on Been and Gone, poems by Julian Kornhauser, translated by Piotr Florczyk (Marick Press)

Born in Gliwice in 1946, Julian Kornhauser was a member of the Generation of 1968, the young Polish poets who came after Szymborska, Herbert and Różewicz. With Adam Zagajewski he co-edited “The Unrepresented World” (1974), a collection of essays which served as the group’s manifesto. He has published twelve books of poems, three novels, and translations of six books of poetry from the Bulgarian, Croatian, and Serbian. Prizes and national recognition have come his way. Yet Piotr Florczyk’s versions of his poems are the first translations available to an English-reading audience.

Kornhauser1.jpgBeen and Gone includes thirty-one translations from Kornhauser’s three most recent books of poetry published during the past twelve years. The originals are provided en face. Zagajewski has contributed a brief introduction, recalling that “poetry seemed much more important” than politics in their student days, and that the politics of their poetry committed them to a “love for the concrete, for the nitty-gritty of our lives.” Although Kornhauser’s early poems were “filled with a surreal energy, with a quest for the nameless,” his voice thereafter remained loyal to stark, spare imagery. Florczyk says the recent poems “demonstrate a shift from collective preoccupations to a more personal iconography."

HEAD IN A MIRROR

Looks at me
with blackened eyes
motionless as a lead ball

in its heavy wine skin
a memory foams
seeking roots

furrow on its forehead
opens up like a wound
from which wild sprouts
come out

side-lit
it hovers in the void

doesn’t move its lips
it’s menacing
in its transfixion

why is it speechless
leaning against the wall

in its stony countenance
memories are reflected

torn from the body
it sleeps like a lilac bush at night

it looks down on me
armed to its teeth
with patience

The stony, speechless “head in the mirror” is the recognition of a diminished self. The words spoken by its observer emit the odor of violation, as if an utterance can only be inadequate to its task and a misrepresentation of the actual. But the speech ultimately is the victor, winning through an abject directness. In an email, Florczyk told me that a Kornhauser poem is “rooted in colloquial speech, which makes it difficult to translate.” In the sounds of the poet’s phrasing, Florczyk hears a poet “who has always been interested in language and the indispensable role it plays in the investigation of one’s identity and the quotidian.”

WATERFALL

Rushing water beats down
from above, from the sky, of no one’s will
it strikes, roars,
absorbs our surprise. Ice watches
with its white icicles calmly, impassively.
Down below our uncertainty swirls.
From a small rock
a little squirrel photographs us.
Us, the tourists of fear, the philosophers of the bottomless.

Kornhauser2.jpgInhabited by these depths as well as their objects, the poems are spoken by someone whose experiences have absorbed his surprise. Kornhauser’s father, a Jew, was arrested by the Gestapo in 1940 and was sent to work in various camps in Alsace. In 1944 he was transferred to Dachau where he survived by volunteering for the Elektrikerkommando. His father was the only Krakow family member to make it alive through the war. Kornhauser's mother, a Catholic, remained in Silesia during the war. So Kornhauser grew up among ghosts, and in 1968 he joined Zagajewski, Stanisław Barańczak, Ryszard Krynicki and others to battle the next repressive regime, “often drawing on the language of the street in their attempt to create an honest representation of the everyday reality so often distorted by the state’s deceitful propaganda.”

WORLD LITERATURE

In the latest issue of Literatura na Świecie
the stories and novels of Israelis
intrude upon the poems by Swedes, while they bicker
with the prose of young Russian women and a talk about Gombrowicz.
World literature doesn’t want to negotiate anything:
it airs its national claims like linens in a garden.
The hot wind twists them up on the lines – from afar
they resemble white braids of longing.
I don’t know how to recover from this untold swarm of words
even a single life, whose glow
would warm my heart.

Kornhauser.jpgIn the recalled moment, desperation over the inflated claims of language (or just its clamor and clash) blackens the possibility of finding relief among the magazines, stories and poems. But in the moment of the poem, the reader’s moment, this perception of literature’s contentiousness is palpable, interesting, and deeply human. The “single life” recovered is the reader’s, the speaker’s, and the poet’s, vital and capacious enough to be shared three ways.

[Published April 30, 2009, 70 pages, $14.95 paperback. Publication was funded by the Book Institute – the ©POLAND Translation Program.]