on Between Fire and Sleep, essays by Jaroslaw Anders (Yale University Press)

Jaroslaw Anders emigrated to the United States from Poland in 1981 when he was thirty-one. Since 1984 he has been an editor, writer and producer for Voice of America. In the 80’s and 90’s he wrote a series of review essays for The New Republic, Los Angeles Times Book Review, and New York Review of Books. Those articles are now revised and expanded in Between Fire and Sleep, Essays on Modern Polish Poetry and Prose.

Anders1.jpgWritten during the political upheavals in Poland, the nine essays were intended to introduce Americans to the literary forerunners (Bruno Schulz, Witold Gombrowicz, Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz), the iconic poets (Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Wislawa Szymborska) and the next-generation inheritors (Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski, Tadeusz Konwicki, Adam Zagajewski). Anders writes in his introduction, “Let’s say that the book is an attempt at a reconstruction of a certain mode of thinking about literature that has shaped my generation (born around the middle of the past century), a mode that often appears strange or even naïve to those who came after us.”

AdamZag.jpgAbout Zagajewski’s title poem in Mysticism for Beginners (1997), Anders writes, “The contrast between the poet’s solemn declaration of a mystical premise and the lowly context in which the word ‘mysticism’ appears in the poem points to the central question of Zagajewski’s poetry: Can metaphysical inquiry still be a rightful concern of poetry in our profoundly skeptical and ironic culture? Or, to reverse the question, can serious poetry survive without metaphysical mystery and ecstasy? Can it be sustained by irony alone, which the poet calls, in ‘Long Afternoons,’ ‘the gaze / that sees but doesn’t penetrate?’”

But the question belongs to Anders, not Zagajewski, who wrote in Another Beauty, “There are two attitudes that you can take to the world. You can side with the tight-lipped skeptics and cynics who gleefully belittle life’s phenomena, reducing them to a series of minute, self-evident, even commonplace components. Or, option two, you can accept the possibility that great unseen things do exist and, without resorting to lofty rhetoric or intolerable bombast of Bible-thumpers, you can try to express them, or at least pay them tribute.”

No, Anders is pitching his question to “those who came after us,” who may have less enthusiasm for the metaphysical per Eliot who “described a metaphysical poet as someone able to ‘devour’ heterogeneous experience – mystical, sensual, intellectual, and emotive – and amalgamate it within highly complex poetic structures.”

Between Fire and Sleep focuses on the amalgamation achievements of its subjects, artists who transformed political realities and mixed them into personal, philosophical and spiritual materials. The translator of Barbarian in the Garden (1986), Anders is especially acute on Herbert’s poetry. “At a time when Milosz was still a distant, albeit powerful star and Szymborska an occasional eruption of brilliance, Herbert almost singlehandedly introduced a whole new poetic idiom and changed the literary sensibility of Polish readers who matured in the turbulent sixties and seventies.”

Anders3.jpgIn Herbert’s Mr. Cogito, Anders finds a persona “real and spacious enough to sustain virtue in its confrontation with the world – to ‘enter into a covenant’ with itself. And its struggle is hardly solitary: it is accompanied by echoes of the past, by the whole unending effort of humanity to define and protect its collective soul. Such is the world we have been given, declared the poet, yet within this world we are not without a moral choice, even if it is, as Mr. Cogito admits, ‘the choice of a gesture / the choice of a last word.’”

Anders2.jpgHere is Anders on Szymborska: “Some of her poems display the Herbertian search for classical balance and symmetry as a protection against the pressure of the chaotic, unsettled modern world, as well as Herbert’s love of cultural allusion and parabolic message. On other occasions she appears to opt for the stark, direct style reminiscent of Rozewicz. But if the poetry of Herbert and Rozewicz seems essentially monochromatic and constructed of solid verbal masonry, hers is a much more supple, multicolored, one could say organic medium … Szymborska presents us with a less defined but much more emotive persona.”

There are some fine passages on Gombrowicz, though the essay could have used an incisive summation or insight into his more challenging ideas. The workmanlike piece on Schulz relies, as we all do, on Ficowski’s Regions of the Great Heresy and gives an overview of Schulz’s output. The Milosz essay seems accurate more than perceptive and lacks a starting point, as if Anders has been distracted rather than provoked by the poet’s Nobel-induced greatness. “His anger and passion sometimes make him restate those issues with almost dogmatic rigidity,” he manages to say, but quickly backs off. “A closer look at his writing, especially his poetry, shows that searching for articles of faith … is never really the main goal of his imaginative journeys.”

The final essay on Zagajewski charts the poet’s membership in the Generation of 1968 (with Ewa Lipska, Stanlislaw Baranczak, Ryszard Krynicki, et al) and his co-authorship (with Julian Kornhauser) of the group’s manifesto “The Unrepresented World” to his more lyrical recent poetry. Anders is rarely critical of his subjects – so it comes as a bizarre outburst when he takes aim at Zagajewski, a poet loyal to the metaphysical urge:

“He seems unable to resist the allure of such slushy tropes as ‘a mountain stream scented with willows’ … It is also a bit disconcerting that Zagajewski’s epiphanies seem to require a degree of background elegance and refinement … What is more, Zagajewski’s lyrical persona is certainly no ‘everyman.’ Instead, we encounter, time and again, a self-regarding aristocrat of the spirit, a connoisseur of higher experiences, a consciousness floating a notch above the rest of us.” But slack writing and snobbishness simply don’t typify Zagajewski’s poetry. Infected with nostalgia, perhaps Anders worries that Zagajewski is sending the wrong signals to “those who came after us.”

In a foul mood, one could criticize any of the great Polish poets for a failure to restrain pathos. As Anders notes (without criticizing), Zbigniew Herbert did not “shun the pathos usually associated with nineteenth-century Polish Romantic poetry.” In these lines from “Report from a Besieged City” (1983), we hear the compatibility of grandeur and simplicity, we experience the mythic merging with headlines, and we hear the unmistakable dignity of the man:

and if the City falls and one man survives
he will carry the City inside him on the paths of exile
he will be the City

[Published May 19, 2009, 224 pages, $35.00]

See these articles of related interest:

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

on Polish Writers on Writing, ed by Adam Zagajewski (Trinity Univ. Press)

on New Poems by Tadeusz Rosewicz, tr. by Bill Johnson (Archipelapo Books)

on A Guide to Philosophy in Six Hours and Fifteen Minutes by Witold Gombrowicz (Yale)