Translator’s Introduction for Colonies

Tomasz Różycki walks to work every day through the city of Opole, in the Polish region of Silesia, where he has lived since his birth in 1970. The fact that he is walking is important: the rhythm of feet on concrete and cobblestone, the familiar view across the Odra River, the regular length of time it takes him to reach his destination. Poetry has a long friendship with walking, good for pacing the flow of thought and establishing a strong rhythm. We are familiar with the idea in the Anglophone tradition from the late eighteenth century, when the Romantic poets transformed walking into a cultural and aesthetic act of taking pleasure in a landscape. For William Wordsworth, almost daily excursions on foot as well as longer walking tours functioned as a way to compose and revise poems that sprung from his meditations on the countryside. But what is important in Różycki’s daily walking is not so much any pastoral awareness it brings about but the fact that such rambling often leads to more sustained interest in the history of a place. Wordsworth’s pedestrian experience of the Lake District moved him to write a guidebook that traced the history of the region; so, too, Różycki’s paced knowledge of his part of Silesia roots him in a historical curiosity. In Colonies, his sixth collection, this curiosity blooms into an outright aesthetic obsession.


Walking as a key to understanding Różycki’s poetry begins with location, with Opole and that particular area of Eastern Europe through which he wanders. The city, known before 1945 as Oppeln and located in Germany, was settled with Polish citizens when Poland’s borders were shifted west after World War II. Różycki’s family, forced to leave Lwów in the east (now Lviv in Ukraine), was among those relocated. This personal history, shared by millions, afflicts Różycki, both the horrors of the war and the abandoning of homes, people, and traditions afterward. It haunts his current surroundings and reminds him that the present is a form of continued exile. In the poem “The Rainy Season,” he describes the nearby city of Wrocław as a place that “exiles wanted to rebuild / to look at least a little like Lwów,” and in “Totems and Beads,” his world is reduced to a rubbish heap of post- German objects from which it falls to him to build a homeland. His writing is at once an attempt to free himself from this inherited history and an enactment of his failure to do so. As Różycki writes in relating a trip he took to Ukraine in “Scorched Maps”:

I searched, but those
I loved had disappeared below the ground,

deeper than decades of ants. I asked
about them everywhere, but grass and leaves
have been growing, bees swarming. So I lay down,

face to the ground, and said this incantation—
you can come out, it’s over.

Such attention to locating the original homeland, such searching for the past to be revealed, gives charge to the present state of alienation.

What is surprising about Różycki’s obsession is that he belongs to the generation of those who were born after resettlement. Yet his family’s history exerts an intense hold on him, reminding the reader that it is not just individuals who were displaced but the whole country or, rather, countries. This transnational lineage lives on in the descendents of those relocated who have inherited both a sense of dislocation and the dilemma of how to create an authentic self out of discontinuity. Hence, colony: a community of people who settle in a new locality, consisting of the original settlers and their descendants, as long as the connection with the parent state is preserved. Różycki is compelled to take on this charge, to maintain the connection. The authentic or consistent self is allusive in his experience—rather, the speaker in these poems often finds that there are many selves, multiplying, cloning, and propagating in a false world. Meanwhile, the place of true citizenship remains buried in history, at the center of the earth, while the speaker keeps digging and digging through the soil for any remnants that remain. These poems relate his discoveries: bottle caps, rags, hair inside the earth, and, finally, a republic of true citizenship at the earth’s fiery core that turns even these remnants to ash. The past is never revealed.

What is also surprising is that Różycki thus embraces rather than rejects the poetic lineage that runs through the last few generations of Polish poets. As the scholar Irena Grudzińska Gross has pointed out, Lwów as the lost city is part of the Polish poetic vocabulary, as seen in the work of earlier writers like Zbigniew Herbert and Adam Zagajewski, who were relocated from Lwów in their youth. It is also paralleled by Czesław Miłosz’s reverence for his own lost city, Wilno, as “the city without a name.” Many Polish poets of Różycki’s generation have sought to put aside such burdens of recent history, which they feel result in an unappealing moralism in the work of their immediate poetic forerunners. Instead, they emphasize a break with the immediate past, cultivating an ironic attitude toward contemporary urban life and writing under the aegis of postmodern fragmentation. In contrast, Różycki’s poetry proceeds with lyricism and a serious tone that underscore rather than deny the ties to his poetic lineage. His obsession with Lwów as the lost city is present from his very first collection, Vaterland (1997), in which he rails against the baggage he must carry from the past. “Why didn’t they burn down Lwów, why / didn’t they turn it to ash, light smoke,” the speaker asks at one point in Vaterland. “Then no one / would have to carry such weight throughout / life and fall down a hundred times over, even in dreams.” In Colonies, the massive weight of the past has been built up into entire cities of exile. “Who can create / from emptiness—from nothing yet more nothing, / spawning itself at night,” the speaker in the poem “The Flying Dutchman” emphatically asks, “—and from this build whole cities made of nothing, stories high, / with people cut from emptiness like blow-up beasts?” Różycki’s investigation of the past is more nuanced and insistent here, with connections made between the absent past, the melancholic present, and the possibilities of an uncertain future.

