Biała magia

October 31, 2014 § Leave a comment

Barbara stands at the mirror
of silence, and her hands reach
to her hair; in her body of glass
she pours silver droplets of speech.

And then like a water pitcher
she fills with light, and soon
she has taken the stars within her
and the pale white dust of the moon.

–from “Biała magia,” Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński

A film was recently made of the life of the Polish poet Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński, who died during the Warsaw uprising in August 1944. He isn’t as well known in English translation as other Polish poets such as Czesław Miłosz or Wisława Szymborska. I only know of one book of his poems in English, a selection called White Magic and Other Poems, translated by Bill Johnston (Green Integer 138). This is a dual-language edition. The trailer to the film (with English subtitles) can be found here. I haven’t been able to find a complete version of the film with English subtitles, although I’ve watched the full version in Polish (admittedly, my one night course in Polish many years ago and the Polish grandfather I never had the luck to know didn’t help me much to understand what was going on, beyond the simplest of words — proszę, dziękuję, but all very polite of course).

Baczyński was born in Warsaw in 1921. He wrote love poems, as in the one above, “White Magic”, dedicated to his wife Basia (pronounced “Basha”) and he wrote poems about his experiences in the Polish Resistance, which he joined in 1943 at the age of 21.

Clare Cavanagh has argued, in Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics that Miłosz’s poem “Dedication” (“You whom I could not save/Listen to me…What strengthened me, for you was lethal./You mixed up farewell to an epoch with the beginning of a new one,/Inspiration of hatred with lyrical beauty,/Blind force with accomplished shape.”) is in fact addressed to a single person, “who perished in the Uprising, a person with whom the speaker is on familiar terms” — the single person being possibly Baczyński:

“The ‘good poetry’ whose ‘salutary aim’ he discovers late has been his salvation…while the poetry of this dead friend, driven by social passions and national mythologies alone, proved to be his, and not only his, ruin. Both Forche and Des Pres celebrate a ‘poetry of extremity’ ‘rooted in direct response to political pressure, which is to say in despair and resistance, in ruin and recovery’; it sounds perilously close, at least potentially, to the ‘lethal’ poetry that Miłosz describes in ‘Dedication.'” p.253

The full-length movie is perhaps tapping in to this nationalistic vein. It includes dramatised, somewhat romanticized segments from Baczyński’s life in the resistance, intercut with interviews from people who knew and fought side by side with him in his last days, and a modern day poetry slam which (I’m guessing, not speaking Polish) offers interpretations or versions of Baczyński’s poems.

The Warsaw uprising began at the beginning of August 1944. Baczyński took part, and died a few days later on 4 August. His wife, Barbara Stanisława Drapczyńska, (Basia,) had not yet learned of his death when she also died, 1 September 1944, from a head wound caused by a splinter of glass.* She was pregnant at the time.


* I take this detail from the wikipedia entry for Barbara Stanisława Drapczyńska.



poems and things

May 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

In The Material of Poetry Gerald Bruns, with reference to the French poet Francis Ponge, discusses the idea of  “taking the side of things,” as in “siding with things against human egocentrism, meaning (among other things) not just anthropocentrism but human self-importance, what we might call high-culture humanism that regards ‘Expressions of the Spirit’ as foundational, world-making, and the source of the true, good, and beautiful.” p.87 He relates this to the concept of objectivism and Louis Zukofsky. The idea of “sincerity” in Louis Zukofsky, Bruns suggests,

“does not mean speaking from the heart; it means (counterintuitively, perhaps) careful attention to the things of the world and a kind of selflessness and straightforwardness with respect to them — for example, not turning them into metaphors or stand-ins for one’s own experiences.” p.88.

Bruns then elaborates upon construction vs. expression; the poem as constructed by materials/things, not an act of self-expression:

“One has to imagine a poem that seeks proximity with things and not a cognitive transcendence that grasps or contains them or makes them transparent to view. (Proximity here means what the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas means when he says: ‘The visible caresses the eye. One sees and hears like one touches…. The proximity of things is poetry.)'”p.89

Bruns speaks of a poem that “shares the ontology of the thing” p.88.

