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Review: Six Polish Poets, ed. Jacek Dehnel

John Muckle, The Warwick Review, Vol. III, No.1, March 2009

Six Polish Poets brings together the work of five poets in their early forties assembled by one in his late twenties, sampling a group of writers who have reacted against the alleged brutalist individualism of a group of New York School devotees in a poetry of traditional forms and subjects - rhymed sonnets, the thirteen-syllable Polish line, and persona poems in which speak figures from a shared European cultural past.

Agnieszka Kuciak is a translator of Italian literature. Her poems often reflect time spent in Italy and seem light as a consequence: in warmer climes men are always waiting for the blondes to appear; but some blondes pine for something deeper than bright little scooters and Yves Saint Laurent. Sexuality is inescapable, although also kind of fun:

Here they drink in desire from every source.
Beautiful eyes take in beauty with each glance,
And in the holy city everything is holy
Holy the Campari, holy the horses' marble tails...

But a trip to Byzantium yields little more than over-familiar echoes of Yeats. Virginity is traded for banknotes, she is on the look out for spirituality but finds it everywhere traduced by an invited, enjoyable eroticism, Like a silver knife for carving the moon, just as, at home in the city of Posnan, the German invaders converted an emptied synagogue into an undeniably pleasant swimming pool. The tension is brought to a head in Ninevah, a reflection on an Assyrian carving of a dying lioness seen in the British Museum, where the commissioned art of the hunter, Assurbanipal, records a cry of pain lasting forever: The wind carries the 'no' / Of the bleeding lioness - its steadfast rebuking roar / Across millennia of death, beyond empires.

Tomasz Rózycki's sonnet sequences reflect on writing as worldly success, world-mapping conquest, but the borders he traverses are uncertain, as watery and debatable as the fenced-off site of an alien visitation in Andrei Tarkovsky's film Stalker.

The left bank is the fatherland, but not
the right. This means the birch-tree is but not
the beech. Between them fish live in the dark.
I threw some bread in yesterday and watched

it cloud the water. Then I whispered words.
frogs croaked, carp smacked their lips. At dawn I threw
some bread in, watched it sink. The silt devours
all good wishes, the path remains unknown.

He escapes over a zone of shadowy demarcations, into lands recovered from Germany after World War Two and resettled by Poles displaced from the Eastern territories annexed by the USSR. Just such a lost territory, then, in political terms, as the landscapes Rózycki conjures up with his sliding lines, enjambed rhymes and pivoting perspectives.

Darius Suska also writes sonnets with tumbling rhymes, but his subjects are domestic, aimed at a passing social scene, and infused with a cartoonist's wit. A good-natured poet, his cultural reference-points are often knowingly pop - 'The Swarm', 'Kojak', football - and usually relate to high-rise working-class life - a dead neighbour, a bathtub full of dying carp, or a sudden plague of wasps:

Don't crush it with your shoe, let's leave the wasp alone,
there were never as many here as this June's swarm,
they covered the highway like a huge sheet of linen
I'm sick of the sight of them, but let's do them no harm

The occurrences are everyday, sometimes banal, his narrator's response a half-surprised ingenuity. Suska cracks jokes, teases an allegory of the anthill out of childhood memory, but his poems never turn sour. He's always in solidarity with the inhabitants of these urban landscapes. His beat work resonates with a child-world and its inexplicable injustices, a macabre humour, a sweetness laced with irony, unquenchable hopes.

(how's Jacek? is he buried? no, he's in shoe polish now,
hum a tune and perhaps he'll rest in peace somehow)

Maciej Wozniak, perhaps because he is also a writer on classical music, occupies more securely high-cultural territory. We cruise roads clearly signposted with historical markers and, for the most part, he has a way of laying hold of his materials that is direct rather than metaphorical. Glenn Gould records Bach in New York in 1955, Pablo Casals records Bach in London in 1936, Wozniak records a few salient details: a photo of Casals, lost in a cigarette cloud, seems to anticipate the ruin of European cities, and German culture under a darker pall of smoke. History appears foreordained by a master musician who feels its taut cords beneath his fingertips. In another poem, Virginia Woolf meditates on femininity, Napoleon and the Brown Shits; but the best of them is Poor Clara Schumann, perhaps because he doesn't give her so much historical freight to pack. The Dress sounds like a stage costume in a play designed by Tadeusz Kantor: Don't take it off / dress me in my dress, my worn out skin, whitened / on the bones, where phosphorous shows through the cloth.

Wozniak tries to define an erotics of history, figuring the hour-glass of 'Klepsydra' as a woman's waist through which he tips the sands of time in a dance of love, temporality and death:

When we lie side by side
our hair rustles softly, as if we too
were falling to the bottom of the night

Anna Piwkowska's work is Russian-inflected; she is a scholar of Anna Akhmatova. Most of her poetry here steps boldly beyond rhyme into a magisterially elevated, archetypically defined feminine space, strong, elemental and full of dark historical echoes - a freight train in a siding has only just disgorged its cargo of Jews - but What Do Men Bring? deals its gender cards with lightness and wit and is fairly kind to rebellious men, who have their uses:

The magnetic card
With call units, impulses under the skin, that's their asset.
We sail with them believing in fog-free seas,
cicada, almond trees, elbows tanned by the sun
- we'll pine for this moment till the end of our days.
They bring washed-out books on soul and will
in soft, grey covers. They like heretics.
We squeeze them on the shelves amongst the classics
and thus our library slowly becomes complete.

The convenor of this gang of six is the youngest poet, Jacek Dehnel. At twenty-eight he has published four books of poetry, two novels, a book of short stories and a volume of four novellas. His poetry is enviably confident, dense with description, with others' stories, and, along with its ample lines, is borne by a neat, incisive rhyming which is the hallmark of these poets: skewers holding their multi-cultural kebabs together. Dehnel is a strong writer with or without rhyme - able to impersonate a middle-aged English woman poet, disclose a historical rural Polish landscape with one razor sharp glance or travel, again, to New York, there to commune with Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe:

Did that gentleman touch you, or was it you that touched him,
what has touched you so badly? Was their touch so painful,
this city and these people? Whence comes this change, baby,
who gave you this confection, who hustled this tablet
into your hand? Who trickled this toxin, this thinness,
this gall into you, this pallor? What exchange did you get?

But Dehnel's poets definitely do get something out of the exchange of toxins, aided in their attempts to cross borders by a highly able and inventive team of translators: Ewa Chrusciel, Bill Johnson, Karen Kovacik, Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Mira Rosenthal, George Szirtes and Elzbieta Wójcik-Leese.