Stride Magazine - www.stridemagazine.co.uk

 

NEW TIMES, NEW TOOLS

ALTERED STATE: THE NEW POLISH POETRY
edited by Rod Mengham, Tadeusz Pióro and Piotr Szymor
[248pp, Ł10.95, Arc Publications]

In a late poem, the Hungarian dissident György Petri portrayed the recent change of regime in his native land, not as deliverance but as an unexpected source of deprivation ­ baffled by this, he compared himself to a child whose favourite toy had been snatched away. Born in 1943, Petri had come to maturity during the heyday of the Communist era in Hungary, at the time of the regime of János Kádár's careful compromise between limited internal reform on the one hand, and adherence to Soviet foreign policy on the other. In reacting against the slimier aspects of that compromise, and its origins in the spilt blood of the 1956 uprising, Petri found himself both exiled from the relatively-generous limits of regime tolerance, and celebrated for this both within the internal dissident community and abroad.

So the events of 1989 had the strange effect of unsettling Petri, of taking away much of his raison d'etre as a writer. The writers collected in Altered State ­ the first extensive selection of poetry by contemporary, younger Polish writers published in the UK for a very long time ­ are in a different situation altogether. The oldest writers in the anthology, born in the late Fifties, grew up at a time when regime decay had set in, and there was no longer a chance of selling the regime to the people by way of debt-fuelled compromise. The younger writers, born in the late Seventies, have grown up in the aftermath of regime change, in a Poland that, like Hungary, is on a slow and winding path towards full integration with the economies of Western Europe.

It's helpful to consider the work of these twenty-five writers in this wider context, and Rod Mengham's excellent introduction attempts to sketch out the effect that the contemporary Polish situation might have had on them. Interestingly, he focuses on the changed relationship of Polish culture to American influence, rather than the re-integration of Mitteleuropa within the context of impending European union. Poland is certainly not the only country that, in Mengham's words, "in the last fifteen or so years, has been progressively encroached on by an American, global, postmodern culture whose effects have been extremely mixed". However, up until 1989 and the collapse of Communism, there had been a filter of sorts preventing that influence from pervading unchecked. Whereas America looms large in the consciousness of every post-war Brit, the pace of cultural influx in Poland has quickened dramatically in the years since the Wall came down.

Mengham charts a direct parallel between the Americanisation of Polish mass-culture and the deployment by Polish writers of the styles and strategies of certain American writers. As in the development of the 'Northern School' here, Frank O'Hara (along with Ashbery) emerges as a kind of 'secret king' ­ as Mengham puts it:

    The highly energized, osmotic, all-engrossing manner of O'Hara's verse
    provides a suitable model for the Polish poet acutely aware of continuous
    adjustments in every detail of the social and political environment.

This influence kicked in during the Eighties, with the formation of a literary movement that actually went under the name of the 'O'Harists' ­ to its friends, at any rate. However, as Mengham also points out, whereas O'Hara and Ashbery at that time "represented an enlivening, oxygenating alternative to the claustrophobic torpor of official state culture", the immersion of contemporary Poland in the postmodern condition creates a different context for that influence. In that context, there is an increased risk, as Mengham puts it, that "writing with this model will reproduce different versions of a sense of bewilderment and disorientation".

It's true to say that the influence of the New York School can be charted in a number of these writers ­ the freewheeling referentiality, the casual tone, the worldliness, the sardonic humour, the anecdotal surrealism. However, it's also true to say that these writers exhibit a wide variety of formal approaches, and that some of them are writing in a way which is visibly at odds both with the New York School, and with the postmodern consensus it plays a key role in. This is hardly a surprise, given the fact that there are twenty-five writers, born up to twenty years apart, represented in this collection.

Two things are notable with regard to the selection of writers as a whole. The first is where they are based ­ whereas around half the writers included in the recent New Writing in German issue of Chicago Review are based in Berlin, these writers are scattered amongst the major cities of Poland in a way that, hopefully, indicates a diversity and vitality comparable to that of the UK. Either that, or there are isolated writers bored out of their wits in provincial cities like Gdansk, Wroclaw and Gliwice, but let's hope that isn't the case… However, the second notable thing is that only three of the writers are female ­ arguably, three of the best - and one wonders whether the laddism that sometimes comes through in the work of some of these writers reflects a scene in which alpha males form the cultural equivalent of raiding-parties and compete for the favours of the females in their audience. The gender mix in the German compilation, on the other hand, is much closer to the 50/50 split we're starting to approach here.