How might this concept of construction versus expression — and the concerns expressed above over a devouring “cognitive transcendence” contrasted with “selflessness” — be connected to certain movements towards the concrete and the unadorned in some post-war Polish poetry, such as that of Tadeusz Różewicz and Zbigniew Herbert?

Czesław Miłosz, Madeline G. Levine, and Clare Cavanagh have all documented this rejection of the transcendent, the symbolic, the ‘poetic’, a rejection in fact of all of the ‘toolkit’ associated with poetry (metre, metaphor, simile, and so on), as some poets came to see poetry and language itself as complicit with or even the instrument used to carry out the atrocities of the Second World War.

In a somewhat different context, but with  similar concerns, Roumanian-born poet Paul Celan, who lost both of his parents in an internment camp during the war, and was himself held in a labour camp, engaged with the German language in particular, his “mother tongue,” where his later collections reworked the very language itself through excavation of its etymologies and unfamiliar or archaic registers, both at the level of the word and the phoneme and morpheme.

Tadeusz Różewicz, who was in his early twenties during the war, a member of the Polish underground, and whose older brother Janusz was executed by the Gestapo, began after the war to write poems stripped of the ‘poetic.’ Here is an excerpt from  “In the Midst of Life”:

this is a table I said
this is a table
there is bread and a knife on the table
knife serves to cut bread
people are nourished by bread

— from Selected Poems (Penguin 1976) transl. Adam Czerniawski

It is as if he needs to rebuild language, which in so doing rebuilds a destroyed world, syllable by syllable, word by word, beginning with the simplest of things. The speaker in this poem reminds himself of the ways in which a knife can be reimagined not as weapon but as tool which serves human interests, in this case, used to slice bread to nourish people. (I’ll come back in a moment to a much later poem Różewicz wrote about a knife.) Yet here the thing is not considered solely in relation to its own existence, in and of itself, but as it relates to human needs.

Or consider Herbert’s poem, “The Stone:”

The stone
is a perfect creature

equal to itself
mindful of its limits

filled exactly
with a pebbly meaning

with a scent which does not remind one of anything
does not frighten anything away does not arouse desire

— from Post-War Polish Poetry (Penguin 1965) Ed. & Transl. Miłosz

Herbert seems to approach this stone with the kind of “selflessness” and “straightforwardness” Bruns describes above. Yet there is not simply an appreciation here of the stone/pebble for its own pebble-ness or “pebbly meaning.” Herbert begins to approach the “proximity of things,” yet we are inevitably drawn towards a larger political context which encompasses knowledge of events such as the razing of the Warsaw ghetto, the Warsaw uprising, and the Holocaust. The speaker of the poem finds solace in this non-human world which exists without desire, and, inevitably, without the violence and inhumanity Herbert witnessed (as with Różewicz, Herbert was also a member of the Polish underground). Similarly, poets writing under the socialist regime in Poland found that simply to write a private domestic poem, a poem set in the privacy of one’s own ‘room’ came to have political implications.

Różewicz writes a much later poem about a knife. His later poems become much less austere, and more eclectic in that they gather much of the everyday world into them. (For English speakers, these can be found most recently in Sobbing Superpower: Selected Poems, translated by Joanna Trzeciak, a great collection which was nominated for a Griffin prize several years ago).

The poem is called “the professor’s knife” from a title of the same name, 2001. It’s a wide-ranging free-verse multi-sectioned poem, conversational in tone, incorporating in several sections dialogue between the speaker/Różewicz and his professor friend Mieczysław as they eat breakfast together, talking and quarrelling affectionately with one another. In this excerpt readers familiar with his poetry hear echoes of the much earlier poem on a knife which cuts bread, and see the ways in which he opens up and is in dialogue with his earlier, more severe relationship to poetry:

after all these years I’m sitting with Mieczysław
having breakfast
the twentieth century is ending
I slice bread on a cutting board
spread butter on it
add a pinch of salt

“Tadeusz, you eat too much bread…”

