impossible to revise for years to come.

Miłosz’s selections are now synonymous with the so-called Polish School of Poetry, which may be defined as a poetry about history and morality and ethics in a language that stays lyrically true rather than becoming preachy. As one would expect, some of the poems have not aged well, while others continue to speak to readers old and young alike. Nevertheless, the enduring popularity of Polish poetry in the U.S. rests solely on mid-twentieth century poetics, which makes it difficult for younger Polish poets or those who simply write in a different vein to find an American audience. Not all Polish poets write like Miłosz or Herbert or Szymborska or Różewicz or the last of the greats, Adam Zagajewski. Many of those who were born in the ’60s and came of age during the heyday of the Solidarity era and Poland’s subsequent transition to democracy and capitalism after 1989 have turned to American poets for models. While I agree that there’d be no point of translating into English poets who sound like Frank O’Hara or John Ashbery, I do, being an active translator myself, ponder why younger Polish poets have a hard time gaining traction in the U.S.

While Scattering the Dark, which Edward Hirsch called “a useful, subversive, even necessary anthology,” doesn’t do away with the existing pigeonholes completely, it does present poets known and unknown to English-speaking readers thematically rather than chronologically. This is a welcome and unique approach. For example, instead of a dozen poems by Anna Świrszczyńska (aka Anna Swir), say, followed by a similar serving of poems by Wisława Szymborska, which we would expect of a chronological arrangement, we get eight chapters, each accompanied by its own brief introductory essay, starting with “Lifting the Veils of History” and ending, after some two hundred pages, with “Curating Objects.” In an interview I conducted for Guernica, Kovacik explains her thematic divisions in this way: “From reading [major Polish women poets] I discovered six of my themes: history, Poland’s tradition of bardic nationalism, use of myths, popularity of the ars poetica, the domestic arts, and life transitions. When I broadened my reading to younger poets, I discovered two more: dream poems and curating objects.” Needless to say, these themes are universal touchstones for poets across the globe. Her introduction may skew a bit towards familiar facts about Poland’s fateful past, but it is Kovacik’s editorial vision that sets her book apart. As she puts it, the thematic structure “allows us to hear conversations among Poland’s women poets who came of age as writers both before and after the fall of communism. But it also illustrates differences in style and approach even among poets who treat similar subjects.” Despite most of the selections running to a page or less and bearing “an ironic coolness of tone,” the echo chamber we get dropped into is actually quite stimulating.

The first chapter brilliantly illustrates Kovacik’s aim. Opening with two favorites by Szymborska—“The End and the Beginning” and “Hitler’s First Photograph”—Kovacik then continues with poems responding to well-known historical events, like World War II and the Chernobyl disaster, before anchoring the chapter with several pieces from the Solidarity era of the 1980s. The best of these, in my view, is a poem by Agnieszka Mirahina, who was only four when Communism ended in 1989. Her poem “All the Radio Stations of the Soviet Union” recalls the rapid-fire, disjoined delivery of a communiqué. The second and third stanzas engage with the opening of Szymborska’s “The End and the Beginning”: “After every war / someone has to tidy up. / Things won’t pick / themselves up, after all.” Mirahina writes:

in the beginning was the word that marshaled armies divisions regiments
it named then swept away the ants grim infantry of this earth
 
after the word came a convoy of brooms shovels chutes ovens
secrets going up in smoke
 

If Szymborska’s poem works as a concept catalogue poem (the Poet Laureate’s preferred formal design throughout her career), enumerating ironically the ways in which we are told to leave the past behind, Mirahina’s poem subverts the call to action by suggesting that bringing things out into the light is just the beginning. “This is Moscow calling,” after all, the poet tells us; being both political and poetic, Mirahina concedes “and no one really knows who purged the truth from the fairy tale / since the ants had always been here.” Questioning the idea of things-as-they-are, including the past, Mirahina forces her way to the front of the line, so to speak, hoping that her chatterbox poems, which are full of grammatical and metaphorical static, will be heard. The joke, however, is on her, too; purposefully aiming for a stance that’s more loud than clear, Mirahina gleefully contributes to the political bombast that surrounds her.

