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Review: Six Polish Poets, ed. Jacek Dehnel

Marcus Smith, Envoi 154, October '09

Jacek Dehnel edits and contributes to Six Polish Poets, the fifth in Arc Publications' series of bilingual sestet anthologies. His straightforward poems of transience and duration reflect the current Polish style with its emphasis on the individual and 'personal problems' (not so unlike poetry everywhere today) that he describes in his introduction. While he states that Polish poetry today rejects the 'high-flown diction' of 'grand old poets' (Milosz, Herbert, Szymborska, Rozewicz), he also acknowledges the return of metre and rhyme. His standout poem is Happiness, in the voice of a dying man:

...chiefly to be certain that every past moment
could not, should not have happened differently,
with another somewhere else or sometime else - this is happiness.

Agnieska Kuciiak deals heavily in irony as well as transience and duration. A translator of Dante who often fills her poems with Italian references, there's more a sense of the past and literary tradition in her work with even a poem about metre (At times, it's like returning home.) Romance characteristically captures a failed relationship with the wry observation:

She made a mistake. She wanted to be loved
for her words' décolletage, but she didn't have any.
She made a mistake. He didn't fall in love.
He got lost in his reading, but not in her.

Akmatova scholar Anna Piwkowska writes like her mentor about the ferocity and disappointment of love (I'm ready to wage my private war) but without her broader political stance. Piwkowska's personal emotions range from desperation ('Will you always, will you for certain, stay with me?' ) to the sexual polemics of What Do Men Bring? The rather sexist answer is:

Their abacuses, rulers, computers. Bonds
and shares from the stock exchange. Maps, the secret
plans of airports, bases, basilicas.

But men have their uses: We want them for the moment of brief covenant.

Dariusz Suska and Tomasz Rozzycki place their emotional lives in both a more immediately existential and historical context. For Suska the daily setting can be grim (All The Hovels In The World, And This Room As Well) and the struggle of living meaningfully tentative at best:

crack open the balcony door, drag into the room the insistent
drone of cars in the night; trust to the existence
of yellow street lights that (here at the city's rim)
dispel the darkness...

For Rozzycki, who is said to 'specialize in deformed sonnets'. The sense of living in 'recovered lands' means his poetry still remains deeply rooted in Central Europe and provides a more expected dark side usually associated with the tragic poetry f a tragic country. There are 'black tongues', 'black notebooks' and 'black despair' and the self-conscious drama surrounding the act of writing, frequently portrayed as a desperate act of 'feeding on paper.' In a staunch reminder of the recent past Rozzycki numbers himself the 'public enemies' to the totalitarian state - 'deserters, poets, traitors, profiteers.'

Finally, Macciiej Worniak, also a music critic, combines the quietest and most sophisticated approach here with a love of music similar to Stevens' notion of the imaginative supreme fiction. In the process he contrasts the temporal, epitomized by horrors of war, with the spiritual endurance of art:

... What, then, might persist
as a holy wafer of life, the still beating heart
of Germany torn out at the last moment? Only Bach.
The rough tongue of the truth-telling cello.