Author of the Week / 24 January 2023

Life-and-death situation

Author of the Week: Poland

What is at stake in poetry?

It is difficult to find a more diverse space than the poetic field, and Poland is no exception. However, in this wealth of idioms, ideas and demands, one may still identify a few characters distinctive enough to serve as reference points for further exploration.

Here are three of them.

The language of high contrast

Urszula Honek debuted in 2015 with Sporysz (Ergot), after which she published two more poetry collections: Pod wezwaniem (Dedicated to, 2018) and Zimowanie (Wintering, 2021), as well as a collection of short prose Białe noce (White nights, 2022). She has consciously taken a separate stance in Polish poetry, on the margin of the main movements. She is also happily immune to intellectual fads, which renders her voice clear and unpretentious.

Honek, who hails from a small town in Southern Poland, has chosen the province as the default setting for her poetic imagination. However, she does not fall under the ‘New Periphery’ category which has gained popularity in Poland in recent years and, which groups poets and prose writers on the basis of the various they use ways to restore the literary significance of long undervalued places: villages and small towns.

Her poetry resembles an oneiric journey across spaces far removed from everyday concerns of our imagination. It is devoid of nostalgia or any form of embellishment. Quite the contrary: we walk through the attics of old houses, visit silted, fishless ponds or observe an October garden covered with the first frost. Everything is colourless here and sketched in high contrast, like a leafless tree that stands out against a cloudy autumn sky.

Death is omnipresent in Honek’s poetry, or rather the trace left behind by the deceased. With her trademark brevity she takes note of their waning presence – after all, there is little room for compassion in this world. Sadness, on the other hand, pushes at us from all directions, overwhelming us with its weight and finding no outlet. And here is where poetry comes to the rescue. Honek is brutally disillusioned: this world cannot be saved; one can merely keep describing it, again and again. Only such a chronicle of inconsolable grief enables one to channel the despair seeping from every crevice. Like in the title poem from the Wintering collection:

this house returns in dreams. I stand by the window and watch
the panorama of the town. the lights go out and come on.
I see little boys, a ginger dog, and their mother, who never
turns towards us. the dog barks, wanting to play.
the boys attentively look at the glass. I would like to embrace
one of them, because I know they will find him on the floor where he now stands.

Honek delicately envelops such points on the aching map of memory (never mind whose memory) in language, trying to preserve their ethereal form. Despite giving them added weight, words simultaneously remove some of their painful realness, making them more bearable. Previously shapeless, they now flicker somewhere at the limits of existence, allowing us to see, and sometimes even become familiar with them.

Honek’s poetry is not a joyful process where words and sentences clash enthusiastically, creating new meanings. Although the poet rarely admits it, her writing is encumbered with responsibility and results in pain, with ‘sand grating between the teeth’. This is why her language is cautious, sparse, even austere. The reader often encounters simple, complete sentences, devoid of literary fireworks and shying away from experimentation. Although these short poems seem elliptical, the opposite is in fact true: they say exactly as much as needs to – or can – be said, keeping silent about the rest.

This precise imagery coupled with a sensitivity to things that escape our attention enables Honek to tell many stories that usually remain unsaid. Like the ones about violence against women, particularly the type that leaves no easily noticeable traces.

for days on end, I would toss and turn in one place and dress as if for my own funeral. I would observe
fathers with children, looking at them, pretending I was tying my shoelaces
or tighten the dog’s collar. the women said: when a man
kisses a woman, you have to cover your eyes. when a man
touches a woman, you have to hide behind a wardrobe, under the floor,
in a rat-infested room, go to a ravine,
find a hollowed-out rock. return at night. not bathe,
not remove your knickers or check your potato and water supplies. no one has died of hunger or cold here yet.

(‘namaszczenie’ (anointment) from Pod wezwaniem (Dedicated to))

Honek’s subsequent volumes form a record of a girl’s (later woman’s) painful adolescence, filled with ache, disappointment and bitter lessons of forgetting about oneself – becoming removed from one’s own body. The literal, physical nature of this process reflected in the words is all the more poignant as it is devoid of emotions. The poems’ protagonists are too tired for that. The feminist aspect of these poems is particularly powerful because Honek allows the experience to retain its intimate, individual tone, while making it expressive, strongly resonating with the reader’s imagination. Consequently, when delving into the world of her poetry, one ought to remember that this will not be an easy, carefree stroll but a journey worth the effort.