I smile I like bread
‘you know’ — I say —
‘a slice of fresh bread
a slice, a heel
or with bacon bits in lard
with a dash of ground pepper’

Mieczysław rolls his eyes

The object or ‘thing’ the 6-part poem circles around is a knife made out of a barrel hoop, which his friend Mieczysław (“the Professor”) has preserved all these years, a knife he once used in the concentration camps. At the same time, throughout the poem there are references to a freight train speeding through meadows and forests; both knife and train flicker in and out of memory, in and out of their present benign existence. This simultaneously recalls their earlier use during the war, the train carrying Jews to the concentration camps, the knife which was concealed in the hem of a prison uniform. Human-made things, artefacts, are almost always implicated in their particular uses, their histories:

I first saw it
on the Professor’s desk
sometime around the middle of the twentieth century

strange knife I thought

neither a letter opener
nor a potato peeler
neither a paring knife nor a carving knife

‘strange knife’ I thought
it lay between a book on Cubism
and the last page of a review article
he must use it as a letter opener
in the concentration camp
he peeled potatoes with it
or used it for shaving

why yes — the Professor said —
vegetable peels could save you
from starving to death

his orderly desktop reflected
the state of his mind

you know Mieczysław I will write a poem
about this knife….

the poem as trace of an event 2

February 28, 2013 § Leave a comment

Five miles away the hayricks and houses
are going up in fire;
beside the fields, peasants smoke their pipes
in silence and in fear.
Here, the lake still ripples at the little
shepherdess’s stride;
on the water a ruffled flock of sheep
stoops to drink a cloud.

Cservenka, 6th Oct. 1944

— “Razglednica (2)”  (Postcard 2), Miklós Radnóti, transl. Francis R. Jones

Beyond local, small-scale ecological witnessing, such as that of Borodale, Oswald, Longley, (discussed in “the poem as trace of an event 1“) some poets become directly caught up in larger historical events, these bloody trajectories of the 20th and 21st centuries, events which are then registered in their poetry in various ways — or sometimes deliberately resisted: Czesław Miłosz, on refusing permission to reprint some of his poems on the Warsaw Uprising: “I do not want to be known as a professional mourner.” (See his interview in The Paris Review.)

What kind of knowledge might a poem carry of an event such as that of the Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti’s forced march of early November 1944, a march which ended in his execution in a mass grave?

Even during this march Radnóti managed to continue to write small poems in a soft-covered notebook, now known as the “Bor Notebook,” or sometimes “Camp Notebook.” (An online facsimile of it can be found here, from a 2009 exhibit of his work.) This was a small, square-ruled notebook which was later found on his body when the grave where he had been buried was exhumed after the war. [1]

Perhaps the very question is wrong, suggesting a desire for some utility for poetry, a desire that we can trace back in the English tradition at least to Sir Philip Sidney’s Defence of Poesy (published 1595), who argued that poetry should both teach and delight, and which finds expression today in the “ethical turn” in literary studies. David-Antoine Williams offers an informative overview of this ethical turn in chapter 1, “Ethics, Literature, and the Place of Poetry,” of his Defending Poetry: Art and Ethics in Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney, and Geoffrey Hill (2010). Tellingly, he notes that the focus of this ethical turn has been on narrative. Williams observes,

“Many writers on the ethics of literature simply ignore poetry and the poetic altogether: if the neo-Aristotelian didactic and the responsibility-oriented deconstructive streams of ethical criticism share anything, it is that both rely on broad theories of narration, which is to say they regard real or imagined human actions, consequences, and fates (usually) within social situations. It is the narrative components of novels, stories, dramas, etc. that are discussed and debated over, not, usually, their formal effects […] it is unclear where narrative-dependent ethical criticism leaves poetry, especially lyric poetry. Attempts to account for an ethics of poems are often perforce drawn back to narration: Susan Gubar, in discussing recent Holocaust poetry, ultimately locates its ethics in its ability ‘to counter the numbing amnesia inflicted on its casualties by traumatic injury and on their descendants by our collective overexposure to widely circulated narratives of attrocity.’ In other words, poetry’s ethicity depends on the extent to which its narratives can replace or refresh old, worn ones. Unsurprisingly, Gubar’s analysis never lingers on anything non-narrative, formal, or even ‘poetic’ in the poetry she treats.” (p.18)

