Postwar Polish poetry has long commanded a faithful following among American readers. There are no shortage of greats: Wysława Szymborska, Zbigniew Herbert, Adam Zagajewski, and, of course, Czesław Miłosz, who, as Joseph Brodsky wrote, “is one of the greatest poets of our time, perhaps the greatest.” The Poles can tell the story of the twentieth century like no other nationality can. As writers who witnessed first-hand the horrors of history most of us merely gleaned from textbooks, they command respect; in their poetry they confront the traumas of World War II and the long grayness of Soviet Communism. For many American readers, their poems are homilies pronouncing a distinctly European but universal humanism. “Miłosz, Wisława Szymborska, Adam Zagajewski, Zbigniew Herbert,” Maureen McLane wrote. “Here we have world-historical seriousness! Weight! Importance!”
Jorie Graham, Robert Haas, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, C. K. Williams, and other writers have echoed such praise, solidifying the reputation of Miłosz & co. as kind of prophets, “unacknowledged legislators,” to quote Shelley, of the past century. Their poetry concerns the rise and fall of nations; civilizations and their attendant discontents; and the follies and triumphs of human nature, often through the prism of religion, philosophy, and art. Polish poetry has become a genre in its own right, with its own set of rules and expectations. “Even their playfulness,” Mclane wrote, “is weighty, metaphysical.”
Nine years ago I moved to Poland to immerse myself in its culture, language, history, and art, particularly poetry. I wanted to meet contemporary poets, I wanted to see how they managed their anxieties of influence, what and how they composed in the shadow of such giants as Miłosz and Szymborska.
Not long after I arrived, I met two Polish literary critics, Paweł Kaczmarski and Marta Koronkiewicz, who provided a crash course in contemporary Polish poetry. The presumptions I had held about young poets in Poland were promptly dismissed. There was a different kind of tremor, another set of anxieties, at play. Absent were the neo-romantic registers and nostalgic lyricism I associated with Polish poetry, the prophetic authority radiating from the country’s communist times. Instead, I encountered writing that was edgy, brash, and decidedly indifferent to Miłosz’s “weighty, metaphysical” voice.
The 1990s were a momentous period for the country. Virtually overnight it turned capitalist, radically transforming every facet of life. The fall of the Iron Curtain was, as Francis Fukuyama put it, “not just… the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but… the [arrival] of Western liberal democracy.” The cultural floodgates opened in Poland: Western music, movies, TV shows, snacks, street fashion quickly won wide adoption. For some Polish writers, the New York School of poets—particularly Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, and John Ashbery—began to figure prominently as an alternative to Milosz’ high-minded lyric with their high- and low-brow pizzazz more suited to the post-communist reality.
Poland—which joined the E.U. in 2004—is no longer the politically oppressed nation long romanticized by non-Polish readers as, in Zagajewski’s words, “that fairy-tale defenseless land / on which feed black eagles, hungry / emperors, the Third Reich, and the Third Rome.”
The country’s anxieties are more contemporary, more “Western”—the economy, culture wars, etc.—but compounded and complicated by the fact that Poles are still wrestling with their history, are still defining their post-communist identity.
I, along with Kaczmarski and Koronkiewicz, have selected for Fence a sampling of contemporary Polish writers. The three poets in this first installment are Tomasz Bąk, Joanna Oparek, and Piotr Przybyła.
In his critically acclaimed and widely read debut, Apokalipsa: After party (2015), Przybyła is reminiscent of Ashberry: “living on the margin / In [a] technological society… miniscule on the gigantic plateau.” Przybyła’s poems are set on the margins of a society undergoing vast changes, are a collage of cultural and political references, mixing scenes and experiences, juxtaposing high and low culture, the sacred and the profane: “and i’m running from loneliness along the S7 expressway […], and the Roman Catholic Church speaks to me on a weekday: gather blackberries.” And: “female friends from paper cutouts come to me in the form of a fax… my breasts flow with milk, honey and with Klub 27’s complete playlist.” As Koronkiewicz writes in her article “Fonosfera i mantra” [Phonosphere and Mantra], Przybyła’s “poems… pull us in with their flow of misfit words, poems that lose their sense again and again, full of gibberish, and revealing a tendency towards glossolalia and pure nonsense.” The lyric I is lost and found in an avalanche of words and worldviews that stretch from one end of Poland to the other. Pervasive throughout this mash-up of signs and signifiers, however, is America— projections of and from America, a pop-cultural beacon mesmerizing, menacing, and repulsive: “i then hunger for your lips full of prayer for unborn children, including our children – let’s simply call her Mississippi…”, or “Baltic Sea, where do you have your source? Wall Street?”, or “one returns to the empty house, feeling at home, under a Kurt Cobain poster.” Przybyła asks: In a society dogged by its Catholic past, on the verge of being overwhelmed by an increasingly pluralistic and cosmopolitan present, can a poetic language capture the mind-bending pace of change?
