Foreword by Adam Zagajewski
In the chain of poetic generations, Tomasz Różycki stands apart from the noisy “bruLion” group of poets who made their poetic debut in the the late eighties during the last years of Communism in Poland. The poets of bruLion, which means something like “rough draft,” were irritated by what they perceived as a stilted moralism in the work of their predecessors. For models, they rejected poets such as Czesław Miłosz, Wisława Szymborska and Zbigniew Herbert—one of their gestures was to create a mock “anti-Zbigniew Herbert” party—and embraced the New York School poets, taking Frank O’Hara as the central figure of their aesthetic orientation. They tended toward rupture with the immediate past and created an atmosphere of a sober gaze on life, of “urban irony,” as somebody once called this attitude, with a minimal interest in the local poetic tradition. They also distrust- ed any major global poetic program. Fragments and mockery—these were their slogans. Very fitting for the years of the postmodern creed.
Różycki started under the sign of the opposite values. Although not free from irony—who could be completely free from irony these days?—he employs a lyrical tone and, in doing so, shows no signs of derision. He seems to be impressed by poets of intelligence and meaning, both the post-war Polish poets and others, such as Joseph Brodsky. Furthermore, he stresses rather than denies his attachment to recent history, for example, in his award-winning long poem Twelve Stations, a humorous and tender portrayal of his family’s wandering from the east of Poland (today Ukraine) to the west (the territory regained from Germany after World War II). In addition, the number twelve refers to the twelve books (or chapters) of Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz, directly linking Różycki’s poem to the famous tale so central for Polish literature. Twelve Stations is thus a demonstration of Różycki’s interest in the continuity of the poetic tradition—done in a friendly voice with a tongue-in-cheek reverence.
Różycki’s latest collection, Colonies, is further proof of his versatility and depth as a poet. Completely different from the narrative breadth of Twelve Stations, Colonies is a deeply lyrical book juxtaposing love poems and poems, although also personal, that have a wider frame of references. “Personal” for Różycki means also transpersonal; the persona of his poetry holds the memory of an entire family or tribe, or perhaps even of society in general. And there’s no mockery here. Różycki’s poetry is serious, a private response to the historic moment.
Without a doubt, a vital new poet has emerged from the Polish language.
Translator’s Introduction for The Forgotten Keys
The poems in these pages are built of crumbs. Crumbs of culture: a watch, a voluminous old book, a broken camera. Crumbs of history: views of empty streets and shuttered shops after war, of houses buried in snow, of mud spreading through the park and obliterating borders. Crumbs of life: tobacco smoke, pungent wine, a chipped parquet floor, the hoot of an owl, exhaust from a city bus. The desire to collect what remains after war, relocation, and colonization is often revealed in postwar European literature that bears the burden of responding to devastation and upheaval. But the project of The Forgotten Keys is not a lament for what has been lost but an homage to what has been handed down to those living now in the twenty-first century, for what is still accessible today through memory and restoration. Nowhere is the search to gather these fragments and construct something out of what remains—to almost imbibe memories, to satisfy an intense hunger for return—more acute than in the work of Polish poet Tomasz Różycki.
Różycki was born in the town of Opole, Upper Silesia, in 1970. The place of his upbringing and, to this day, of his adult life takes on great significance in his poetry. Silesia, an historic region located in East Central Europe, lies on the western border of Poland, and thus its story is marked by the continual shift of the country’s borders, most recently after World War II. The decision at Yalta in 1945 to compensate Poland’s loss of territory in the East by awarding former German territory in the West uprooted many people, both Germans, who either escaped or were expelled, and Poles, who were forced to resettle from eastern cities such as Lwów (in today’s Ukraine). Różycki’s own family was among them. And this inherited national/family history motivates Różycki’s poetic investigations from his first poems to the present day. The very title of his 1997 debut collection, Vaterland, which Różycki chose to render in the German, bears out these tensions. The title elicits the Nazi usage of the word, but simultaneously questions the very idea of a people united under a shared language and history that would ultimately comprise the feeling of belonging to a “father- land.” In the title poem of the collection, the idea of a “fatherland” becomes a “salt rock buried in the ashes of a burnt down town” that the speaker carries around in a matchbox. For Różycki, the displacement of people after World War II led to a nugget of memories reduced by family mythology to the most common substance, salt embedded in ash, to be passed on by future generations.