So when I ask what knowledge a poem such as Radnóti’s “Razglednica (2)”, which I quoted above, might carry, I am thinking of knowledge and an ethical force beyond that which narrative holds. In any lyric poem we find both narrative and lyric elements, where the lyric often bears a heightened focus on language’s own procedures, by means of its formal elements. Williams is pointing here towards these procedures and formal qualities, and how they might be associated with a poem’s “ethicity”.[2]

An initial difficulty in concentrating upon “Razglednica (2)” as a lyric poem is its contextual history. Note that the poem is always published with the place and date of its writing — Cservenka, 6th Oct. 1944; Radnóti was on the forced march by this time. The original notebook includes these details of place and date following each poem, as if a “signature;” all versions of the poems in translation I have read follow him in this. And this signature invites us to always read the ‘postcard’ — ‘razglednica’ is the Serbian word for ‘postcard’ — within the context of his lived history and witnessing, as if each postcard-poem describes an image or snapshot from the march, the ghostly “reverse” of the poem; the notebook itself is often described as a witness from beyond the grave. But does this then relegate his razglednici to mere documentary snapshots of his own slow torture and death? They are often read as transcription or witness of these events, analogous to a newspaper report, as in the final razglednica, where he describes the killing of an acquaintance, which could also be a postcard documenting his own execution several weeks later. Yet what remains then of its status as lyric poem?

“Razglednica (2)” is the second of four such postcard-poems he wrote in the last months of his life. In them Radnóti invokes the pastoral tradition. He was a trained classicist, and some of his work consisted of making translations of Virgil, among others; Radnóti’s finest poems I think are his own “Eclogues,” which incorporate this Virgilian mode of social critique and lament with elements drawn directly from his experiences during the war — for example, in the Second Eclogue, instead of staging a dialogue with a peasant, he speaks with a military pilot who conducts bombing raids by night: “Pilot: Went far out into the night; I laughed, I was so mad./Like swarms of bees the fighter planes buzzed overhead…” (Transl. Emory George, p.230).

Similarly in “Razglednica (2),” the war is invoked; the image of a flock of sheep which stoops to sip from a cloud-reflecting lake is framed by the five-mile-distant carnage of a village in flames. There is no significant narrative here; merely ironic juxtaposition of two images. I take pleasure in his description of the lake as if the sheep stoop to sip from a cloud, in his having taken note of this trompe l’oeil effect, presenting a verbal equivalent by means of metaphor. The invocation of the pastoral also invites us to consider the function of this lyric mode, and its very capacity to document or engage with the events of war, which it seems here to do most forcefully.

But I am still avoiding the issue of the formal qualities of the poem, as much as I can engage with them in a translation, not being able to read the original Hungarian. Radnóti often used classical and closed forms; the razglednici are written in quatrains, and employ cross rhyme; some of his translators attempt to offer similar formal patterns, while the Polgar, Berg, and Marks translation employs free verse. The decision to replicate the formal patterns is important, however, for his poems use these formal elements of poetry to stand against the chaos and unmaking of war. During the years of the war he made the deliberate choice of turning to classical structures, even though his earlier collections of poetry experimented with free verse; he seemed to have found strength in this formal patterning, so much so that he did not stop writing these poems, even under duress, as if the closed structures helped to order and contain the violence he witnessed.

