A Labyrinth in Four Lines: A Riff on Tomasz Różycki’s “Colonies”

Tomasz Różycki’s “Colonies”

Tomasz Różycki’s “Colonies”

I’ve been scared of this blog since January. I’ve read and reread Colonies by the Polish poet Tomasz Różycki at least three times now. The 77 delicately rhymed sonnets, brilliantly translated by Mira Rosenthal, work on a multi-dimensional plane: Różycki can take you on a straight path that turns out to be circular, the poems sit in the book like an intricate weaving or a labyrinth of hyperlinks.

There are lines I find incredible, like: “When we skim along / the wrong surface of night, of language, someone // fixes our commas.” I feel I have no idea what it means: I feel I have skimmed along the wrong surface of night, and language myself. Did someone fix my commas? Even the translator in her introduction notes: “It is difficult to extract individual poems. Each is so dependent on the rest of the series as to build in significance only through resonance within the whole.”

She’s right. Here are four lines:

4. Paradise Beach

We’re leaving. Parents, books, and dresser drawers,
the rank and file and freakish herds remain,
the city slowly fading under ash
of a volcano awakened at dawn.

Each word of this quatrain means something. Here goes:

1) 4.

  • All of the book’s poems are numbered, as sonnet sequences often have been: Petrarch, Philip Sidney, Shakespeare, Rilke and the rest. These are to be read as an interlinked sequence.

2) Paradise Beach

  • So many titles in the collection echo the 19th-century definition of ‘colony’ (other definitions below). They refer to commodities (‘Cinnamon and Cloves’, ‘Bauxite and Cardamom’), navigation (‘Sextant and Planisphere’, ‘Saint Elmo’s Fire’), distant places (‘The Mosquito Coast’, ‘Tierra del Fuego’). But the poems are clearly set in Europe, mostly in Central Europe, meaning that the content is often mysterious and askew from the tropical colonialism of the titles.
  • Or is it? In ‘Missionaries and Savages’, the missionaries are clearly bureaucrats and plutocrats; the savages are us. At the same time that swathes of Asia and all of Africa was being colonized by the “great powers”, Poland and Central Europe was also one of the areas being pushed around. Is it not more a question of continuity?
  • There are two other definitions of colony (kolonia in Polish) that Mira Rosenthal identifies in her introduction. It can mean a children’s holiday camp, but for Różycki it primarily refers to his family’s and his city’s history. Różycki’s family was originally from Lwów, now in Ukraine, and were moved westwards with Poland’s borders after 1945 to previously German Oppeln, today’s Opole.
  • “Paradise Beach” comes back later in the sequence, in the poem ‘Ants and Sharks’, as real beach in Goa. In that poem, ant eats larva, child eats ant, shark eats child, God catches shark. And then? “The poet in his room / will then eat God. He’ll feed, alas, on everything. / … / He feeds on paper. … / he’ll steal what’s holy, chew it up, / grow pasty flesh and toxic fur.”
  • The figure of the poet in this sequence is ambiguous, often a parasite, especially in nine poems spread throughout the book beginning with “When I began to write”. The act of writing poetry itself has a transformational, disfiguring effect on the poet and on the world, as well, where words “bit by bit remove / things from the world and in return leave blank / spaces.”

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Pathos of the Once Organic: JL Williams’ “Locust and Marlin”

"Locust and Marlin" by JL Williams

“Locust and Marlin” by JL Williams

Myths are our most basic stories. They attract us in, reach far back in time. For JL Williams, New-Jersey-born, but living in Edinburgh for over a decade, they are a key part of her work. Indeed, many of the poems in her first collection, Condition of Fire (2011) are drawn from that great history-of-the-world-through-myth that is Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Her second collection, Locust and Marlin (2014) is similar and different from her first book: it feels like a deepening, a development and a moving forward from that book.

Like Ovid, like Condition of Fire, Locust and Marlin is full of animals. Most obviously, this is in the title, and indeed on the cover. The marlin recurs in a poem about the poet’s father; the locust—and it’s worth remembering that the grasshopper metamorphoses into the locust, echoing her first book—in an epigraph from the Book of Revelation, in that same father-poem and in the strange apocalyptic sonnet, “Locust King”, which may, or may not, also be a love song. There are others, like the mysterious and striking heron that opens and closes the book. The first poem, “Heron”, in particular, is a seven-line tour-de-force that begins:

Imagine a great silence
whose wings touch no branches.

Imagine a space demarcated
by lack of sound.

The word “imagine” opens the book as a liminal space and from the start, it tries to do the impossible, to describe something beyond the powers of description. After all, silence is not physical, it cannot literally have wings; and space cannot be practicably demarcated by the absence of sound. But the metaphor works so well: this paradoxical description creates a ghost-like figure of the heron that is present, unobserved, undetectable, an object of meditation, in its liminal habitat between water, earth and sky. And like so much in the book, it hints at, does not directly describe, implies.

