“Sometimes the night closes in around me like a small room without a door.”

I must have heard of Bruno Schulz (1892-1941) before this year. I probably had while reading secondary literature for my university dissertation on Kafka; I definitely had listening to this BBC documentary about the history of Jewish life in Poland by the writer Eva Hoffman.

But it was this year that I kept coming across his name: referenced in Tomasz Różycki’s sonnet sequence Colonies; in this interview with David Grossman where the conversation turns to See Under: Love and Bruno Schulz’s resurrection after being murdered on the street by a Gestapo officer; in this radio essay on Kafka by Margaret Atwood that—by incredible coincidence—I listened to the same night as a discussion at the Goethe-Institut on a book by Martin Walser about the Yiddish writer Sholem Yankev Abramovich; in the new Brazilian edition of complete fictions of Schulz that I saw on a friend’s bookcase.

If it was the sheer anonymity of his name and the fleeting references that had made me forget him before, in 2015 it was impossible and now—after reading his incredible prose that conjures up something like a disembodied synaesthesia where all the sense are mixed up—doubly so.

Here is a paragraph from The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories (Penguin) translated from the Polish by Celina Wieniewska:

A night in July! The secret fluid of dusk, the living, watchful, and mobile matter of darkness, ceaselessly shaping something out of chaos and immediately rejecting every shape. Black timber out of which caves, vaults, nooks, and niches along the path of a sleepy wanderer are constructed. Like an insistent talker, the night accompanies a lonely pilgrim, shutting him within the circle of its apparitions, indefatigable in invention and in fantasies, evoking for him starry distances, white Milky Ways, the labyrinths of successive Colosseums and Forums. The night air, that black Proteus playfully forming velvety densities streaked with the scent of jasmine, cascades of ozone, sudden airless wastes rising like black globes into the infinite, monstrous grapes of darkness flowing with dark juice! I elbow my way along these tight passages, I lower my head to pass under arches and low vaults, and suddenly the ceiling breaks open with a starry sight, a wide cupola slides away for a moment, and I am led again between narrow walls and passages. In these airless bays, in these nooks of darkness, scraps of conversation left by nightly wanderers hang in the air, fragments of inscriptions stick to posters, lost bars of laughter are heard, and skeins of whispers undispersed by the breeze of night unfold. Sometimes the night closes in around me like a small room without a door. I am overcome by drowsiness and cannot make out whether my legs are still carrying me forward or whether I am already at rest in that small chamber of the night. But then I feel again a velvety hot kiss left floating in space by some scented lips, some shutters open, I take a long step across a windowsill and continue to wander under the parabolas of falling stars.

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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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Preview, Rear View

Best of 2014

Well yes, the tradition is to do this before the year is out, but I do a fair bit of reading between Christmas and New Year and it would be, of course, disingenuous to exclude what could have been included as one of the best books I read in 2014—and indeed, the book in question almost was.

It was the year of finally catching the Dante bug (after studying and just not really getting it at university), spending months reading the Purgatorio and Paradiso (Inferno was last year), reading around in Boethius, Augustine, the Vita Nuova, Cavalcanti, and wondering if the modern equivalent of Dante looking down on the world from Paradise would be the Pale Blue Dot photo that the Voyager mission took of Earth as it left the Solar System.

But it was also a year of reading wider and wider in Brazilian poetry from the colonial inconfidents, to modernists, concretists and marginal down to contemporary writers.

For 2015

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Sneak Preview

Well, more Brazilians, more Central Europeans (after a fantastic online course by the UK Poetry School in final months of 2014), more British and Americans, re-readings and plenty of writers I’m sure I barely know exist right now. Right now, the pile by the bed includes Ingeborg Bachmann, William Gerhardie, Joan Margarit, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Toby Martínez de las Rivas, Tomasz Różycki, Eugeniusz Tkaczyszyn-Dycki and Louis Zukofsky.

And the best

So here is my list of what I read and re-read and loved in 2014: Read more of this post

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