Emery George’s 1980 translations of the entire corpus of Radnóti’s poetry attempt to preserve many of the formal qualities of Radnóti’s verse, as do the more recent translations by Zsuzsanna Ozsváth and Frederick Turner in their 1992 Foamy Sky: The Major Poems of Miklos Radnóti, and Francis R. Jones in Camp Notebook (2000). George notes he tries to follow Radnóti’s own translation principles:

“It would not do […] to render a hexameter work in ‘open’ form, any more than it would do to try to render it in Alexandrines or in blank verse. Every syllable contributes its share of the weight to careful work in meter or in the shaped line and stanza. Indeed fidelity requires that, wherever similarities in syntax permit it, even the relative positions of words be observed; that where lexicon and semantics favor it we show sensitivity to the possibility of sound repetition somewhere near the passage that exhibits it in the original […] In short, the translator of poetry had better have a good ear.” p.42]

He introduces all kinds of questions here regarding translation, but I want simply to note his insistence on the importance of form to Radnóti himself as translator and poet.

Here is George’s own translation of “Razglednica (2)”:

Nine kilometers from here the haystacks and
houses are burning;
sitting on the field’s edges, some scared and speechless
poor folk are smoking.
Here a little shepherdess, stepping onto the lake,
ruffles the water;
the ruffled sheep flock at the water drinks from
clouds, bending over.

The rhyme scheme, which both Jones and George preserve by means of slant rhyme is xaxa xbxb. Jones rhymes fire and fear, stride and cloud, while George strains towards burning/smoking, and water/over. Rhyme often reinforces semantic or emotional connections between words. In this, I find Jones’ translation more successful in the linking of fire to fear; the ambiguity of George’s poor folk ‘smoking,’ as if smouldering and not smoking a pipe, is unfortunate.

The two quatrains are used by Radnóti to set up two distinct images which contrast sharply and ironically with one another. In the first quatrain we see the distant, burning village and the peasant observers — and are perhaps reminded that we also watch, as from a great distance, this scene from almost seventy years ago. In the second quatrain a more typical pastoral image is presented of a shepherdess with her flock of sheep, which sip from the sky-reflecting lake. The ironic juxtaposition of the two images is strengthened by the formal elements of the first quatrain (alternating rhyme, line length) which are then mirrored in the second, as cloud is mirrored in lake, as the first image begins to obscure or cloud over the second as the war progresses.

George more successfully captures the rhythm of the original line, I suspect, with his use of a triple foot and falling rhythm. But I like the way in which Jones manages by means of enjambment to emphasize fire, silence, and fear in lines 2 and 4 of the first quatrain:

Five miles away the hayricks and houses
are going up in fire;
beside the fields, peasants smoke their pipes
in silence and in fear.

The first line with its reference to hayricks might be the opening of a simple pastoral quatrain, until the second line undercuts this with the words “are going up in fire.” Similarly, peasants smoking their pipes, another idyllic image, is quickly undercut by “in silence and in fear.” I don’t know if this effect is present in the original, but it is effective.

The very fact that Radnóti writes this poem while on a forced march, using elements such as metre and rhyme, quatrain form, image, metaphor, and the resultant compression of language this entails, can also be read as significant: he makes pattern out of a chaos of sound, a poem out of the chaos of war which, as Scarry observes in The Body in Pain, unmakes language along with many other human institutions. This tiny poem functions as counterforce to such destruction.

Similarly, I equally value in Radnóti’s poems from his Bor Notebook  the gesture of the individual voice, the single, quiet voice that speaks in the silence, in the dark.  As readers, we are allowed access to the imprint of his single consciousness — again an imprint that is found in the very formal qualities of the poem itself, a transcription of what this man thought as he rested in barracks (I don’t mean here a spontaneous trace of his conscious thought, but inevitably a re-presentation of this thought through formal means; Grossman–“Poems are fictions of the privacy of other minds. Wherever the philosopher says per impossibile the poet shows the way” p.147 Summa Lyrica), as in the magnificent “Seventh Eclogue” in which he describes a dream-journey from the forced labour camp back to his home:

from “Seventh Eclogue”

Look how evening descends and around us the barbed-wire-hemmed, wild
oaken fence and the barracks are weightless, as evening absorbs them.
Slowly the glance loses hold on the frame of our captive condition,
only the mind, it alone is alive to the tautness of wire.
See, Love: phantasy here, it too can attain to its freedom
only through dream, that comely redeemer who frees our broken
bodies — it’s time, and the men in the prison camp leave for their homes now.