A rushing stream of imagination

Robert ‘Ryba’ Rybicki (from Rybnik) is an unbelievable poet – in the literal sense, because it is sometimes difficult to believe he really exists, even if one has stumbled upon him in one of Kraków’s pubs. He is a performer, educator, squatter and author of multiple poetry volumes, including Epifanie i katatonie (Epiphanies and catatonias, 2003), Dar Meneli (The gift of hobos, 2017) and Pogo głosek (Sounds in a mosh pit, 2019). His biography is full of twists, turns and unexpected plot twists. In his early youth, he was a substitute goalkeeper for the RKS Energetyk Rybnik football club, the editor of Plama, an important Silesian magazine, and a secondary-school Polish literature and language teacher.

Education is a particularly important element of his life. He has always acted as a teacher, or more exactly a guide or mentor for young people still searching for their poetic language. Here, too, one can see the anarchist trait of his personality, as Rybicki does not believe in established hierarchies or social structures, preferring instead community activities based on improvisation and building of individual relationships.

Rybicki is listed as one of the most important figures of the so-called Kraków Poetry School – the (still) informal group bringing together various young artists who cannot quite find their place in the existing poetic trends and institutions. His chelas include such figures as Maciej Taranek, Miłosz Biedrzycki (the second pillar of the Kraków Poetry School, endowed with greater organisational talent; who knows if anything would ever come to fruition without him), earlier also the tragically deceased Tomasz Pułka, as well as young writers associated with the Ha!art circles and the Stoner Polski magazine. At one point, those associated with Rybicki included the Rozdzielczość Chleba poetry group, now sadly defunct (Leszek Onak, Łukasz Podgórni, Piotr Płucienniczak, Julia Girulska, Kinga Raab, Agnieszka Zgud, and many others).

Partly owing to his efforts and partly to his unique, magnetic personality, Rybicki has achieved a truly remarkable thing. He exudes a genuine, infectious spirit of the avant-garde, its rebellious energy and, above all, an irrepressible imagination and appetite for various linguistic, formal and performative experiments. His live performances have already gone down in the history of Polish poetry.

The achievements of the Kraków Poetry School can be judged differently, but it is hard to deny its expressiveness and energy, especially since it is a grassroots movement with virtually no support from any major cultural institution. In their case, an important element of identity-building is opposition to the centralised and bureaucratised literary life in Poland, and Kraków in particular. Here it is important to bear in mind the particular context in which the School operates, namely the long shadow of Kraków’s poet-novelists and the pedestal on which they were placed after their deaths.

It is not, therefore, about Szymborska’s or Miłosz’s poems themselves (although Rybicki and the rest of his crew are probably not too fond of such aesthetics), but about the shallow and superficial use of these authors’ legacy as part of the city’s promotional strategies (awards, festivals and other popular events). There is one example that illustrates the ridiculous and scandalous nature of this dispute: every year the Wisława Szymborska Award is accompanied by a special gala. At the same time, members of the Kraków Poetry School organise a rival event, unofficially called ‘Gała Szymborskiej’ (Szymborska’s Peeper, a play on the words gala and gała in Polish). 

While individual social relations play an important role here, as is always the case in such disputes, one ought to concede that Rybicki and the Kraków Poetry School may have a point. They are undoubtedly the most interesting poetry group in Poland today, although it should be said that due to the long dominance of individualism there are few poetry groups in the country.

But let us leave behind Rybicki the institution, and take a look at his poetry, which also defies simple categorisation and appropriation. As befits a genius, Rybicki can operate freely in any key, and juggle styles and forms with ease. He can write in the spirit of 20th-century intellectuals, for example in the poem ‘Przypis do Karaska’ (A footnote to Karasek):

sometimes you are so clever
that your speech is slurred

do not wave at me from the deep waters,
spirit of a time gone by

More often, however, he is like this (from the poem ‘Źródłobór’ (Woodland spring)):

Repulsive? Fly do let’s! Leaving no-
thing behind, none-ever;
a sand-bodied woman
shall give birth to a squeaking syllable.

He is most interesting precisely when he abandons convention and allows the rushing streams of his imagination to run wild and free. His poetry is riddled with unusual juxtapositions and metaphors that set the bar high for our own imagination. Rybicki also loves to rummage through the words themselves, taking them apart and reassembling them into strange creations that effectively disrupt the process of communication. These sharp, ruthless cuts can also be seen in the arrangement of verses and enjambments, which make the whole poem seem to be in motion, vibrating and pulsating with strange energy (Rybicki’s poems should, or even have to be read aloud).

Every now and then – intuitively, sometimes consciously, or even casually – Rybicki pushes his language to the limits of possibility, testing its endurance, and is happy to overdo it to the point when everything begins to fall apart spectacularly. If one wanted to identify the forerunners of this approach to poetry, it would be best to reach for the French Surrealists (Max Jacob) or Dadaists (Tristan Tzara). From the Polish tradition, the closest to him would be the Futurists, Miron Białoszewski and Witold Wirpsza – in other words, all those who were able, and brazen enough, to break language mercilessly until it became a carrier of oneiric images haunting their imagination.

