Joseph Peterson's Reviews > Sobbing Superpower: Selected Poems

Sobbing Superpower by Tadeusz Różewicz
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Mar 10, 2011

it was amazing

Joanna Trzeciak has done a brilliant job translating the great Polish poet, Tadeusz Rozewicz, whose selected poems, Sobbing Superpower, have recently been published by Norton. Trzeciak has the profound ability to disappear without trace of persona into the language of this great Polish poet. It doesn’t even feel like an act of ventriloquism for that suggests an active medium with valences and a voice of its own, rather, Trzeciak merely seems to turn a switch and Rozewicz miraculously speaks English. Fans of Rozewicz will be grateful for this volume that collects work over the course of his career, from the early book, Anxiety (1947) to poems from an unpublished manuscript, 2008. In addition, fans of Czeslaw Milosz and Wiswala Szymborska will want to add this fine book to their collection. What’s more, anyone who is interested in one of the great poets of the last seventy five years whose work has sorely been under-represented here in the United States, will be thrilled with the revelation that comes when one encounters an authentic poetic voice.
There are poems here that, like the very first poem in the volume (1947), memorialize what was lost in the Holocaust, “Rose is the name of a flower/or a dead girl”, and there are wonderful ecological poems like, “On Felling a Tree”

“hardworking roots
did not yet sense
the loss of the trunk
and crown

slowly the death of the tree aboveground
reaches the world underground”

There are also stunning poems that dwell on personal morality and personal mortality, like the poem, “July 11, 1968. Rain”, that begins with a powerful anecdote of a faithful dog that was killed and skinned for his hide “and he was such a faithful dog/so obedient/ he loved to eat and was so thankful/for ever bit/every scrap” and this shocking anecdote is followed abruptly by a second section that begins: “Will something bad happen to me?/nothing bad will happen to me/I’ll live through it all.” The poems in this volume testify to a great poetic sensibility that is at once self-reflective, skeptical, memorializing, and endlessly pleasurable to read.

Rozewicz was born in Poland and came of age during WWII. He bore witness to many catastrophes that befell Poland (6 million dead). Like other great poets of the period, he keeps these horrors and the nightmare of the Holocaust as ballast in the ship’s belly of his poems. That being said, Rozewicz’s poems are not, for the most part, heavy or gloomy, instead they sail lightly along. Take this nice poem, written relatively recently in 2000:

“rain in Krakow”
in the hotel room
I try to catch
a fleeting poem

Onto a sheet of paper
I pin a butterfly
a blue one
a blot of sky

rain rain rain
in Krakow
I’m reading Norwid
it’s sweet to be asleep
sweeter still to be made of stone

good night dear friends
good night
poets dead and living
good night poetry

This poem’s simplicity reads a little like the famous children’s book, “Goodnight Moon” by Margaret Wise Brown, and indeed there is an elemental quality to Rozewicz work that is quite striking. Like many of his fellow Polish and Russian poets who lived through the horrors of WWII, Rozewicz is deeply suspicious of the seductive power of language. As he says, again and again, in his poems: words can kill. He carefully charts the damage wrought to language by politicians and newspapers and he seeks in his poetry, under the blistering gaze of his skepticism, to reestablishing a one-to-one correspondences between word and object and word and action. In it’s way, his poetry is like a critque of language in so far as it establishes the limits of what truthfully can be said. It’s for this reason, why especially now, in the context of Fox News jermiads and Tea-Party bloviations passing themselves off as truth, Rozewicz comes across like such a potent and contemporary poetic antidote at a moment when what constitutes truth is particularly under savage fire. As Rozewicz writes in “Smiles” (1956):

Here is a man
puffed up by other men
when they are gone
a dummy will remain

they call him Wise
and everything he says
becomes a saying

Here, a rare capital letter, “W”, on “wise” stands out and mock’s the leader’s ‘wisdom’.
Rozewicz is an intellectual in the way of Milan Kundera. He is in communion with his antecedents. For instance, he loved Ezra Pound as a poet. He gives Pound credit for being one of the first intellectuals to draw attention to the growing power of the military industrial complex. He praises Pound’s willingness to help other writers, and to help the disenfranchised, but he also chastises Pound for his attachment to Facism, and his anti-Semitism. He positions himself as a poetic heir to Pound, but he makes it known that it’s an uneasy filial bond. Rozewicz can often be fierce in his attack against those who would commodify poetry and worse, poets. Emblematic of this stance, is his poem, “You don’t do that to Kafka”. In this poem Rozewicz savages every profiteer from literature professor to coffee shop owner, from the city of Prague to Max Brod for commodifying Franz Kafka:

Franz Kafka earned the right
not to have monuments made to him
not to have T-shirts
undershirts teacups
hankies undies
plates with the image of his face on the bottom
he earned the right not to
have Kafka cafes
not to have
souvenir shops

He argues that the intensely private Kafka, who left orders behind that Max Brod burn his work, deserves at the very least, a posthumous anonymity.
If you are seeking refuge from a contemporary poetics that has given up meaning for a search into the remoter properties and signalings that language is capable of, then Rozewicz is your poet. He reads even now as a corrective to the abstractions of end-game language poetry. He is deeply suspicious of poetic gamemanship and the ways that such gamemanship can be co-opted by malign forces. If Samuel Becket dealt with James Joyce’s prolix effusions, by muting language to the most elemental murmurs, then Rozewicz responds to the cooption of language by de-humanizing political forces by reconfiguring the scale of poetic ambition to the daily. Like a snail, his job is to clean and simplify the language by digesting it. He eats words, and shits poems, but the poems are not shit, rather they are beautiful in the way of a Francis Bacon or Lucian Freud painting. In fact, this collection includes one of his great long poems, “Francis Bacon or Diego Valeszuez in a dentists chair”, that starts out with compelling simplicity:

for thirty years
I have been hot on Bacon’s heels

I’ve looked for him in pubs galleries
butcher shops
in newspapers art books photographs

Rozewicz is a prolific writer and one senses when reading him that writing a poem a day amounted to a constitutional. This dailiness coupled with his conversational engagement, and his humble unadorned style evinced by the relative lack of capitalization and punctuation, makes Rozewicz perhaps the most accessible of the four great Polish poets of the post war years. He lacks Czelaw Milosz’s Catholicism and high Modernist stylings (though he loves Pound, Eliot, and Beckett); he lacks Szymborska’s formal precision and dry wit (a wit, by the way, that alludes to large tragic losses by discovering small absences), nor does he possess Zbigniew Herbert’s stoic intellection and scholastic abstractions, rather Rozewicz is often in conversation with the past, with artists and friends whom he has known, and of course with the reader. Indeed, this conversational quality is such a defining feature of his style that many of the titles of his poems include the words ‘conversation’ or ‘dialogue’.
This book includes a fine introduction by Edward Hirsch that situates Rozewicz in relation to the Holocaust and to his Polish contemporary poets. Hirsch eloquently calls Rozewicz a “poet of dark refusals, hard negations.” This gets at the profoundly skeptical quality of Rozewicz ethos. Hirsch then goes on to call Rozewicz an antipoet and an outsider who speaks from the margins and tells ‘the truth, however painful it may be.”
One can’t help but wonder what influence Rozewicz might have had on American poetry if his books had been translated as they appeared. In this case, he might have had fifty years of influence. Rozewicz is an honest and genuine poet and he serves as a nice corrective in an age of irony. As it is, we are grateful for this fine selection of his remarkable poems.
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