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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Memories Lost, Reechoed, Acquired

This week I inadvertently went back to myself a ten years ago through film and book. To memories I have, to memories I learnt and to memories that left me. 


It’s been nearly a decide since I read Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises. When Hemingway came up in conversation during the week, and I defended The Old Man and the Sea, and look over at my bookshelf, and opened the only book of his there, Fiesta, I remembered nothing. Sure, there were delicate imprints of Paris and Pamplona, but anything past the most geographic of details was gone. Perhaps I had not grown out of the intense, time-condensed reading of literature at university, perhaps I had been shocked by its casual anti-Semitism, perhaps I hated those indolent self-indulgent Americans and English aristocrats. Or maybe it was the style: at the time, I was under the spell of one of my favourite writers and fellow Modernist, Thomas Mann, whose complex curated sentences are the closest I feel you can come to scuba-diving in prose—between each breath, it seems you’ve seen the whole world. Hemingway had prose more like coloured blasts of light and felt nothing like this. Today this non-causal itinerancy seemed subficial, not superficial, and the prose crackled within me in the image-upon-image descriptions of travel across Navarre, or the dialogue of Frances’s calculating takedown in Paris or the drunken conversations in Pamplona.

But no matter the crackle, no sentences ever echoed through my memory—whatever I read had been long forgotten. 


The echoes came later in the week, when I watched Oskar Roehler’s film from 2000, No Place to Go (its German name, Die Unberührbare, the untouchable, is far better). I must have last seen it at university. I loved it at the time—and love it still in the delicious hypocrisy of Hanna Flanders, a West German “communist” novelist, who shops at Dior, who has a minimalist apartment in Munich with stylishly place photos of Lenin writing, of Lenin in Red Square, whose artifice falls apart with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Who knows if they were quotations I’d learnt for an exam, but there were phrases that had an electric sting and a resonance, as though they’d found the shadow of their twin deep within me. There is a scene towards the end of the film, where Hanna sits motionless and looks out onto the moving pedestrians of Odeonsplatz in Munich, that made me gasp at the memory. There’s the expanse of Berlin sky at sunset called its own reimaginings of sunsets that—sitting in Cambridge and looking back on Berlin—I must have remembered from evening commutes on the U-Bahn.


Commuting and motion is one of the motifs of Walther Ruttman’s 1927 film, Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis, a film I’d heard a lot about studying German film, but had not seen until this week. I imagine that it’s been called a meditation on the city; but to me, with its sometimes urgent music and doors opening, doors closing, trains arriving and leaving stations, bread coming out of an oven, a roller coaster on its tracks, washed dishes, actors being applauded, all without the safety blanket of narrative, it felt more like a visual workout. And the city I lived in appears both recognized and unrecognizable. Trains still string themselves through the city on elevated tracks, some buildings have the same blank façades, but they don’t swarm around the cathedral like that, the people don’t crush around the trams in the same way. The images made the memories emerge, but distorted as if through a fairground mirror, where I recognized the memory because I knew this was the same place on the map where they’d been created. But nearly 90 years on, is the city, or any city, the same? With just image and no context, might I have imagined them scenes in Hamburg or Vienna or Bucharest? Do cities just sit on the same geographies, while we rely on a collage of memories to make them our own?

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