Różycki carries this light yet compact baggage comprised of seem- ingly random bits and pieces from the past into his subsequent poems. Three more collections of poetry quickly followed his debut: Anima in 1999 Country Cottage (Chata umaita) in 2001 and World and Anti- World (Świat i antiświat) in 2003. These poems have a formal tendency drawing from Polish prosody as well as Różycki’s study of Romance languages during his time at Jagiellonian University in Kraków. His background in French literature and language, which he teaches at a training college in Opole, continually enters into his poetry both in terms of content and form. Combined with these qualities, Różycki’s sensibility is deeply hermetic. His cultural allusions are idiosyncratic to the point of uncertainty; they are at times anchored to concrete images, but the import of the images—a yellowed juice-stained book, an old piece of colored crayon—is often ambiguous and unfixed to a specific narrative. These features, far from detractions, give Różycki’s poetry a distinct voice that stands out from the work of other younger Polish poets.
The emergence of Różycki as an important younger poet hap- pened somewhat aside from the phenomenon most noted by the critics. During his university years in Kraków, Różycki was undoubtedly caught up in the spirit of provocation that characterized new poetry at the time—I am thinking here of the literary rebellion that developed in the pages of a new magazine called bruLion. The aim was a whole- sale provocation against Communist rule but also against the strong- holds of Polish culture in general. These young poets discarded the heavy imperative to bear witness to recent history, as their predecessors in the “Generation of ’20” and the “New Wave” had done, in favor of a focus on contemporary urban life. Różycki’s work is likewise embedded in the tension between history and autobiography. But there is a different sensibility driving his work, one that aims at reconciling the traditional, political, and historical context with a very modern understanding and experience. This can be seen most prominently in his poetic syntax, a kind of fusion of poetic language of the past and of the present. His work somehow seems both contemporary and old fashioned, his references at turns easily recognizable and distant.
Różycki’s unique sensibility is perhaps most powerfully realized in his book Twelve Stations (Dwanaście stacji), an epic-length poem in chapters, published in 2004. The tragicomic poem tells the story of a family gathering from the perspective of a third-generation, post- World-War-II representative who assembles all the members of his family expelled from Poland’s eastern regions after the war. His aim is to revisit their place of origin and search for the church bells buried there in 1945. This long narrative poem further develops thematic threads already functioning in Różycki’s poetry. At the same time, the language and structure of the book clearly build off of Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz’s national epic Pan Tadeusz. With humor and aplomb, Różycki constructs a multi-layered allusion to the famous story of national identity that is memorized (at least in its opening lines) by all school children in Poland. Combine this with a sense of the narrator as a man at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and the restorative intent of the project becomes clear. Różycki received the coveted Kościelski Foundation Prize for the book, thus joining the ranks of many of Poland’s most important poets who also received the prize early in their careers, among them Sławomir Mrożek, Zbigniew Herbert, and Adam Zagajewski. The book moved the jury with its “humorous distance, but also warmly depicted praise, of the province and of family tradition.” The prize amplified interest in Royzcki’s work, and in the same year a volume of his collected poems appeared.
The literary critic Marian Stala notes that there is something in Różycki’s work of what Polish writer Bruno Schulz called the mythologization of reality. Poetry, for Schulz, is the release of words from their fragmented uses and utilitarian strictures. The colloquial is only a rudimentary form of a former all-encompassing mythology. When the strictures of everyday use are relaxed, “a regression takes place within, a backflow, and the word returns to its former connections and once again becomes complete in meaning—and this tendency of the word to return to its nursery, its yearning to revert to its origins, to its verbal homeland, we term poetry.” Różycki has this yearning to get back to a lost homeland, both verbally and historically. He repeatedly attempts to construct a private myth from fragmented, cheap, inconsequential remains of a past time and place. It is both a private myth and a public myth, incorporating the experiences of the people displaced from the East after World War II and also other kinds of displacement, such as the dislocation of refugees arriving in America after many nights spent in the hull of a ship. In this yearning for a return and reclamation, there is certainly nostalgia—note the poem “Nostalgia” that opens this book—but also the awareness that this myth making has little to shore it up at the end of the twentieth century.
It cannot be emphasized enough that Różycki’s project is also intensely personal. Merged within his attempt to construct a new and accessible understanding of the past are individual expressions of love. The many exotic titles of poems from his most recent book, Colonies (Kolonie), published in 2006, present a striking contrast to the depictions of Polish country life and everyday tender moments found interspersed throughout the poems. In “Cocoa and Parrots,” the speaker relates his awe at watching his son learn to speak. His son’s words, the speaker concedes, will soon “grow into notebooks and dictionaries, a whole mythology.” But for now, he says, “My son speaks the truth.” In “Electric Eels,” the speaker plays in the sand with his son, who is carving out the borders of imaginary colonies with the point of a stick. The personal and the political merge in the space of a few short lines. And in “Coffee and Cigarettes,” the figure of the beloved drifting off to sleep serves as a focal point for the speaker and saves him from becoming some “perpetually sleep-deprived phantom” lost in his own melancholy. This sensitivity expressed in private moments imbues Różycki’s work with the most personal elements.
