Sunday, May 25, 2008

Tadeusz Rózewicz, Poetry Plain and Far From Simple

One of the enigmas of poetry is that it takes enormous effort to pare down the line into essentials. Charles Simic and Ted Kooser offer vastly different examples of what can result. Newly available, thanks to our "global" existence, is the work of Polish poet Tadeusz Rózewicz (there should be a dot over the first Z but my keyboard doesn't have that option, sorry). Bill Johnston's translation of Rózewicz's NEW POEMS is a quiet best-seller, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award in poetry.

For an enthusiastic biography of this post-war poet, try; he served in the resistance as a teen in World War II, suffered the death of his brother at the hands of the Gestapo, and has published more than 20 collections of poetry. He's also noted as a playwright.

Johnston's translation of NEW POEMS is available through Archipelago Books, in a solid, chunky, 258-page book in soft blue wraps (a bit too soft in texture, as the edges wear rapidly). The pages are well formatted to present the quiet short lines. Three of Rózewicz's books -- the professor's knife, gray zone, and exit -- are comined in this volume.

I especially like the poem "gray zone," with its twin epigraphs from Wittgenstein, situating gray "between two extremes" and asking whether it is physiological or logical. Rózewicz enables grayness much further in a handful of rapid statements about movement away from the absolute, about depression, about German language which takes on immediately an oppressive weight. Here's the center segment:

the world we live in
reels with color

but I don't live in that world
I was only impolitely wakened
can one wake someone politely

I see
a ginger cat
in green grass
hunting a gray mouse

the artist Get
tells me he cannot see colors

he distinguishes them by the labels
on the tubes and tins

he reads and knows that this is
yellow red blue

but his palette is gray

he sees a gray cat
in gray grass
hunting a gray mouse

Rózewicz challenges art, ideas, and "neutrality" in the balance of the piece. Johnston's translation feels as deft as a good actor's portrayal of character on stage, and the flow and interruptions of these poems taste of fine language, clean without being barren, lush without being flowery.

Here is one other taste from later in the collection; how can one read this scrap without wanting to have the entire volume in one's hand, at one's side, on one's table?

I was born a rhinoceros
with thick skin and a horn on my nose

I wanted to become a butterly
but I was told
I have to be a rhinoceros

then I wanted to be
a songbird a stork
but I was told it wasn't possible

I asked why -- the answer was
because you're a rhinoceros

I wanted to be a monkey
even a parrot!

but I was told ... NO

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