Urszula Zajączkowska

- Poland -

Urszula Zajączkowska (born in 1978 in Starogard Gdański, Poland) – poet, botanist and video artist. As a botanist (and an Assistant Professor at SGGW of Warsaw), she researches the anatomy, biomechanics, aerodynamics and movement of plants. She has also graduated from the Film and Television Academy of Warsaw, and creates short films. Her first volume of poetry entitled Atomy was published by “Zeszyty Poetyckie” in 2014. It earned her a nomination for the Silesius 2015 Wrocław Poetry Award in the “debut of the year” category and a distinction of the 11th National Literary Competition “Złoty Środek Poezji” 2015 for the best debut volume of 2014. In 2017, she published a second collection entitled minimum. At that time, she was awarded the Kościelski Award, and was nominated for the Wrocław Poetry Award “Silesius” 2018 (book of the year), as well as for the Orpheus – K.I. Gałczyński Poetry Award 2018. In 2019, she published an essay collection Patyki, badyle, for which she received the Gdynia 2020 Literary Award. Very recently, her new poetry volume Piach has been published by the Wrocław-based publishing house Warstwy (2020).

In her second volume entitled minimum, apart from the poems, she presents botanical-anatomical drawings closely related to the text – images “commented on by the author and implementing her main idea: to show the world in pictures inaccessible to the human eye”. The reader gets the impression of observing the birth of poetry (a bit in the spirit of Szymborska) strongly allied with science – with forest botany dealing with the structure and life of plants. In this way, the everyday and ordinary field of vision is altered, offering insight into plant structures as if there – inside these structures – a secret about man and his relationship with the world were hidden. Is it eco-poetry? Or maybe an attempt to break eco-poetic rules, and to show a more complex, nuanced view of the matter? It seems difficult to break principles so flexible that they can be applied to many, often contradictory, realizations in which – as Anna Kałuża notes – “there is an intuition that various elements of the world – human and non-human, organic and inorganic, material and spiritual, natural and artificial – are interrelated or, to refer to the term from the field of quantum physics, entangled”.

This new attitude (the “green turn” in poetry) is looking for its own images. It starts with the simplest ones, as in the poem “leśnik” (“forester”), and then becomes more and more complicated in the search for a material community of life, based on atoms borrowed for a moment by the bodies filling the space. All these bodies are characterized by the fact that they “want to live”. Their fragments prepared by the protagonist in the laboratory and the large wholes found in the field suggest a surprising encounter between the human brain and matter subjected to intellectual processing, with a completely random hierarchy of this system.

Among these prototypes, there is a particular specimen that emits sounds that form a fairly clear message: “I’m here. Everything is established in me. It brought me and now it feeds and makes me warm. / That’s all I can do”. In minimum, ecological firmness takes on a mature shape. The poet does not hesitate to create shocking combinations of images. When reading the poem “na zrębie” (“at the clearcutting”), associations with J.M. Coetzee’s views, comparing breeding farms to concentration camps, come to mind. Zajączkowska responds to this concept of the “holocaust of animals” with her own, original image of the suffering of trees and treating the forest (after all, a living organism) as plank factories (“there are branches and there are combs, / there are shoes, trunks, prostheses, / a mountain of cut hair, a mound of leaves, / suitcases here, logs here / glasses and shoots there”).

Wandering through the clearcutting and observing the wounded, fallen trees brings back memories of a trip to a concentration camp with a familiar and terrible sight of piles of hair, combs, dentures and glasses. This is obviously an extreme example, and the parallel found by a sensitive nature observer may be too exaggerated; in fact, “Zajączkowska is most interested in a story that would navigate between the cognitive-research horizon and the visual-sensory horizon” (A. Kałuża). Therefore, she tries to find herself on the border between two languages, the more discursive and the more discursive, countering the impressiveness and dreaminess with logic and accuracy of the argument. And it is not about the banal conclusion, written in such tensions, “here is man and his duality”. It is less about the human being, and more, according to Katarzyna Trzeciak, about the surroundings, energy and life itself that “fills them”.

In the latest volume (Piach), we walk with the protagonist through the recesses of the skin; we descend even deeper – to the atoms in a grain of sand. What is this journey for? It is, among other things, to make visible and emphasize the insignificance of our existence, our (human) point of view. It is just a point among billions of other points, and it is just about viewing – while the world is also perceived in a thousand other ways by beings other than humans. Again, the poet admonishes us – let’s not exaggerate with the glorification of humanity. That is why I read the eponymous “sand” as “dust” – something we were made of it and something we will turn into. Vanitas vanitatum, nothing new under the sun – but presented in a beautiful, “herbarium” version. Our daily rotting – without slackness, or rather with the cheerful factual nature of the biology teacher in the provincial high school. It is still the same Zajączkowska, slowly weaving from the veins left over from rotten autumn leaves, a new version of her poetry.


Karol Maliszewski, December 2020; translated by Miłosz Wojtyna