Whereas Przybyła freely channels the sensory overload and cultural mish-mash of contemporary Poland, Joanna Oparek filters it all through the body. Our bodies store everything we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell, and, by extension, think, imagine, and desire; our physical, mental, and spiritual experiences become psychosomatic extensions of who we are. Our body is our memory. In her long poem Berlin Porn, Oparek explores the body-memory as it is buffeted and enlarged by projections of Berlin, the flamboyant Babylon of Europe, with its singular appetite for sexual freedom and violence, where a prostitute does business by buying a stub from a parking-meter-like machine and be “a girl who knows what she wants and her boyfriend / knows of everything[,] accepts her occupation and isn’t jealous.” But the city is not merely a playground, a place to pursue carnal desires; the city itself is an object of “pathetic phallacy,” with its own spirit: “Don’t ask if I’ve been in Berlin ask if Berlin has been in me…”, and later, “the streets distend suddenly / up and down / arrival and departure four lanes of fright”, or in another poem, “the city with its steel tongue slides into me / and starts to moan / Oh!”. But why “four lanes of fright”? With the mind’s “bell chim[ing] John Donne John Donne John Donne,” Oparek shows how our embodied political imagination is affected by serial killers of prostitutes, various techniques of strangling, the Berlin Porn Festival, stereotypes of women, and, above all, the city as a scintillating, sophisticated, ravenous sexual beast. She likens it to Moby Dick, the untamable Leviathan we set out to chase but soon become a fugitive from. Yet her poetry is hardly a tale of moral caution. Verse by verse, Oparek denudes cities of their glossy, cosmopolitan veneer to uncover the pulsing, primal anxieties of love and death. Berlin Porn is a testament to the enduring drives of Eros and Thanatos.
Tomasz Bąk, like Oparek, explores society’s dialectical fault lines, but from a socio-economic perspective. “He gives voice to both the social anxiety and the just outrage of today’s youth,” Kaczmarski and Koronkiewicz write, but at the same time “introduces the language of religion and various religious references into his poems.” His poetry channels the divisive rhetoric of his country, where culture wars rage along generational and ideological lines. In “A Catholic Pole Writes a Denunciation of Pussy-Man,” the speaker states that those who fail to honor Church traditions “should be taken care of by law enforcement agencies dealing with homo sovieticus… [who needs] to get to / a psychiatric ward.” Along with religious conservatives, capitalist elitists also loom in the background, their technocratic jargon such as the Laffer Curve or the ideas of Ayn Rand casting long shadows on Bąk’s verses. In the figure of “pussy-man” (człowiek-pizda)—a snowflake, “a left-wing motherfucker”—Bąk has created the ultimate Polish anti-hero who adheres to neither God nor the invisible hand of the market. But he’s not immune: in “Pussy-Man Steps Left to Right”, the titular character gulps down a dietary supplement to avoid being a leftwing loser and envisions unemployed shipyard workers starting their own shipyards. Other poems, however, take on a more subversive tone. In “Hip,” Bąk begins the poem, “The caricature falls apart… I thump arrhythmia on the left ventricle / of Babylon...”, and ends with a challenge: “Show me your crowbar, / and I’ll tell you how left-wing you are.” In “Changing of the Guard: A Bedtime Story for the City of Poznań”, Bąk doesn’t spare his country’s religiosity: “One day I’ll buy myself a motorized grass trimmer / and hang it on the cross… the conservation officer doesn’t usually answer / requests for lawn-mowing.”
LYNN SUH is an American translator of Polish literature. He was based in Krakow, Poland for nine years during which time he co-founded and edited WIDMA: A Journal of American and Polish Verse, and translated for The Polish Book Institute (Instytut Książki) as well as other cultural institutions. His poetry translations have appeared in Berlin Quarterly, Versopolis, and biBLioteka. He currently lives in Seoul, South Korea.