A Labyrinth in Four Lines: A Riff on Tomasz Różycki’s “Colonies”
September 14, 2015 1 Comment
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:
- 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.”
3) We’re leaving.
- The translation is bilingual. You can see this is wyjeżdżamy in Polish. The Slavic language I speak is Russian, but this is a verb of motion with the prefix, wy-, which means a movement outwards or away from. Then look at the rest of the poem in the original: wyjący wychowawcy, wypalą, wyjdzie. The sonnet is full of this prefix; the whole language of the poem is moving away.
- Another poem, ‘Cape Horn’, begins with wyjeżdżamy and these poems of departure come together with an even wider sequence about leaving cities behind. They obviously reference the Różyckis flight from Lwów, but these aren’t set then: there are volcanoes, there are cars and highways. They could be now. If your family has been moved this way once, there is no guarantee it will not happen again.
- Also the poet as a parent, whose son “speaks the truth”, a truth closed to adults (‘Cocoa and Parrots’).
- And the poet as parent to his parents: “The body of my father, who just before his death became my child” (‘Fishing in the Bay’).
- All the heritage of literature. The book is full of literary references: Rilke, Schulz, Mickiewicz, Pessoa and Trakl each have a poem almost dedicated to them. Many others are mentioned in passing.
- The place of literature and its diminishing status within society: “From now on, literature has departed / these phantom gardens, districts, streets, has shed // its uniform and settled in the void, / where from the start its place has always been.” The name of this poem is ‘Old Fortress’: can literature defend itself in the modern world? “At last it’s moved to weighty libraries, / virtual archives in machines.” It’s not clear if that’s defence.
6) and dresser drawers,
- Or the things in them. In ‘Totems and Beads’, the speaker sees everything around him as “post-German”: the town, graves, stairs, shirt.
7) the rank and file
- History most of all. In ‘Military Exercises’, the poet’s Parisian fantasy that there is no “Eastern Europe, no / cellars for hiding neighbors, no transports, / no round-ups”.
- Or in ‘Her Majesty’s Fleet’, the poet plays the computer game, Civilization. This is surely a satire on the hypocrisy of governments and how warmongering is so much of our culture that it is part of our most modern games: “I never fought a war, except to preempt / enemy aggression or fight the weak, / since there were nations that were badly run.”
8) and freakish herds remain,
- Animals, especially the ants and bees of Ukraine in ‘Scorched Maps’ that are all that is left of Różycki’s heritage there. And they respond when he lies down “face to the ground” and says “you can come out, it’s over”.
9) the city
- In this poem, the city is probably Lwów. Elsewhere it is Opole or Wrocław, “which exiles later wanted to rebuild / to look at least a little like Lwów” (‘The Rainy Season’). Elsewhere again it is Paris, a place whose distance from Central Europe paradoxically makes it more present (see 7).
10) slowly fading
- Losing the past. Perhaps also gaining something from the present: “You had to open up your skin for color” from ‘Great Whites and Cuttlefish’. Communist Poland was famed for its greyness and the blackness.
11) under ash
- The word ash comes up frequently and unexpectedly: “language will betray us / and kill our world, turn it to dew and ash” (‘Creoles, Mestizos’).
12) of a volcano
- Strange for a collection mostly set in Central Europe to have so many volcanoes. There’s another that appears in the centre of a town and life carries on around it.
- There’s also a poem called ‘The Volcano’, where the speaker is watching TV, “using the remote / to put the world in order”, by switching channels to create his own narrative.
13) awakened at dawn
- There is pair of poems: one begins “Dawn in the colonies” (‘Pepper Islands’); the other “Dusk in the colonies” (‘Calico and Coral’). In one “We’re sailing off”; in the other “We’re leaving” (see 3).
- The half-rhymes of “dawn” with “drawers” and also “remain” echo the delicate rhymes of the Polish. When you look at it, you can see Różycki’s care with full rhymes and assonant or alliterative half-rhymes. I don’t have a real ear for it, but my favourite is in ‘Coffee and Cigarettes’. Here the rhyme śnie, from the root for words of sleep and dream, feels appropriate for a poem about night-time wanderings. The rhyme appears in two pairs (remember these are sonnets). The word meaning sleep or dream is never the first. The rhyme pre-empts the dream and because it is repeated it emphasizes its unconscious echo. Who knows if the poem is not about sleepwalking?
- A rare end-stop: so many of these sonnets flow over the ends of lines and down the page.
Tomasz Różycki, Colonies (translated by Mira Rosenthal), Zephyr Press (Brookline, MA), 2013 (Buy it from Zephyr Press)