Another striking characteristic of Kovacik’s approach is the way she intersperses a given poet’s work throughout the chapter. For instance, Kraków-based Joanna Lech (b. 1984) is represented by three poems in the second chapter, “In the Theater of Dreams.” Her poems, marked by scenes and symbols associated with the post-1989 undoing of Communist-era safety nets and the ensuing societal pain and torpor, show the world through the eyes of adolescents:

This time nothing gets reflected in the sun. Dusk is falling
and the women at the river will take up their laundry.
Let bloodstains on the sheets stand for sunset, story, everything.
(“Cuts”)

Back behind the train station lie ruins of houses, shattered windows, trash. A broken swing.
Nothing’s here, nothing’s left, the tracks are overgrown. So I don’t understand
what you’re doing, twirling around, holding out your hands.
(“Postscript”)

Midnight, the middle of June. It’s raining and Marta has finally fallen asleep.
She sleeps with her mouth open like a fish flung onto the shore.
I watch her as the sea might.
(“The Tide Coming In”)
 

The three excerpts could easily be mistaken for parts of the same poem—that’s how uniform Lach’s project feels. No matter matter where she looks, the speaker cannot escape reality. Though Lach’s oneiric poems may look forward to better times, right now, alas, her dreams only keep her sheltered from reality that is as harsh as it is blunt.

In her introductory essay to the last chapter, “Curating Objects,” Kovacik explicitly addresses the gender disparity that mars many a contemporary poetry anthology, in Poland and elsewhere, including the U.S.:

Can objects have a gender outside of grammar, where in Polish, “moon” and “flower” are masculine nouns? Many of the poems in this chapter suggest feminized traces of existence—through images of drawers, maps, gowns, capes, boots, jewelry, gloves, magazines, and mutable leaves—to construct an archive of being, intimate as a glove and emblematic as a map.
 

Indeed, her mission to correct gender imbalance, which seems to be endemic to all national poetries, fuels Kovacik’s laudable achievement here. In letting us eavesdrop on the conversations that Polish women poets have been having over the decades, Kovacik hopes to upend our ideas of Polish poetry.

What is it about a poet’s work that allows it to cross physical and emotional boundaries? Is it craft? Probably not, since craft is often lost in translation, where formal subtleties or idiosyncrasies are difficult to preserve. Is it the poet’s unique voice? We read and re-read a particular poet because we feel that he or she speaks to us directly. We trust that poet’s words and we share his aches and triumphs. More often than not, it is subject matter that seems to me most readily compelling to an audience encountering a foreign poet for the first time. Miłosz’s anthology—as well as his own work—continues to speak to American poets today because for our predecessors in the 1960s and 1970s, encountering Slavic poets for the first time was a life-altering experience.

In the last twenty years or so in Poland, the country that, according to Ewa Lipska, “Pretends to be Europe,” poets of various colors and stripes constantly have been building and smashing barricades. Ironically, their new political and aesthetic responses to reality are partly to blame for the difficulty they’ve had in making their mark in English translation. Even though not all the “newness” is entirely new in Poland, in its Polish version it is new to us here in the States, and we don’t quite know what to do with it. Karen Kovacik isn’t the first editor and translator who has set out to thaw our complacency. Two other anthologies published since the year 2000 are still in print, including a bilingual edition solely dedicated to women poets—Ambers Aglow: An Anthology of Contemporary Polish Women’s Poetry—that aim to broaden our perspective on Polish poetry—where it’s been, is, and where it might be heading—but Kovacik’s feels most urgent precisely because it is the most eclectic and the most personal of them all.

 

 


Piotr Florczyk is a poet, essayist, and translator of Polish poetry. His most recent books are East & West, a volume of poems from Lost Horse Press, and two volumes of translations published by Tavern Books, My People & Other Poems by Wojciech Bonowicz, and Building the Barricade by Anna Świrszczyńska, which was longlisted for the 2017 PEN America Award for Poetry in Translation. Florczyk, a doctoral fellow at USC, lives in Mar Vista with his wife and daughter. For more info, please visit: www.piotrflorczyk.com  

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