A Letter to a Young Poet: On Tomasz Różycki

I

Once, on a long trip, I experienced an incident that was as trivial as it was enlightening. It happened that my luggage was lost for a couple of days while I was staying in a foreign city. Because I always bring with me two or three books by my favorite poets (reading while liberated from daily responsibilities has that special quality of intensity), in this situation I was left to the exercises of my own memory. As I wandered the waterfronts, parks, museums, and churches, from time to time I tried to see how many phrases, sentences, and even whole stanzas I could recall from poems that I had communed with more than once.

T. S. Eliot came to mind first. In a foreign city the beginning of “East Coker” especially haunted me—

In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended

—which, in Czesław Miłosz’s translation, reads:

W początku moim jest mój kres. Kolejno Domy  
rosną i padają, rozsypują się, poszerzane są.

Then there was Eliot again, a fragment from “The Waste Land”:

Unreal City.  Under the brown fog of a winter noon  
Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant
Unshaven, with a pocket full of currants . . .

—which Miłosz also translated into Polish:

Nirzeczywiste Miasto. Pod mgłą brunatną zimowych południ
Pan Eugenides, handlowiec ze Smyrny,
Nieogolony, z kieszeniami pełnymi rodzynek...

Why “East Coker”? Why Mr. Eugenides from Smyrna, with a pocket full of currants, in the London fog? How was I supposed to know. Memory—as if, once encouraged, it could become independent—suggested various shreds, often surprising, because after all I hadn’t purposefully accumulated anything. A phrase from Miłosz came to mind, another from Józef Czechowicz, Jan Kochanowski, Bolesław Leśmian, Apollinaire, Josef Brodsky, Stanisław Grochowiak, Bronisław Maj. And Tomasz Różycki. Actually—two phrases from Tomasz Różycki. The first of these haunted me insanely. Whenever I caught sight in a foreign city of a cat on a windowsill, in a streak of light across the hotel courtyard, there near the garbage can, the beginning of the poem “Angelo” came back to me: “The world begins with the light, and cats rise up from the dust.” The second phrase that turned up in memory, from the poem “Scorched Maps,” was a bit longer:

I took a trip to Ukraine. It was June.
I waded in the fields, all full of dust
and pollen in the air. I searched, but those
I loved had disappeared below the ground,

deeper than decades of ants.

It pleased and surprised me at the same time. It pleased me because, after reading Twelve Stations, I bought all of Różycki’s subsequent and previous collections at the university bookstore of my alma mater in Gdańsk and became his loyal reader. It surprised me because, after all—chronologically speaking—his books had been standing on the shelf of my favorite poets for a much shorter time than those masters of the word that I’ve mentioned. And, I thought to myself at the time in that foreign city, although I hadn’t been reading Różycki as long as Miłosz, Eliot, or Leśmian, I could still recall those two phrases. If terrorists blew up all the libraries in the world and destroyed with equal fury our private reading reserves with some kind of conspiratorial rays, these fragments, like snippets of old books, would accompany my journey through an apocalyptic landscape. Maybe it’s not important, but I felt somehow armed with this awareness in a foreign place. And my anger at the airline having lost my luggage suddenly vanished from my heart.

II

I have been reading poetry for over forty years. Selflessly—in Schopenhauer’s sense of the word. That is, for sheer spiritual and aesthetic pleasure. I do not take part in any marketing or promotion;, I do not write reviews. I don’t have even the slightest temptation to enthrone new geniuses, to overthrow the old, to compare X with Y, pronouncing that one is better at metaphors, the other at rhythm, that one world coheres, the other collapses. One is a kind of hooligan, the other—an educated intellectual. However, a well-written poem pleases me. A phrase—just so—that gets embedded into memory like a work of Vermeer seen among hundreds of other works in the Rijksmuseum. Or Wagner’s Tristan chord out of hundreds of chords composed in the nineteenth century. Along with the craft of reading I have learned to recognize the important poets from the momentary. The important poet is the writer who—sometimes in one sentence, sometimes in two juxtaposed words—essentially is able to articulate what we feel, what we experience in various situations and existential states but can’t name as accurately, succinctly, arrestingly for ourselves. I recognized Tomasz Różycki as an important poet when I read his Twelve Stations, and to be more specific—in the Twelve Stations—the tenth  section, “The Train.” Here, however, by way of explanation, a short trip into the past is necessary. My own, most personal, even intimate past.

III

The old trains from Gdynia to Kraków, still smelling of coal rime, used to go through Częstachowa, Herby Nowe, then maybe Tunel. I remember—I used to go every vacation—that somewhere outside of Częstachowa, in the pale dawn, outside the window a completely different landscape would stretch out. Not of the village, or the small town, but more precisely—of the foundry-industrial. Countless side tracks, switches, bleak brick buildings, conveyor belts, loading ramps, chutes, engine sheds, warehouses, fire tanks, control towers, garbage dumpsters, trackside thickets of diseased saplings and sickly shrubs aroused both fascination and dread. Then, just outside Kraków, the poetry of gentle elevations began, long bulges of the Subcarpathian, Galician countryside. I have never forgotten the moment—on a childhood journey—when we pulled into that tangle of the station, the tangle of blind tracks, into that thicket of a completely different world, which seemed like some kind of bleak labyrinth. But also I have never been able to name this experience, to describe it, to make it my own through some simple verbal operation. I have spent my whole life by the cool sea, between the bay and the morainal hills, and even the landscape of the shipyard, where I went with my father, a ship’s mechanic, didn’t seem so foreign, strange, unfriendly. After a great many years, reading Twelve Stations by Tomasz Różycki, I came across a description of this distance in the tenth section. It was fantastic, just by its succinctness, its accuracy—obviously—of poetic defiance and imagination that enabled the author to recall the lost trains, those that have fallen into a black hole and cannot be retrieved. A little like Grabiński’s sensational novels. Yes, I was amazed, but also pleased. At last I had found the missing link of a language that could name and describe that which I was not able to express. And that which was an important, significant event in my memories of childhood, of vacation trips south, to my grandmother Maria’s house in Mościce near Tarnów. Suddenly—and unexpectedly—Tomasz Różycki became a participant in them. A stationmaster of words. An interpreter of memory’s labyrinth. An important poet. Very important.