This in-between space, these things in flux is similar territory to Condition of Fire. There are poems of transformation, like “Flutter”, that begins “They broke upon her ribcage / to let out the birds.” But this isn’t a retreading of Ovid: there is a “they” behind the evident violence that occurs in a number of the poems—this calls to mind fables, stories of witches. And the same poem contains multiple, cyclical transformations.

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Kitsch and Linguistic Tricks: Paul Stephenson’s “Those People”

“These People” by Paul Stephenson

There is a well-known story about W. H. Auden (I came across it in Glyn Maxwell’s On Poetry) and a conversation he had with a boy who said he wanted to be a poet because he had lots to say. The moral, or perhaps the punch line, is in Auden’s frustration at why the boy wants to be a poet: the most important thing is playing with words. Paul Stephenson, in his pamphlet Those People, seems to be following Auden’s advice. The first thing you notice about the poems here is the nimble use of language.

This is immediately obvious in the pamphlet’s found or overheard poems. There is a page-long list of questions called, appropriately enough, ‘Do You Have Any Questions?’. This is the last question before an exam begins in British schools and what follows is a vertigo-inducing compendium of questions, as if there all the thoughts going through someone’s head in the split seconds before the exam really begins. In ‘Gare du Midi’, Stephenson collects phrases overhead (and some thought, I think) at the Gare du Midi in Brussels. The title repeats that of Auden’s political pre-World War Two poem of the arrival of an insidious briefcase, but today the station is full of the worries of travellers and tourists, as well as the anxiety of some of not being let into the UK.

Other poems play around with language even more, and most especially with sound. In ‘Wake Up And’, Stephenson takes the cliché wake up and smell the coffee and works through the phonetic implications of coffee—coughing and cacophony are just the first two. In a lot of ways, the poem seems similar to the aleatory N+7 practice of the Oulipo group, but it is more wilful. Mostly the sequence of words follows phonetics rather than the alphabet: there is a stanza of words beginning with k and a great couplet in “wake up and smell Cavafy / wake up and smell Cefalonia”. Depending on how you pronounce the c, these are not only close phonetically, but geographically as well: Cephalonia lies next to Ithaca, the name and destination of Cavafy’s most famous poem. For the reader, it feels like having a window into a process of free association.

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On Mariano Marovatto and His “Casa”

“Casa” by Mariano Marovatto

The book is named House and many of the poems are set there, but it is hardly homely. Houses are concrete, present, but this is more about absence. In Portuguese Casa can mean house or home; in English it feels right for the title to be about the solid material of walls, bookcases, tables—the house—, rather than the emotional presence, the non-absence of the home.

The book is divided into two sequences of unnamed poems. The first, “O mundo cabe na gaveta” (“The World Fits in a Drawer”), subtly hints; something is wrong. The second, “Acordar amanhã” (“Wake Up Tomorrow”) is more direct; someone is gone:

if we had a baby
you love dogs
if we ate a peach
you seem like autumn
I’ve just chewed autumn.

This is from the first poem of that sequence. On first glance, it seems to divide into two halves of if… then… that break down on a closer look. The first two lines here feel verbatim: it’s one of those unconnected hypotheticals of break-up. The second two feel closer: peaches come in autumn both in Brazil and Europe. But you can’t eat a peach in a poem without a nod (and not the first among contemporary poets linked to Rio, both Matilde Campilho and Ismar Tirelli Neto have nods in the same direction) to Eliot’s Prufrock and, by extension, the not-daring and sexual frustration of that poem. And “chew” (“mastigar”) is from the right semantic area of a fair amount of sexual metaphor, but it’s also so wrong. Something is not right here.

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Every Man Is an Urgent Island: Ismar Tirelli Neto’s Os Ilhados

“Os Ilhados” by Ismar Tirelli Neto

Outside—and to a fair extent, inside—Brazil, the postcarded stereotype is one of gregarious sun-kissed beauty. Reality, as always, is more complex, but even so, maybe it would be a surprise to outsiders to come across the title of Rio poet, Ismar Tirelli Neto’s third collection, Os ilhados (something along the lines of The Isolates in English). After his other two collections, Syncronoscópio (Synchronoscope) and Ramerrão (Routine), it feels like a break or maturing of style (there are some translations of earlier work here at Jacket2 and Poets at Work, where Furore is from this book; the translations from here on in are mine).

You can see this difference even at first glance: nearly half of the collection is made up of prose poems. These read like fragmentary portraits or monologues of loneliness or disconnection that have a cumulative effect over the course of the book. Like in his previous collections, there are touches of the absurd or grotesque—a narrator with his family in a hotel for two years and who gets trapped in a revolving door, or how do you live with a mother who has been quite literally on fire for months? But there is something that feels more urgent about many of these poems. One of the best, ‘Quei giorni insieme a te’, describes the murder of the village witch with sticks and chains. The title, and the content, is from a song by the Italian singer Ornella Vanoni from the soundtrack of the 1972 thriller Non si sevizia un paperino. In the film, the music is juxtaposed with the murder and the poem makes the same juxtaposition with vivid detail that ends:

she does not stop hauling
herself out of the graveyard
the village witch
leaps up the small slope,
the melody falls with force,
but as soon as she reaches
the road, the violins
recoil at the sight of hands,
of fingers cut with branches
and grimy (as everything was
once) with earth and blood
and the song—
the song
is as it says.