To go through the work of each writer in turn would be laborious if enlightening. Instead, I will try and describe the anthology in terms of the range of approaches ­ both formal and substantial - which it displays.

First, there is evidence of minimalism, best exhibited by two writers ­ Jakub Ekier (b. 1961) and Marcin Sendecki (b. 1967). From my fragmentary acquaintance with other contemporary European poetries, this seems to be a more dominant style than at any previous time ­ an understandable reaction to data overload, of course. This untitled poem from Sendecki is typical:

    Dust seems lighter, leaves
    breathe: slow, careful.
    We've made love now we're
    talking. Bronze beads swell and
    fade with each eyelid movement.

Even contemporary Hungarian poetry ­ a poetry hitherto characterised by verbal expansiveness and metaphoric richness ­ appears to be getting more minimal, and it's likely that more of that aesthetic will break upon these insular shores, too, eventually.

The second approach is that of postmodernism, as characterised by… need I spell it out? Irony, pastiche, playfulness, intertextuality, the mingling of registers, the mixture of references to High and Low Culture, etc. (yawn)… Here, the work of co-editor Tadeusz Pióro (b. 1960) is relevant, but the most impressive example is possibly Krzysztof `Sliwka (b. 1967)'s 'Turning Points' ­ a postmodern travelogue, set in Rome, in which

    Silvio Berlusconi is the culinary capo di tutti capi
    at McDonalds. Gina Lollobrigida, post-menopause,
    deals speed on the side. Alberto Tomba's enlistment
    in the Cosa Nostra is pending. Aldo Moro remains
    a captive. Meanwhile, I lie motionless.
    No intention of rising. Under the bed, my paint-stained overalls,
    watchful as a dog.

Here, postmodernist strategies are put to use as a means of interpreting a recognisable landscape, rather than simply indulged in to accrue kudos.

The third approach is that of lyricism, as defined in terms of an attention to verbal and syntactical elegance and the development of 'atmosphere'. Two of the three women writers, Julia Fiedorczuk (b. 1975) and Marzanna Kielar (b. 1963), produce successful work in this area. Fiedorczuk contributes a Laura Riding-influenced sestina, 'The Snow Queen', and Kielar a series of delicate meditations on emotional and topographical border-states suggestive of some of the contemporary Scandinavian poetry I've read in translation. Indeed, if I hadn't known I would have guessed Kielar to be a Scandinavian writer, a literary equivalent of musicians like Terje Rypdal and Jan Garbarek, on the basis of passages like this:

    And where the basalt of night grows scant,
    cut by bands of erosion, daybreak is ribbed with red
    meat. And between light and dusk, there's no fluid transition.
    There's fire and raw black sky. Arid armour of the sea. A fissure
    along which the body of dream has split, unearthing the frozen marrow.
           (Untitled Poem)

However, the most sustained lyrical piece is probably Andrzej Sosnowski's 'In the Off-Season' ­ at odds with the postmodern detachment of the rest of his work included, this is a quite luxuriant, beautiful prose-poem that needs to be read entire.

The fourth approach, in contrast, is that of directness. One of the recent movements within Polish poetry is apparently termed 'banalism' or 'zero method' ­ whereas "O'Harism" can be seen as a home-grown reaction to the American model, it seems that this approach takes up the earlier tradition of 'survivor poetry', as practiced by older Polish writers like Rozewicz and Herbert and, more recently, by a writer like Baranczak. Generally, the more direct the style, the closer the reference to everyday reality and also the political aspects of that reality ­ although there is a difference between a writer like Mariusz Grzebalski (b. 1969) who tends towards the deadpan description of degraded reality, (for example in the piece 'Slaughterhouse'). and the writer I personally found most impressive of all those included, Marcin `Swietlicki (b. 1961). `Swietlicki's work offers us a picture of the poet as an engaged social being, rather than an ironic commentator, although his version of what the Hungarians call the 'poetry of national fate' is sufficiently subtle, and informed by contemporary uncertainties, not to stand at odds with the rest of the work included. In a particularly powerful poem, 'McDonalds', he uses the tools of Rozewicz to both refer to the 'Americanised' Poland of the early 21st century, and to interrogate more personal themes of desire and conflict:

    I find your teethmarks in a strange city.
    I find your teethmarks on my shoulder.
    I find your teethmarks in the mirror.
    Sometimes I am a hamburger.

