Two Reviews

Building the Barricade and Other Poems by Anna Swir (Tr. Piotr Florczyk)

Of Gentle Wolves Edited and Translated by Martin Woodside


Ilya Kaminsky and Kathryn Farris

Eastern European poetry of the post-war generation had a great impact on American poetics. Poets like Milosz, Holub, Popa, Szymborska, Herbert, Brodsky, Akhmatova, and others have influenced numerous U.S. authors, as different as Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass, Edward Hirsch, Carolyn Forche, Amy Gerstler, Charles Simic, W.S. Merwin, Robert Bly, Anne Carson and numerous others. 


It is too easy to drop names and draw maps such as these. What is complicated is to go back to Eastern Europe and find names that have been missed, to find poets who did enormously powerful work that did not make it into our anthologies and canons. 

Ever heard of Miron Bialoszewski? How many poems by Zabolotsky have you read? Was there any influence of Galchynski on Szymborska? These are great questions to ask at poetry gatherings because these are great poets -- but without a working knowledge of their languages, very little of their work is available to us.

This is where younger master translators such as Martin Woodside and Piotr Florczyk and brilliant literary presses, such as Calypso Editions, come into play. They have the courage and the skill to go into the world and find those works of genius that would otherwise never be available to us. More than that -- they can bring that work into English for poems that sparkle and burn and stay in the memory for a long time.

Here is one case example: Anna Swir is a powerful Polish poet of roughly the same generation as Milosz. Milosz himself, in fact, loved her work, translated her, and promoted her both in Poland and USA. One would have thought: OK, we know this poet, this name, we know what she is all about. Wrong. Most of Swir's poems gorgeously translated by Milosz and Leonard Nathan and published by the wonderful Copper Canyon Press only contain one side of Swir's work. Talking to My Body, as its title tells us, is mostly a collection of erotic poems, and when Swir deals with memory, and family story, and death, the poems still very much reflect on her idea of eros and its relationship to our days. Building the Barricade and Other Poems, the new collection translated by Florczyk and published by Calypso, shows us a different side of this poet. Most lyrics here are from her book-long sequence, "Building the Barricade" which is a cycle of lyrics that recreate the city of Warsaw during World War II -- a work of almost epic proportions: we are in the city during the war, a time when "although no one forced us/we built the barricade/under fire."  And so, we see that girls are in the uprising ("Five messenger girls went out/one made it/the order was delivered within the hour"), we see young student in protest:


i.m. Wiesiek Rosiński

He was fifteen,
the best student of Polish.
He ran at the enemy
with a pistol.


Then he saw the eyes of a man,
and should've fired into those eyes.
He hesitated.
He's lying on the pavement.


They didn't teach him
in Polish class
to shoot into the eyes of a man.


And, who is the speaker of these poems, what is the voice that connects a collection of separate lyrics into one whole? The truth is: Anna Swir served as a nurse during the Warsaw Uprising, but for years after the war she did not touch the subject. Only decades later did the poems from "Building the Barricade" began to appear. And, the voice that connected them was that of a young nurse:



I worked as an orderly at the hospital
without medicine and water.
I carried bedpans
filled with pus, blood and feces.

I loved pus, blood and feces-
they were alive like life,
and there was less and less
life around.

When the world was dying,
I was only two hands, handing
the wounded a bedpan.

This is an important book, and Piotr Florczyk deserves our gratitude for bringing it across so skillfully into English. Florczyk is a serious poet and translator, very devoted to Polish poetry, with one previous book of translations published a few years ago by Marick and another forthcoming from BOA. We are lucky to have such envoys among us bring something new into our own house.




The fact that we get a chance to see again the lesser known works of this acknowledged master is, indeed, wonderful. But what about contemporary Eastern European poetry? What is happening today? What poets should we follow, what new voices, if brought across into English, can change our own poetics?

This is where the anthology of contemporary poetry from Romania, Of Gentle Wolves, beautifully translated by Martin Woodside, lends itself as our guide.


Woodside's translations perform miracles. There is no other way to say this: the poems are alive, they breathe, they laugh and howl, they re-create our world again. This is an anthology to live with: a sample or two from such established authors such as the venerable elders Marin Sorescu and Ana Blandiana, to many new voices that are restless, ruthless, ravishing and utterly lyrical.


There is so much to love here. First, allow me to quote in full one of the most well-known samples of contemporary Romanian poetry, from Woodside's new version:



Shakespeare created the world in seven days.


On the first day he made the heavens, the mountains, and the abyss of the soul.

On the second day he made rivers, seas, oceans

and all the other feelings -

giving them to Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony,

 Cleopatra and Ophelia,

Othello and the rest,

to master them, and their descendants

for ever more.

On the third day he brought the people together

and taught them about taste

the taste of happiness, of love, of despair

the taste of jealousy, of glory, and still more tastes

until they went through them all.


Then some latecomers arrived.