IV

He has a new collection, The Book of Rotations, from which the three poems translated here—"The Guy Who Bought the World""This Is My Room"; and "In the Evening, Love"—are taken. I have read it—one, two times—but not linearly like a story, more like an anthology, wandering over here, over there, like a leisurely passerby. Tomasz Różycki has a predilection for cycles—and likewise, with unrelenting consistency, he constructed his earlier collection Colonies [now available, in Mira Rosenthal’s translation]. The first poem is reflected in the mirror of the second, the third in the fifth, the seventh in the nineteenth. Or maybe I am reading it wrong. Maybe the seventh is looking at itself in the mirror of the twenty-first. The mutual relationship between these delightful poems is, however, perhaps not the most important thing for readers, though it is impossible not to mention it. What excites the most in reading these poems is the rhythm—the magical rhythm of language, images, metaphor; rhythm that is the music of our lives entangled on the one hand in very real conditions, on the other hand—in the unending string of associations, thoughts, remembrances, strange ghosts. And although there are no—or very few—traces in Tomasz Różycki’s language of Young Poland’s modernist clinginess, he is however a disciple of Leśmiań, specifically of his philosophical assumptions about the role of rhythm, repetition, the mirrored labyrinth of words, images, meanings. Of breath, cycles of nature, returns to places and matters—those that are personally important for the poet. Words as well. In this last sense, The Book of Rotations is a kind of poetic diary, a record of the author’s flight and journey across the Atlantic that is equally about being in his familial town of Opole, between the river, springtime, and a beloved woman, and thoughts of a man who just a moment ago bought the entire world. The form is bleak, grotesque, enigmatic. A series repeatedly develops in his poems, always with a well-done implicit ironic glance from the author. Because the world that Tomasz Różycki shows us is neither sentimental nor straightforward nor unambiguous. It is a world of global reality, a postmodern mix of arrangements and styles in which the desire for meaning, even temporarily anchored, seems to be the dream of a daydreamer, a naïve seeker of something permanent from ads, TV frames, newspaper gossip, collective hysteria: words, the entire pop cultural pulp in which—whether we like it or not—we are sunk up to our ears. Even if we read Eliot and listen to Bach. There is in these poems a beautiful trace of Rilke. Lyrical in the deepest sense. Small bits, intimate shudders of memory, of the imagination, of associations—they become a pretext for the spinning of monologues about oneself, about the world, about the afflictions and the paradoxes of life. But—it is not the kind of delicate sensitivity of a histrionic, egocentric author. Guiding him—as I read it—was the old Greek principle of objectivization: about misfortunes we speak cautiously, about euphorias and raptures—with even greater distance. Never a rending of garments. Never a note—unbearably romantic—of anguish over existence.

V

Yet, it would seem, from the private and personal perspective of the author, that The Book of Rotations is not an escape from reality. I remember that the first poem of the collection and the series—titled “The Aurora Fires a Shot”—starts with the line “The Aurora fires a shot and the fun and games are over.” Of course they are over. In “Scorched Maps,” the previously-mentioned poem from Colonies, Tomasz Różycki gave, perhaps for the first time in contemporary Polish poetry, a delicate and at the same time piercing picture of Polish ancestral memory of Ukraine. Of his ancestors (as with the wonderful portraits in Twelve Stations) who are afraid to come to the surface from under the carpet of lush Ukrainian grass. “You can come out, it’s over,” he says to his aunts, uncles, cousins. But of course no one replies. He could only feel, the poet says, “the field grow vast and wild around my head.”

VI

I felt unalienated in that foreign city when at last my lost luggage was brought to the hotel. There, amid clothes and other personal things, was Jan Kochanowski’s David’s Psalter. The bookmark, I don’t remember why, was at Psalm 18. That evening, with a glass of wine in hand, I read all of the psalm, recalling two lines in particular:

They cried for help, but there was no one to save them;
they cried to the Lord, but he did not answer them.

Today I would like, after reading The Book of Rotations, to dedicate these two lines to Tomasz Różycki.

VII

As the critics do, so do those with professorial titles. Really, gentlemen, how much power does it take to entice you to be silent? What some in your circle write about poetry—including about the poetry of Tomasz Różycki—is the froth of your weakness, the shameful language of fools, the song of a drunkard at dawn with his throat cut. Surely every one of you in your circle has read carefully Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet:

Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism: they always result in more or less fortunate misunderstandings. Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life. [trans. Stephen Mitchell]

Please heed these words from the author of the “Duino Elegies.” If outstanding poets still mean anything to us. Such as Tomasz Różycki, such as the authors of those “mysterious existences.”

© Pawel Huelle. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Mira Rosenthal. All rights reserved.