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Review: Six Polish Poets, ed. Jacek Dehnel

Wojciech Jajdelski, Times Literary Supplement, 22nd May 2009.

Jacek Dehnel's slim bilingual anthology collects some of the most classically lucid poetry in Polish published in the past decade. The writers are hardly youngsters, though a spirit of comparative youthfulness sets them apart from Poland's poetic sages such as Tadeusz Rozeicz or Wislawa Szymborska. Some of the volume's themes, mourning an elderly relative or coping with one's own parental confusion when educating a young child, confirm the poets' shared demographic profile. Though each contributor sounds distinctive and there is no hint of a joint manifesto, the writers included are clearly at ease in each other's company, and united in their commitment to formal discipline, intelligibility and the life of the mind. The book is dense with good poetry.

In Anna Piwkowska's The Last Summer, a Coetzeean intensity grips an elderly man, possibly a writer, whose life is sweetly disturbed by a female visitor's daily routines. The man's perceptions obsessively return to the lovely stranger's dress, tennis ball and racket, and her departure augurs his future death.

Dariusz Suska's Don't Crush it with Your Shoe combines a child's interest in accidental cruelty towards insects with a parent's uncertain lessons about morality and providence. Regular rhymed stanzas present a conversational exchange consisting of the father's falsely confident injunctions, the child's sensible queries and their joint address to a wasp.

Tomasz Rozycki's impeccable sonnets explore with irony the poet's dominion over the world as a childish fantasy of boundless political power (Coral Bay and The Governor's Residence) or an all-devouring appetite for experience (Ants and Sharks).

Maciej Wozniak's poems on Bach recordings by Glenn Gould and Pablo Casals employ poetic licence to relate a particular musical performance to its historical time and place, and do so more closely than any reception study ever could.

Agnieska Kuciak's Romance inventively takes up the topoi of loveless scholar and amor librorum to depict a casual affair between professor and student.

In Jacek Dehnel's A Razor-Sharp Glance, which focuses on an old photo of a rural flood scene, the idea of carving out a section of the visual field with a sharp instrument is carefully developed into a condensed meditation on seeing and photography.

While the transcontinental team of translators has largely given up on tight verse structures and rhyme, the English versions succeed and more than occasionally impress. The editor's introduction provides a brief account of Polish poetry's fortunes after 1989 and a considered paragraph about each of the six poets is included. The biographical notes on particular authors and translators complement the opening essay and make the anthology a useful reference guide. This unobtrusive background reading allows the poems to speak even more eloquently for themselves.