The creator patted them sadly on the head

explaining the remaining roles were for

literary critics

to challenge his good works.

the fourth and fifth days he kept clear for laughs

clearing way for clowns

turning somersaults,

and leaving the kings, emperors,

and other poor wretches to their fun.

The sixth day he reserved for administrative tasks:

He let loose a tempest

and taught King Lear

to wear a crown of straw.


Some spare parts remained from the world's creation

And so he made Richard III.

On the seventh day he looked about for something to do.

Theatre directors had plastered the land with posters

And Shakespeare decided after all his hard work

he deserved to see a show.


But first, tired down to the bone,

he went off to die a little.

 --Marin Sorescu


It is a moving poem, and a very appropriate introduction to what is to follow, a world so different from contemporary American poetics and yet so recognizable, in its wild abandon, in its empathy. And, here is a sample from one of my favorite poets of younger generation, Radu Vancu:




Fourteen beers is bad, fourteen beers plus a pint of vodka is better.

Clearly, Marx was right:

500 ml makes for an ideal demonstration

that, after a point,

quantity transforms quality.

The souses had Marx in their soul,


whether they know it or not.

That's why discussions in the pubs of Romania

so closely resemble those in Dostoevsky's "The Possessed,"

and for the same reason true drunkards are anti communist--

any socialist atheist who drinks with purpose

becomes, after a certain threshold, a mystic anarchist.


When you find the guts to stop drinking, it's over.

You've reached the end, the landmark where quantity

can no longer transform quality.

Your are already, in all likelihood, a perfect mystic

with the appropriate set of regrets at hand.

It's bad not to have the guts. And much better, after the first shot of vodka.


Vancu's voice is restless. Contemporary Romanian poetry, in fact, is very diverse, but what unites many poets in Woodside's anthology is this very playfulness of tone, and general restlessness: these poets are unafraid to wander into the uncharted territory, to try something new. But although they are always playing, there is a sense of mystery in their tonal and linguistic games. Here is a piece from "Intermezzo" by O. Nimigean, a poet utterly different from two authors quoted above:


ovidean nimigean

then lights up a smoke

to meditate

on how the nation goes.


ovidean nimigean

as I can see

is more a patriot

than he seems to be.


ovidean nimigean

weeps all over the page

feeling pity

for this golden age.


ovidean nimigean

a childish old man

fills with grief

for the Romanian.


ovidean nimigean

after jotting this down

finishes his cigarette

and shoves off to town

(this the only way around?)


While this detachment from self can happen in numerous ways, reading this anthology one can't help but think about the rich multiplicity of stylistic innovation going on right now in contemporary Romanian poetry. And, I found myself, again and again marveling at how, despite all the innovation, the Romanians included in this book are able to retain a sense of spiritual urgency in their work. This seems particularly relevant, I believe, for the North American reader. Today in the United States we seem to have no shortage of innovation--new styles are tried and re-tried by the day, even by the hour, and our poets prize highly the ability to do something else, 'something new.' But I wonder if we misunderstood Pound, and took his proposal to "make it new" too narrowly. What one sees in North American poetry is a lot of "new" material that is utterly boring, lifeless, much stylistic variation with very little soul involved, very little at stake. The "new" Pound wanted us to deliver was "fresh." Much of what is delivered, however, is like engineering: curious structures, but no color, no senses. This does not have to be the case, and contemporary Romanian poets are an excellent example in how to avoid such a shortcoming. 

Another observation I found myself coming back to as I read this volume is the fact that many poets here are able to find a way to speak about their country with tenderness, yes, with a clear sense of identity, yes, and yet without any sort of pretension or false pride. Again, something is at stake in their poems even if they are laughing at the top of their voice or going for the grotesque. Take, for example, this memorable "Envoy" by Christian Tanasescu:

There once was a gifted girl, but a bit homely

a bit of sucker, a bit of a stutterer, called

Romania, and one day she woke up to find something

growing on her forehead, and it kept growing today

and tomorrow when the pimple became

a boil, and began to move, taking on life

becoming a little man stuck there

a  beauty mark named Ilici (Iliescu), and then the old

cancer relapses, infecting

the brain.  Today, tomorrow, she endured

pitiful girl-shouldn't be pitied!

But finally she finds the courage and goes

one day to see the surgeon.  There,

Ilici (Iliescu): good doctor, look what's grown out of my ass!


Could any contemporary American poet have the courage to speak with such a comic, and yet intimate, way about her or his country? Why does Tanasescu sound convincing? Or, let me rephrase the question: why is it that no one in American English seems to be able to write anything convincing on the subject of their own nation--at least no one since Ginsberg's "I saw the best lives of my generation"?  And, why do Eastern Europeans, in their very, very different ways (just compare Swir's epic cycle about the Warsaw Uprising to various voices in Woodside's anthology) are able to find a way to do just that, over and over again?


Many questions are raised reading these two slender books, and for this, our gratitude to their gifted translators, and to Calypso Editions, which seems to be doing some of the most important work in American publishing today.

-- Katie Farris and Ilya Kaminsky