But this doesn’t just repeat what happens in the film: the poem expands it out, universalizing it to seem it could be about any murder of an outcast (and there are plenty in Brazil). There are no indicators of time or space apart from the references to the song at the opening and close of the poem. And, indeed, there’s also no time to locate it anywhere: apart from the first few words, the poem is a continuous sentence and its short lines convey a breathless urgency. Then in describing the violins as “recoiling” and the song doing what it does, these final lines draw attention to the grotesqueness of the unhappy love song alongside a bloody murder. In doing that, it also shows its empathy.

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“Leave the rest of your dream to sleep at the open window”

The title a contradiction. It is unclassifiable. And all of that you say about the book itself. Absent Presence is—depending on the moment you look at it—the autobiography, the memoirs, an extended prose poem, a novel, perhaps more specifically a Künstlerroman, a monologue written into the mirror, difficult prose, simple prose, an ars poetica, by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008), translated by Mohammad Shaheen. It is all of the above and none. What it is—and what it remains—is hallucinatory, enlightening, beautiful in specific sentences, such as:

Poems and twilight have this in common: obscurity mingles with clarity, because a hidden pit emits its rays in shafts of light and in words, and consequently deprives darkness of the eternity of adjectives.

Or in longer sections, such as this description of his writing process that plays off the title and the previous sentence a good 25 pages before:

You marvel at how the water and the song are united; the voice of water is rhythm. Perhaps music is the organisation of drops of water in a spirit which becomes clear in the hands of one who plays on instruments made out of watery, emotional material. […] …and you proceed to the hobby which has become a trade, and the trade which has been a hobby. The cup of coffee on the left side of the desk, the box of pens on the right, next to the bottle of black ink; in the middle, the white leaves covered with white writing. You meet them, and they meet you, containing the secret memory of those who have gone before. You alone have nothing determinate, no content, and in vain you try to find your own line in this white throng which stretches between writing and speech. You longer ask, ‘What shall I write?’ but rather, ‘How shall I write?’ You summon a dream, but it flees from form; you beg for a meaning, but the rhythm is uneasy with it. You believe that you have crossed the threshold which divides the horizon from the abyss. You have practised the opening of metaphor to an absence that is present, to a presence that is absent, a spontaneity that seems obedient. You know that meaning in poetry is made up of the meaning in the movement of meaning in a rhythm in which prose aspires to the citizenship of poetry and in which poetry aspires to the aristocracy of prose. ‘Take me to features of the river that I do not know, take me.’

Take us all.

I should also mention that I read this book a while back, but the impulse came from the Brazilian poetry blog, Modo de Usar, where a Portuguese translation of one of Darwish’s poems appeared my Facebook feed yesterday.

Mahmoud Darwish, Absent Presence (translated by Mohammad Shaheen), Hesperus Press, 2010

Transatlantic, Fraternal: Matilde Campilho’s “Jóquei”

joqueiIt is rare to find the words “best-selling” and “poetry” inhabiting the same sentence—even in Brazil, “a country where poets are taken seriously” according to the New York Times. So great was this deviation from the script, that at the launch of Matilde Campilho’s first collection Jóquei last week in Rio, talk among readers, the moderator was of that thing that happened—whisper it, a poetry book was number 1 in sales at the Flip, Brazil’s biggest literary festival. Whether the New York Times is right, but anyway, it’s worth repeating: Matilde Campilho’s Jóquei was the best-selling book at Flip.

Campilho is Portuguese, but with a strong connection to Rio de Janeiro—she lived here in between 2010 and 2013, she began writing here, she was surrounded by local poets at the mic. I know next to nothing about contemporary Portuguese writing (the connection between Portuguese and Brazilian letters is not as straight-forward as it might seem from outside the Lusosphere—the publishers are different like in English or Spanish, there are spelling differences perhaps more extreme than English, bookshops divide their shelves between Brazilian and international fiction and poetry…), but her work feels quite Brazilian, or at least cured in Brazil. This is for more than the geographical location of many of the poems: there is a freshness and lightness of touch, strong both in the prose poems and the short-lined unpunctuated free verse, that comes partly from lines or sentences are often equal to breath or thought.

The book has two overt artes poeticae, which are both real defences of poetry as an art form. From the start of the first, ‘Prince in the Rose Garden’, it comes at the reader with demands: “Listen here / this is a poem / it doesn’t talk about love / it doesn’t talk about blue / scarves…” (my translations). This is poetry that knows what it wants and isn’t afraid to ask. And what does poetry want? Contradictory things. The second poem, ‘Extinct Principality’ begins: “This is a poem / it talks about love / or fear of love / It talks about death / or the end of the amalgam / face voice soul and scent / that is death / This is a poem / be afraid”. I don’t like being bossed about, but there’s something so enjoyable being told what to do by these poems.

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