Reviewed by E.C. Belli
Prominent figures in Poland’s postwar literary pantheon—such as Czeslaw Milosz and, later, Zbigniew Herbert, Wislawa Szymborska, and Tadeusz Rózewicz—have in some ways shaped our expectations of the experience of Polish poetry; as the translator Benjamin Paloff puts it, “Many of the Polish poets known abroad are treated as unambiguous, even as moral authorities.” But these expectations do not quite suit contemporary poet Andrzej Sosnowski, whose work now appears for the first time in book form in English at the hands of Paloff. When asked how he responds to the weight of certain preconceptions about Polish poetry, Sosnowksi´s answer is simple: “I’m not sure that I do.”
With Lodgings, translator Benjamin Paloff has made an important contribution to the body of Polish poetry currently available to readers in English. Complete with a translator’s note, a conversation between Sosnowski and Paloff, and poems that span Sosnowski’s entire career to date (1987-2010), Lodgings offers an unusual glimpse into a polyphonous, expansive, and chameleonic strain of Polish poetry. The poems included are pulled from nine of Sosnowski’s collections (including Life in Korea, A Season in Hel, Lodgings, and the most recent poemas), and they are presented, with two exceptions, in their original order.
In an interview that appeared in the Chicago Review in 2000, Polish poet and translator Piotr Sommer called Sosnowski “maybe the single most exciting younger Polish poet” for “breathtaking and very innovative” work that displays a “rich cross-fertilization of influences.” Sommer also explains that the New York School poets and OULIPO were “an important part of [Sosnowski’s] literary tradition and reading experience.” And indeed, what American readers of Lodgings will find is a poet openly in conversation with myriad writers—French ones, such as Mallarmé, and Roussell, but more importantly with Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, John Berryman, James Schuyler, and Elizabeth Bishop.
For all his eclecticism, Sosnowski is still capable of channeling those unambiguous, moral voices readers associate with certain aspects of the Polish tradition—“Millennium,” “What Is Poetry,” “A Song For Europe” and “The End of The Century” certainly attest to this. But what a primed reader should expect from Sosnowski, coming to him for the first time, is (in the author’s own words) a “complicated, polyphonic adventure, sometimes a dialogue, sometimes a polylogue.” He explains, “The language that I feel within myself is a language that rarely goes silent, that rarely sleeps. And since it doesn’t shut off and doesn’t sleep, it usually speaks with itself.” In “Poem For J. S.”—an effusive, even vociferous poem in conversation with Sosnowski’s ex-wife and James Schuyler that all at once epitomizes and reflects on Sosnowski’s method (and offers a genealogy of his literary heritage)—Sosnowski writes: “(I’m no longer taking part in the conversation.) I’m so scared, James. ‘Why / is this poem so long? And full of death?’ / Your words.”
The contrapuntal nature of Sosnowski’s work is clear from the start. From the second poem on (“Time And Money”), readers come upon passages such as this one:
Years of eating in silence and stress
From the weakening grip of conscience on the throat
And the wind from the inferno’s fifth canto dying down
And the fact that we have to hurt ourselves
If it’s all to go singingly
And throughout the book, a multitude of similarly polyphonic events occur, such as in “Poem For Françoise Lacroix”:
. . . the soul is a soul,
it grieves, it’s young, and finally it falls
behind us, like molted skin.
It has no place in the monstrosity of our now,
though nothing exists but the teratology of our now
(it’s a melody, not a lullaby):
the fairy-tale fender-bender & scrap heap of past & future.
Everything ultimately comes down to harbingers.
. . .
Additionally, humor always seems to inhabit at least one of the voices that populate Sosnowski’s poems. “Three Poems from the Near North” shows particularly clear evidence of it:
And I have no idea
whether it all ends happily or in madness,
the vegetable dignity of joy or convulsion of laughter,
because relations can change, but exile
is always the same. Are you afraid, little girl?
As does “A Season In Hel”:
Every night I drink half a liter with my lady.
Dressed the same for a date, the dumps, and for work,
at times we really do seem temporary.
. . .
The news media will say nothing about how our eyes
met, though it proved unusually consequential.
Sosnowski’s range is striking. Perhaps due to the barreling nature of his lines, prose seems to accommodate him especially well. But at the same time, prose also tends to diffuse the heart of his project, his breathlessness and tumbling, in favor of a more contained and didactic feel: “It seemed as if everyone were greeting each other with some secret sign, as if they’d wanted to say that the test was over, though we should hold off jumping for joy, because the results, while promising, are not yet in” (“The End of The Century”). Thus, his prose poems, while providing centers of respite in the selection, do not illustrate quite as well his disjointed syntax and thought process—as a poem like “Spring Rounds” might:
see nijinsky do the strandsky
o reel of celluloid o land my astronaut
jazz is paris and paris is jazz
we say bye bye moment you were lovely
humming buh buh bum faraway family friends
canoeing your time in the dormant uranium mine
fred and ginger body of the man in reno
marilyn and john f. dancing
reeling through niagara falls
It is a daunting task to carry over into English Sosnowski’s language, which is a language marked by abrupt shifts in register and suggests an obsessive and ongoing rumination on various literary influences. Paloff has rendered a superb, tonally consistent volume, and has effectively stretched the barriers of his own language. With this English-language Sosnowski, he has contributed a new voice to the canon of writers descended from Ashbery and Schuyler, and, in the process of establishing such lineage—here, across international lines—he has helped further define the bounds of poetic language. In their exchange, Sosnowski recognizes the arduousness of Paloff’s enterprise. He says, “I write in an utterly fallen, scrambled language, and it’s possible that somewhere in this language of mine, in the language of these poems, there remains some fallen spark of revelation . . . You translate my fallen language into an equally scrambled and fallen American idiom, and your only essential task . . . is to discover and lift up this lost spark.” A task Paloff accomplishes avec brio.
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