    Sometimes I am a hamburger.
    Lettuce sticks out of me and mustard runs.
    Sometimes I am mortally like
    all other hamburgers…

In his work ­ like that of the great Hungarian poet Attila József who, at times, he resembles ­ there's an appealing juxtaposition of bodily vulnerability and political defiance, and, indeed, the fifth approach that is evident is that of sensuality
. A number of these writers focus on physical experience, portraying the body both as the site of desire and as the zone of confrontation with the decaying humus of the physical world. The work of the traveller-writer Bartlomiej Majzel (b. 1974) is interesting in this respect, as in the piece 'up and down the cross' (symbolism clear in Catholic Poland) ­ a focus on somatic experience also occurs in the work of the gay writer Eugeniusz Tkaczyszyn-Dycki (b. 1962) and the erotically-charged, yet disillusioned poetry of the youngest writer included, Marta Podgórnik. Born in 1978, she already runs a bar in the (post-?) industrial city of Gliwice, and her promising work is replete with images of the body-as-purgatory;

    you told me i was a corpse that had just
    slumped in your bed. that i cry and take off
    my clothes instead of leaving at last. i didn't take you seriously then,
    just in my mouth.
           ('Our Last Time')

Finally, as if at right-angle to all the other approaches, there's humour
­ generally sardonic, occasionally jet-black, sometimes laddish, sometimes zany if that word hasn't passed beyond legitimate use. The work of two writers, Darek Foks (b. 1966) and Krzysztof Jaworski (b. 1966), is particularly dominated by a view of the poet as stand-up comic/raconteur in the O'Hara mode. Jaworski's 'Monodrama', for example, begins:

    I'm not that unknown after all.
    Today, for instance, when I asked for bottled beer
    at the store, the woman said: Why, what a change!
    (Cans take up less room, don't they?)
    Most of all, I'd like to own a dog.
    (Dogs take up less room than horses).
    I'd like to own a dog the size of a horse…

And so on, and so forth. Jaworski's work can bear surprising parallels with that of English contemporaries associated with the Northern School of the early Nineties ­ Cummings, Crystal etc ­ and the reason isn't just a shared interest in O'Hara, I'm sure. It's to do with finding coping strategies, in a world of postmodern, mass-consumerist onslaught, and that's one way to deal with it, just as walking away and trying to think and write for the long-term is another, equally valid strategy.

Overall, this anthology invites assessment in terms of what has gone before in Polish poetry, but also in terms of what contemporary writers in the UK are doing. With regard to the first, Mengham's point that these writers have drawn upon exotic examples, particularly the New York School, to deal with the changed reality in which they find themselves is a reasonable one ­ they've found new toys for new times, or rather new tools appropriate to their aims. However, it is also fair to say that they are responsive to the tradition of post-war Polish poetry, a tradition that, on the basis of my limited reading over the last twenty-five years, appears to have been the strongest and most distinguished in the whole of Europe bar none.

As far as parallels go, these writers often deal with similar concerns to their British contemporaries, and in ways that are also comparable. However, the parallel writers this collection brings to mind aren't necessarily the ones promoted by the mainstream as its salvation but, rather, semi-marginal figures like the Scottish Informationists and the writers of the Northern School. Also, there's a lack of overt experimentalism, which may be to do with translation problems but may also be to do with the persistence of a literary culture in which writers are expected to play a socially-communicative, rather than a crypto-academic, role ­ applied rather than pure, which suits me fine. Overall, this is a highly-recommended collection, with a large percentage of first-rate work, although the worrying nature of the gender balance has to be re-stated. If young female Polish poets are, indeed, being discouraged from putting their work forward into the wider scene, then that scene will start to appear anachronistic in a 21st century European context ­ no matter how contemporarily relevant, or just plain good, the male writers happen to be.

           © Norman Jope 2003