Interestingly, in Rybicki’s case, this extremely individual, even ecstatic experience of language also has a political dimension. The whirlpool of words that he sets in motion has enormous critical potential: throwing us out of our communicative equilibrium and making us rethink the conceptual foundations of the communities in which we function on a daily basis. Rybicki’s oneiric anarchism is closely linked to his biography (some say life-writing) – this vagabond and squatter living on the fringes of society constantly speaks out for the excluded whose voice is rarely heard. It is precisely because of this social sensitivity that he is sometimes considered a leftist, although in his case, what is more important than his political views is the linguistic revolution he constantly advocates. Thanks to Rybicki, our language is forever young; it does not become frozen in ossified notions detached from reality. Instead, it disintegrates and is reborn in an endless succession of poems.

A new community of beings

Małgorzata Lebda is an acclaimed and respected poet, winner of major literary prizes, whose each subsequent volume – such as Sny uckermӓrkerów (Uckermӓrker Dreams, 2018) or Mer de Glace (2019) – has been a major literary event in Poland. The poet comes from a village in the Beskidy mountains, which is of great importance for her strongly autobiographical poetic trilogy collected in the volume Sprawy ziemi (Matters of the Earth, 2020). To some extent, it is a reckoning with her childhood in the Polish countryside, with all its pros and cons, which is why her poetry is filled with both admiration and bitterness.

my father calls me handing me a penknife
and tells me to remove a black splinter from his wrist
you have to learn to work in blood he says
we pour bee glue dissolved in alcohol on the wound
it gives us yellow acrid hands

(‘poranek: praca we krwi’ (morning: work in blood) from the volume titled Matecznik (Lair))

In her poetry, one can hear echoes of an extremely widespread theme in Polish literature, namely growing up in a pre-modern village, as if suspended out of time, that has for centuries functioned according to the same rules determined by working the land, folk religiosity and strict interpersonal relations. Lebda, however, does not fall into the well-worn patterns of mythologisation or take shortcuts and escape into archetypes. While she does adopt the classic position of a child only just learning the language (and therefore the world she describes), she does so to take an even more effective look at this reality, take it apart and expose its mechanisms, especially those that serve to exclude and neutralise violence.

This is particularly evident in the paraphrased language of religious rituals, stripped of metaphysical depth and serving only to sustain the existing order.

as they receive the eucharist one of them thinks
about the large sow slaughtered for the occasion
out of the whole ceremony she will remember the hands
of butchers smelling of juniper and cayenne

(‘zbliżenie: mięso’ (close-up: meat) from the volume titled Matecznik (Lair))

In a world thus arranged, the female experience, especially in the case of girls, is at the bottom of the hierarchy of sensibility; there is no place for tenderness or closeness here. Only animals, with whom Lebda – the girl – feels a special bond, stand lower in the order of beings. Cows, pigs or poultry are just meat waiting for their turn to be devoured in bloody consumerist orgies.

This blood seeps through all her poems, undermining the conventional but ritually maintained boundary between the human and animal worlds. The omnipresence of suffering and death reveals a cruel yet liberating truth about the physical and corporeal nature of reality: the commonality of all living entities that humans persistently try to invalidate.

These poems hit the most important and painful nerves of modernity, with precision. In Lebda’s case, ecocriticism – an increasingly common feature of Polish poetry (for example in the work of Urszula Zajączkowska or Julia Fiedorczuk) – grows out of, and is closely linked to, personal, often painful experience, at times even traumatic. However, in her latest volume, Mer de Glace, the poet moves away from the past to focus on the here and now. In this multithreaded collection of poems, where notes from everyday life intertwine with the corporeal experience of poetry, the ecological theme comes to the fore. Yet Lebda understands the word ‘ecology’ in line with its Greek etymology, oikos and logos – the study of the common home that we all inhabit. However, she borrows the title of the volume itself from the name of the largest glacier in the Alps, which is melting at an alarming rate.

For Lebda, the climate catastrophe is also a catastrophe of language itself – of our way of building relationships with the world and all its inhabitants, including non-human ones. Therefore, nature is not the subject here, although original images of it obviously appear in her poems, but rather a task to be performed, a concept to be thoroughly rethought. It is about creating a new perception and a combined sensibility that will enable us to inhabit the world anew. This is the task of ecocriticism. Like perhaps no one else in Polish poetry, Lebda demonstrates just how high the stakes are here.

Translated by Aleksandra Szkudłapska


Michał Sowiński

Michał Sowiński is literary critic, editor, Tygodnik Powszechny weekly and Krytyka Polityczna contributor. For many years associated with the Korporacja Ha!art magazine and publishing house.



Photo by Grażyna Makara