Translation is, in essence, an act of very close reading; it is the process of reading slowly, and pondering word equivalences, and rereading, and pondering again. Behind this volume lies my own process of gradually becoming a more nuanced reader of Różycki’s poetry. The idiosyncrasy of his cultural allusions proved to be both an incredibly rich characteristic and, perhaps not surprisingly, a challenge to translate. Such allusions are evident to any Polish reader who looks at Różycki’s work from the perspective of history and tradition, yet the subtleties are manifold and difficult to fully explicate. I wanted to enable English-language readers to understand some of these references without imposing an academic apparatus of footnotes and explanations. First of all, this meant selecting poems that would, taken as a group, build an awareness of Różycki’s main themes, his sources of subject matter, and his formal and stylistic intimations. This approach seems appropriate, given the consistency of such features in his work throughout his career. However, it also meant omitting his epic-length poem Twelve Stations and the majority of poems from his book World and Anti-World, a numbered sequence of “songs.” Both books generate complex internal structures that make it difficult to extract individual poems or sections.
As my reading deepened, I also found a more metaphysical dimension in Różycki’s work—an aspect that seemed to intensify as he developed as a poet. The soul repeatedly adopts various costumes, inhabits different stories, and takes on a variety of names. In the early poem “The Second Life,” the speaker watches Hunger write out a fantastical novel, searching for just the right word. It’s name is everywhere. In “Phantom,” the cellar (a significant location in many poems) becomes a workshop where the speaker fashions a body from mud and a heart from black stone, “[a]nd then the soul arrives alone. Alone it rises from mud…” And in “Intimate Places,” all bodies are marked with night’s traces, with the imprint of time that signifies “it’s no longer possible to be immortal.” Hunger, transformation, “a tadpole wriggling in the belly of sleep”—the repeated personification of inner experience suggests a tension between speech and the desire to reach beyond language to the ineffable. I have tried to choose poems from each of Różycki’s books that reflect the growth of this metaphysical dimension.
The present volume constitutes Różycki’s debut in English. I chose to translate his work because its subject matter addresses some of the most pertinent concerns in postmodern American culture, yet in a completely different style than the prevailing trends in contemporary English-language poetry. The specific history Różycki references may seem distant to an American audience, but his themes are all too familiar. These poems resonate with the recent discussion on immigration in the United States by exploring the emotional implications of citizenship and the ramifications of relocation, whether it be economically driven or forced by political circumstances. They repeatedly conflate the colonizer and the colonized, the ruler and the martyr, thus linking the cause with the effect and calling to mind the current high-pitched discourse on terrorism. Yet these poems situate such issues within a very personal world—often literally within the human body itself. The domain of these poems is at once political and hermetic, or to use Różycki’s title, made up of both “world and anti- world.” To highlight the relevancy and uniqueness of Różycki’s subject matter, I aimed to mitigate the necessary shifts in syntax, punctuation, and versification—reigning in long Polish sentence constructions, for example—by preserving at all costs the distinct lexicon that constructs the world of these poems. The intent was to make it possible for the reader to track recurring themes throughout this selection in much the same way that the speaker tries to construct his own identity through looking for traces of the past.
I owe a great debt to many people who were instrumental in bringing this project to fruition, especially to Bill Johnston, who initially suggested my name to Zephyr Press, offered insightful comments on early versions of the manuscript, and provided a huge amount of encouragement along the way; to the editors at Zephyr Press for their dedication to literature in translation; to Katarzyna Helbin-Travis, who suffered through my fledgling Polish and co- translated a handful of these poems that would later inform my final versions; to Tomasz Bilczewski for many hours explaining his perspective as a native speaker (I was lucky to have such a literary and informed colleague); to Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese for helping me formulate my ideas about this work and to Przekładaniec for publishing them; to Adam Zagajewski for conversations over coffee at Massolit and more rigorous forums at the Kraków Poetry Seminar; to Greg Domber for unfailing moral support; and to Dorota and Tomasz Różycki, for bringing me to Opole and warmly introducing me to all the people (both those living there and those living in these poems), and for keeping the old grandfather clock chiming through the night in their attic apartment.