on Sobbing Superpower, poems by Tadeusz Różewicz, translated from the Polish by Joanna Trzeciak (Norton)

Born in 1921, Tadeusz Różewicz was eighteen when Germany invaded Poland, the catastrophe that ended a briefly euphoric period of freedom for the Poles whose country had previously been partitioned for 150 years by Austrian, Russian and German rule. He fought in the underground in 1943-44. His brother was arrested and shot by the Gestapo. Wartime savagery and disillusionment shaped the foreground of Różewicz’s first book, Anxiety (Niepokój), published in 1947. Rozewi_czEarly.jpegThese poems, portraying a survivor’s mind stacked with images of brutality, spoke for his generation in its declarative stance among fresh graves.

“I felt that something had forever ended for me and for mankind,” Różewicz wrote, “something that neither religion nor science nor art had succeeded in protecting.” For the past 60 years, he has spoken as an artist working with failed tools amid the impossibility of restarting what had ended. The war narrowed and deepened his vision to a grim focus on the insufficiencies of the human. From Anxiety, here is Joanna Trzeciak’s translation of “Survivor”:

I’m twenty-four
Led to slaughter
I survived.

These words are empty and equivalent:
man and animal
love and hate
foe and friend
dark and light.

Man is killed just like an animal
I’ve seen:
Truckloads of chopped-up people
who will never be saved.

Concepts are only words:
virtue and vice
truth and lie
beauty and ugliness
courage and cowardice.

Virtue and vice weigh the same
I’ve seen:
a man who was both
vicious and virtuous.

I’m searching for a teacher and a master
let him give me back my sight hearing and speech
let him name objects and concepts again
let him separate the light from the dark

I’m twenty-four
Led to slaughter
I survived.

Rozewicz2010.jpgRóżewicz’s perspective is especially harsh regarding the privileges accorded to art. If truth and falsehood are just words, then how and why does the poet sustain his profession? The why: to find a directness of speech that cuts through the ruins of language, to prove that what survives is capable of a blunt if hopeless decency. The how: prefer facts and image-objects over metaphor and ideas, drop the punctuation, keep the rhythm familiar, the tone even but pressurized.

The poet is a figure sufficiently diminished to reflect the spiritual, philosophical and aesthetic bankruptcy of the West itself. There is, of course, a great ambition at work here, even as the poet takes a contra-aesthetic stance. Before western taste-makers crowned Milosz and Szymborska as the most grandly virtuous of the Polish poets, there was Różewicz, Poland’s favorite and most imitated poet. The socialist authorities punished him for refusing to dilute his gloominess, and the West disregarded him for the same reason.

Sobbing Superpower gives us the first collection of his work in English translation that covers his entire career. In 2007, Bill Johnston’s translations of Różewicz’s New Poems (Archipelago Books) was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle poetry prize. My first exposure to Różewicz’s work came via ”The Survivor” and Other Poems, translated by Magnus Krynski and Robert Maguire (Princeton, 1976). The versions made by Johnston and Trzeciak are less fussy than their predecessors. Trzeciak also gives us 43 pages of illuminating notes and biographia.

Różewicz is now 89 and memories of the war are disappearing with the passing of his generation, but he writes with the same unabated intensity, a talkative terseness built into his struggle with language as art. This is “philosopher’s stone” from Exit (2004);

we need to put
this poem to sleep

before it starts
before it starts

for compliments

called to life
in a moment of forgetting

sensitive to words
it looks to
a philosopher’s
stone for help
o passerby hasten your step
do not lift up the stone

there a blank verse
to ashes

His poems often turn against themselves and their art. RozewiczCover.jpgBut Różewicz’s muse apparently enjoys being slapped around. He writes in “avalanche,” “one might say that poets / have stoned poetry to death / with words.” Różewicz’s poetry gains traction from its own anti-ars poetica, becoming an affirmation of his own stripped down mode of address. If he disapproves of a poet’s temptation to escape into beauty, he also comes close to indicting the cool handsomeness of his own chiseled lines. In this way, Różewicz pulls off an impressive spectacle. There is no doubting his scorching censure of atrocities – but since so much damage has been caused by the deception of words, the materials of his own art, he simultaneously includes himself within his era’s self-injuring humanity:

words (2004)

words have been used up
chewed up like chewing gum
by lovely young mouths
and turned into a white

weakened by politicians
they serve to whiten
to cleanse the oral

when I was a child
a word
could heal wounds
could be given
to a loved one

now weakened
wrapped in newspaper words
still poison still stink
still inflict wounds

hidden in heads
hidden in hearts
hidden under dresses
of young women
hidden in holy books
they explode
and kill

The fragility of his voice (for all its often aggressive or acerbic jabs) and the incapabilities of his tools have provided both devices and themes throughout the decades of his work. It is not old age we hear in the following lines from “so what if it’s a dream” (2004-5) but an inveterate point of view:

I write on water
I write on sand
out of a handful of salvaged words
out of a few sentences simple
like the carpenter’s speech
out of a few naked verses
I build an ark
to save something
from the flood
that catches us by surprise
in broad daylight
or in the dead of night
washes us off the earth’s surface

RozewiczBW.jpegTo replace the verities of the world he had lost faith in, Różewicz came up with, and implacably stuck to, the strict truth of a naked, chastened vision. That world of words, inhabited by a man who deflated the reputation of words, maintained a remarkable consistency in form, sound, and message for many years, even as regimes changed and poetic styles came and went. This is a solid poetry, with a curious and stubborn self-reflexiveness. The 1965 poem “My Poetry” (below) sounds as if it could have been written in the same year as “so what if it’s a dream”:

justifies nothing
explains nothing
renounces nothing
encompasses no whole
fulfills no hope

creates no new rules of the game
takes no part in merriment
has a defined space
it must occupy

if it’s not esoteric
if it’s not original
if it doesn’t awe
apparently it’s as it should be

it obeys its own imperative
its own capabilities
and limitations
it loses against itself

it can neither take the place of
nor be replaced by any other
open to everyone
devoid of mystery

it has many goals
it will never achieve

RozewiczColor.jpegBut Różewicz harshly clarifies (and knows he clarifies) what remains in the post-war psyche. Fulfilling no hope, offering no consolation, the poems constantly monitor their own vision, never failing to peer at what is there. As Edward Hirsch writes in his introduction, “He has given us an unwavering and undefended poetry … He rescues consciousness from oblivion.”

[Published January 31, 2011. 364 pages, $32.95 hardcover.]

astonished and delighted to

astonished and delighted to see that this wonderful poet has such devoted readers/fans.
only stumbled across his name less than a week ago. since yesterday i have two of his books (in German) in my hands. started reading the first already on the way home. powerful! - is the word that stuck immediately to my mind.
looking forward a lot to discovering his other works!

Decline of the West

The attack on the West goes back at least to Spengler's Decline of the West in 1918. I first ran across an attack on abstractions in Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, published in 1929.

I look forward to getting

I look forward to getting this collection. I am familar with his work and have a smaller translation
of some of his poems. I think he is an amazing writer. Thanks for giving Różewicz's poetry the attention it deserves.

I've looked forward to

I've looked forward to seeing a collection by Rosewicz. Thanks for alerting me to what sounds a book very much needed for our time.

Thank you for this piece,

Thank you for this piece, Ron. Timely in this January of bitter cold.


This is an excellent review, very briefly to the core of what a quiet and
unflinchingly hopeless outlook can do to raise our spirits from the trap
they are surely in. That's all, just very good, and thanks.