(translation by Emery George, in The Complete Poetry)

Radnóti is using here the classical dactylic hexameter line, one which we are much less used to hearing in English, and which George attempts to reproduce — he speaks of Radnóti’s hexameter lines as having “grace, speed, and power” (p.42).

While Virgil uses hexameter lines to write the Eclogues, and this may be Radnóti’s more immediate model, we might consider also the use of the hexameter line as formal vehicle in epic poetry, foremost of which is the Iliad. In Susan Stewart’s Poetry and the Fate of the Senses (2002) she makes the useful distinction between the epic mode, which carries official ideologies, the state’s version of war, and the lyric mode, which, she argues, offers the perspective of the individual caught up in war, and carries traces of an individual’s sense-perceptions and emotions (p.296). Radnóti in his use of the hexameter line to write many of his last poems we might read as an undermining of this vehicle of official ideology; he uses it to convey the individual’s first-person experience of sensation and emotion, a private dream life in the midst of war. Frederick Turner in his translator’s essay in Foamy Sky, also notes the importance of this hexameter line in Radnóti’s poetry: “..the epic/pastoral hexameters of the first and eighth eclogues are fundamental to their meanings, recalling the power of Homer, the moral complexity of Virgil, and that strange Hadean combination of the arcadian and the heroic that we associate with the descent to the land of the dead” (p.xlvii).

Formal qualities are integral to the effect Radnóti seeks to achieve in these last poems. George acknowledges the documentary or trace aspect of Radnóti’s Bor poetry, and yet insists on their self-conscious attention to making:

“If ever there was art that moves beyond the naturalistically faithful documentation of life that it appears to be providing, it is the poems of the Bor Notebook. To be sure we have no reason not to accept at face value some of the conditions the poems depict, or — nearly so — some of the statements they represent a man as making. That the poet misses [his wife] Fanni and that he hopes to make superhuman attempts to return to her (“Seventh Eclogue,” “Letter to My Wife,” “Forced March”), that in the solitude of his brutish exile he is consoled by his thoughts (“Letter to My Wife,” “Eighth Eclogue”), that in the midst of his own predicament he is thinking of the many who have already met their fates in one form or another (“A la recherche….”) […] What may still need our attention is secrets of the poems not revealed by the images alone” (p.39).

George then goes on to note the deliberate invocation and undercutting of the pastoral, and the formal skill of the Bor poems, bearing “a hardness and diamond-like perfection” (p.40) In this, he is directing our attention to the formal over the documentary “trace” of this poetry.

Yet he also points out that the “Razglednica” as imitation “postcard” is part of a longer experimental tradition by Radnóti to engage with “letters, diary entries, newspaper reportage, expansions of poetic expression that parallel concrete and three-dimensional poetic happenings in our time” (p.40). Here Radnóti would seem to self-consciously engage with poem as documentary trace of an event.

[1] The Bor notebook comprised the 7th and 8th Eclogues, “Root,” “Letter to my Wife,” ” À la recherche,” “Forced March,” as well as the four Razglednici or postcard poems.

[2] Williams’ comment on Gubar and the role of narrative in poetry is not entirely fair. Consider her discussion of “Why poetry matters”  in chapter 1 of Poetry After Auschwitz: “poetry serves an important function here, for it abrogates narrative coherence and thereby sparks discontinuity […] In an effort to signal the impossibility of a sensible story, the poet provides spurts of vision, moments of truth, baffling but nevertheless powerful pictures of scenes unassimilated into an explanatory plot and thus seizes the past ‘as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.’ According to Benjamin, images (not stories, which tend to recount the past so as to account for it) put the ‘then’ of the past into a dialectical relationship with the ‘now’ of the present, constitute a critique of the myth of progress, and promote mindfulness about how the past continues to exist as an outrage in the present.” p.7 That being said, however, I agree with him that in her actual treatment of individual poems, she glosses over more formally interesting poems by Celan, Forche, and others, concentrating largely on narrative-driven poetry, which she then herself critically narrates.

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