In this way, Różycki’s personal interest in the history of his specific place quickly expands into a national, even universal sensibility. Colonies in the plural widens the frame of reference. Combined with the titles of many of the poems that recall nineteenth-century travel narratives, the book questions the old-fashioned lure of tales from exotic locales and overseas colonies. It asks what remains of the authentic self in our postcolonial era. Almost every poem finds the speaker traveling, from walking to sailing to flying to “aimlessly roaming the nameless mazes” of the Paris metro. But the spaces through which the speaker moves are almost always vacant, filled with a kind of desolation. “Surely you know I built this world out of / contrariness,” the speaker in “Sextant and Planisphere” asserts. The world the poem goes on to describe is one of emptiness:

and there are many houses for me,
calm gardens, courtyards, many pantries stocked
with drinks and cellars flooded out at dawn,

and there are many trunks buried at night
three paces from the apple tree and jars
abandoned in the winter, many rooms
unoccupied, all empty, many stray

walkways and broken stairs, deserted alcoves
teeming with growth without the help of light,
without the help of air. So many wild squatters.

Here the world neither materializes nor disappears but remains phantom-like. The space hints at a buried or abandoned past, and only an alien life—or a homeless life—that is able to flourish in the still darkness can survive without it. To substitute the language of the last poem in this collection: the postcolonial world is filled with a residual melancholy of illusions, neither truthful nor authentic but ambiguous, the now as an endless moment of hesitation.

In Polish, colonies in the plural has an additional meaning that denotes summer camps for children, lending to the idea of a lost city a second reading as the lost realm of childhood. Many poems yearn for childhood’s imagination and truthful simplicity of naming things, especially the moment when a child begins to learn language and to name his or her inner experience. Such words will “soon grow to notebooks, dictionaries, whole mythologies” and become suspect, as the poem “Cocoa and Parrots” relates, just as the poet’s imagination is suspect. The act of writing and the function of literature are in question here. Language is often called to task as a colonizing presence over the land of childhood, and literature likewise stands in contrast to life, with all of its daily concerns. These ruminations come to the fore in a series of poems, scattered throughout the book, that all begin with the leading statement, “When I began to write, I didn’t know . . .” Colonies is, in large part, a meditation on the nature of writing, which is seen as a loss of childhood and a kind of ailment or invasion of the body. Similarly, Różycki’s place of origin—with its diverse makeup and the implications of its history—is rendered as a sickness, his heritage something he wants to leave behind through endless travel yet can never escape, since it is internalized; it has subsumed the body. And, thus, it is only this elemental existence, this body, that knows the truth. Różycki’s longing for the abatement of past times that will ease his estrangement in adulthood cannot be fulfilled. As Gross puts it, “the older he becomes, the closer the past.”


Walking is also a key to understanding Różycki’s poetic aesthetic and the present translation. His daily routine of walking to work— which was often the only time he had to compose the poems that became Colonies—helped to ritualize a stylistic tendency of thinking in sequences. “I do not have the comfort of being able to sit at a desk and dream up lines,” Różycki once said. “I do not have the time, nor the desk really.” Instead, many of his later books hit upon a received or invented form that then governs the writing of the rest of the poems, just as the rhythm and length of his walk to work etablish a familiar structure to the day. In Colonies (2006), as well as his most recent volume The Book of Rotations (2010), he further links the poems by numbering them, a practice he tested out in his earlier collection World and Anti- World (2003). Colonies is made up of seventy-seven numbered sonnets, a form he has been partial to from the beginning, while The Book of Rotations consists of eighty-eight poems that follow an invented form of two eight-line stanzas. In each case, this sequencing of concatenated poems ebbs and flows around a stable set of themes and images, giving the collections the feel of being written in a single breath. It is difficult to extract individual poems. Each is so dependent on the rest of the series as to build in significance only through resonance within the whole. The internal structure of many of the poems also creates a breathlessness, or rather steady breathing, that stems from an obsessiveness with language. Sonnets such as “The Volcano” and “Sextant and Planisphere” are built of lists that keep unfolding the initial thought, extending it further and further with the rhythm of run-on sentences.

Both in form and subject, Colonies explores language as a colonizing force on the body, and it was this idea that guided my choices for the English translation. The serial use of the sonnet is, in a sense, an infection of form. While the form includes a consistent though not strict use of meter and rhyme, the original Polish is governed foremost by a strong sonic energy that dominates the whole collection. I believe that poetry arises not as a mere exercise in form, but as an effort of music; that is, its source is sound rather than sense or design. Language carries meaning, of course. But my own experience has taught me that the composition of poetry comes from the body rather than from an abstract mental space, that sound propels writing into new, unexpected directions that then propel the discovery of new, unexpected ideas. My task in translating the present work was to remember that sound drives sense, not the other way around. I put the musicality of the English before any strict idea of fidelity in an effort to write alongside the Polish, not from it. Instead of adding or altering ideas in order to replicate end rhyme, I played up the natural sonic texture of the English and used the strong iambic meter of the English sonnet as a way to impart the kind of incessant music that we find in the original Polish. Yet a translator’s hands are inevitably bound by the ties of meaning. Różycki breaks with the form often enough, expanding the line in Polish, that it was necessary at times to depart from the pentameter line in English in order to convey the breadth of ideas. But my overall intent was to use form as a means to resist simply following meaning, in order to strike real poetry in English.

By insisting on a single form, and using all of his lyric powers to make it breathe and hum, Różycki creates the feeling of hovering in the present, striking the form’s chord over and over again as an enactment of his hesitation to move on. He seems to be searching for an order that proves the world is mechanical and finite—“Wouldn’t it be easier?” he asks in “The Iron Railroad.” Yet Europe’s messy ledgers remain, as does the history of the war and its aftermath, still to be reconciled. Unwilling or unable to let go of a longing to be free of that place called Eastern Europe, he recalls it time and again, even as he tries to negate it, that is, even as he names what he wishes to deny.

Mira Rosenthal
January 2012

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