For the past few years, I’ve experienced the world through the perspective of my biographical subject, Sanora Babb. Babb was a member of the League of American Writers (founded by the Communist Party of America) and went on a tour of Germany, Poland, and the Soviet Union in 1935 with a group of fellow communist writers. Babb’s recollections of Poland populated my mind as I read Mira Rosenthal’s translation of Tomasz Różycki’s 2016 poetry collection, To the Letter (Archipelago Books, 2023). This collection is Rosenthal’s second translation of Różycki’s work (her award-winning 2013 translation of his Colonies, published by Zephyr Press, was shortlisted for both the 2014 Griffin Poetry Prize and the 2014 Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize, and won the 2014 Northern California Book Award for Poetry in Translation), and one sees her mastery of Różycki’s distinct voice throughout the book.
Babb made her trip to Poland when the residents of the Jewish Ghetto were still relatively free to wander around the city (albeit under police scrutiny). In five years, the Ghetto would become a barbed wire–encased prison holding over 400,000 of Warsaw’s Jewish citizens captive. Then came the mass deportations and murders. Babb’s documentation offers a double consciousness; along with what is in her present, you can also see the horrific pressure of the years that will follow, the black hole that is the future. This context provided the perfect backdrop for the history-informed setting that Różycki creates in To the Letter, a poetry collection that is both haunted by Poland’s past and at a loss over how to talk about the present in 2016, when fascism and antisemitism were again on the rise.
To the Letter is divided into three parts: “Vacuum Theory,” “The Third Planet,” and “Summer Music.” In the first section, “Vacuum Theory,” the ballast of Poland’s history is contrasted against the present. For example, in “The Clock,” Różycki invokes the historical shadow by using an extended metaphor. The underground network of tunnels that were once beneath the WWII ghetto become represented in the bodies of those who still live in the city in 2016.
So many caverns in the body, chambers
abandoned once and for all, darkened corners
grown thick with scar tissue, those rooms
and cellars with the furniture removed,
devoid of any residents
But these metaphorical tunnels in the bodies are empty. The ghosts who tried to escape through them are gone, and now all that is left is memory. Różycki’s poem cautions that when the citizens of the present forget the past, this forgetting becomes a black hole that has the power to destroy society from the inside out. To counter this terrible fate, Różycki invokes a specific ghost to inhabit the tunnels: Lieutenant Anielewicz, a figure based on the real-life WWII hero Mordechai Anielewicz, a rebel fighter who became a leader of ŻOB (the Jewish Fighting Organization) during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943. Anielewicz was known for his use of guerrilla warfare, and when Różycki invokes his ghost, he depicts him as still fighting back, this time against the citizens’ erasure of the past. “Lieutenant Anielewicz, in a vacant spot, / installs the clockwork mechanism of the bomb.”
Throughout this collection, “Lieutenant Anielewicz” reappears. He is in the simple quatrains of another poem found in the first section of the book, called “The Measure of All Things,” and he appears again in the second section of the book in a poem called “Message,” in which the speaker describes what this loss of memory does to our ability to see danger as it begins to arise:
What else can I tell you, what more can I write?
That I perform every act quite cautiously,
cover every trace of us—can you guess
what this means, this silence left inside
the phone for all eternity?
As “Message” continues, language begins to fail: “A shadow sways / behind each letter, a place often crowded / with refugees, forever in between, stuck midway.” In this purgatory of living in a world without memory of its past, it is Anielewicz who is called upon again. He is found “on the scene,” interpreting this new modern violence by laying “out the bodies according to the sequence of events.”
Indeed, the erasure of such a large part of Poland’s Jewish population during WWII and the impact that that trauma had on the present operates like a tidal undercurrent in this text. In “Settings,” another poem found in the second section of the book, Różycki describes the survivors’ amnesia about the past as a “curse” because it is a double-edged sword. Forgetting helped those who survived cope with the unbearable trauma they’d witnessed, but it also allows those who might do harm in the future to have a cleaner slate. Różycki metaphorically represents this forgetting with a shocking image that recalls the deportation and murder of so many of Warsaw’s Jews: “a train car of emptiness for every square meter of earth.” As Rosenthal states in her afterword, “Trauma is a vacuum, and this book is Różycki’s theory of what it means to inherit the void.”
Throughout this collection, one feels the charge of this inheritance pulsing in almost all of Różycki’s poems. It’s only when his poems veer away from this metaphoric setting that they lose their force. For example, in the third section of the book, many of the poems, such as “Piazza del Nettuno” and “Porta Susa,” are set in different countries.
But overall, the collection left me mesmerized and wanting to read on. When I read “Warsaw was Raw,” I felt the same double consciousness of the present eclipsed by the past that I also experienced when looking at Sanora Babb’s photographs and letters:
Just when they thought there would be no repeat
of the nightmare no one wanted to believe—
the past, its bloody pulp, buried right below
the surface, somewhere in the yard, so shallow—
they stopped believing, too, since hell
only happens to those who believe.
What sorrows have we buried in our backyard and forgotten? What evils do we believe couldn’t possibly happen again? Rosenthal’s expert translation helps us plant these atrocities in our own gardens, so that when we look up from reading this book, we see the phenomenon happening where we live.
Toward the end of the final section of the collection, the image of “Lieutenant Anielewicz” returns to help us understand how to move forward from our purgatory. In the poem “What Makes No Motion?”, Różycki invokes his ghost to speak the unspeakable. The poem returns to the idea of the body, which, instead of becoming a physical representation of the past, as it did in “Clocks,” is this time left to decompose and return to earth.
So, what remains? Coffee in a cup, breadcrumbs
on the table, garlic clove and lemon wedge, the hum
of a road, the bed in which a body breaks down
to pulp, phosphates, sulfur and carbon compounds,
the soul escaping through holes, that is, there’s gas
of an unpleasant odor soaking into curtain fabric,
However, what rises from the rotting body, aside from the gases caused by its decomposition, is an unreadable language, something that is unknowable to us, here and alive in the present moment. Różycki invokes Anielewicz to help resurrect the muted letters of the Polish language so they can speak into the emptiness of forgetting, to “stumble up their rungs” and speak the truth about the present moment. This act of translation becomes transformational—so much so that it changes Anielewicz’s reaction from violence to art. After resurrecting the letters and seeing them speak, Różycki’s Lieutenant Anielewicz
sets down his autopsy tools: the saw, the forceps,
the scissors, and sings an old, old tune, touched deeply.
Perhaps reading To the Letter will awaken a similar transition in you. The past will never leave us. It will haunt our photographs; it will speak between the words that we read and write. Różycki’s collection, brought to us through Rosenthal’s beautiful translation, helps us remember that it is art that will lead us through to a bearable future, and art that will always speak the unspeakable.
To the Letter by Tomasz Różycki, translated from the Polish by Mira Rosenthal (Archipelago Books, 2024).
© 2024 by Iris Dunkle. All rights reserved.