Reviewed: Peregrinary by Eugeniusz Tkaczszyn-Dycki, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston, Zephyr Press, 2008, $14.95
Translator Bill Johnston observes that Eugeniusz Tkaczszyn-Dycki’s hyphenated last name is a bit much even for Poles, and I follow their (and Johnston’s) custom in referring to the poet henceforth as Dycki—pronounced Dits-kee. However difficult his name may appear to English language readers, his fine poems are important for two reasons: they are vastly different from the great Polish poets that readers may already be familiar with, and the poems speak directly to the contemporary American poetry scene, while seeming not at all of that scene.
Dycki stands out in Poland as well, where many poets have been enormously influenced by Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery since 1986 (when translations of these poets appeared in an important issue of Literatura na Świecie [Literature in the World]). O’Hara and Ashbery seemed to offer liberation from the traditional moral and political role of the Polish poet. While some younger Polish poets are as tiresomely derivative of The New York School as any of our own, the strongest work in Poland that emerges from its influence blends the formal achievements and perhaps inescapable moral concerns of the Polish poetic tradition with new freedoms in personal expression, linguistic play, and a mix of popular and high cultural reference.
The poet Darek Foks, on whose poetry the New York School influence is obvious but felicitous, even wrote a poem closely imitating O’Hara’s “Why I Am not a Painter” in which the two professions in question are grave-digging and carpentry, in particular the making of coffins. What many American readers may not know about Polish poetry is that the typical exchange that literary translation offers—“compensat[ing] for a [perceived] defect [or lack] in the translating language, in the translating culture,” in Lawrence Venuti’s words—runs both ways. Modern and contemporary American poets in translation have been as important for Polish poets as figures like Zbigniew Herbert and Czesław Miłosz have been for us, partly because American culture appealed so much to Poles during the Cold War.
In Dycki the New York School influence is far less obvious. If he immediately calls to mind anyone in our tradition, it is Emily Dickinson. While Dycki’s poetry is postmodern in some familiar ways, it comes at us—in its obsessive return to metaphysical and erotic themes, set forth in dense quatrains—from a spiritual universe as strangely compelling as Dickinson’s, with an earnest intensity that is never sentimental or naive. As Kacper Bartczak (a young Polish scholar and poet) has observed, Dycki creates in his poetic speaker a sort of a deranged, yet polite character, with a bit more distance than we find in Dickinson, which might also make us think of John Berryman’s alter egos.
Peregrinary is a neologism in both Polish (Peregrynarz) and English, meant to “designate the itinerary of a pilgrimage,” as Johnston puts it. It is also the title of the one of the poet’s collections, from 1992. This selection includes poems as well from Nenia and Other Poems (1990), A Young Man of Impeccable Manners (1994), Liber Mortuorum (1997), Foodstone (1999), Guide for the Homeless Whatever Their Place of Residence (2000), Far from Here I Left my Ancient and Unancient Body (2003), Toward a Science of Non-existence (2003), and The History of Polish Families (2005). In Poland, Dycki has won many prizes, including the prestigious Nike Literary Prize (roughly equivalent to the National Book Award) in 2009 for the yet-to-be-translated Piosenka o zależnościach i uzależnieniach, 2008 (Songs of Dependence and Addiction, approximately). Remarkably, it also won the Gdynia Literary Prize, another of Poland’s most esteemed awards. Dycki is published by Biuro Literackie, the leading Polish publisher of poetry, which was founded in 1995 and began by promoting Bohdan Zadura and poets in his lineage, who were often influenced by O’Hara and Ashbery. The conversational style they introduced into Polish poetry, however different from Dycki’s, perhaps made a space for a voice like his, as Bartczak suggests.
Like Dickinson, Dycki sometimes writes several versions of, or variations on, the same poem. We don’t know whether Dickinson would have chosen one version to publish over others, a problem whose approximate resolution resulted in both a variorum and a reading edition of her work. Dycki, like a good child of postmodernism—he writes in “Calling,” “I use language with difficulty (I am / a contemporary poet) and so it ought / to part company with me while it / can still pronounce my name”—simply publishes one version or variation after another, circling around irresolvable questions with the insight afforded by different angles of approach. There are three such pairs in Peregrinary, poems that begin with similar opening lines. Here is one of them, originally published in Guide for the Homeless Whatever Their Place of Residence:
we crossed cities in our vast indifference to
vertiginous bridges and triumphal arches
where we were not needed in the night we gathered
our remaining clothes as one saves things from the flames
then train stations of another city on the outskirts chimneys
of a power plant and in the day apartment windows closed
to what we had already left in gateways in parks
stations stations like the beds of great rivers
the curses of those arriving (and thus lost in their great
numbers) that I overheard at the point when they turned back
to their birth for their slow train was just pulling in
on which I too was fleeing from myself toward the border
we crossed cities in our vast indifference to
vertiginous bridges and triumphal arches where
we were not needed in the night we opened
our veins like stars that no one had toppled into the garden
stations stations like the beds of great rivers
the curses of those arriving while the past
and the future (we laughed remember)
on misshapen legs with bulging suitcases
smashed into the crowd because our train to Przemyśl
had been announced—the past and the future two women
together without assigned seats—remember we made way
for the younger one as it seemed she desired to give
birth to one of us and make us travel on in the darkness
In XXXI, the first-person plural speaker imparts a sense of world-weariness, and of the individual’s insignificance: “we” lose, following a mundane itinerary that becomes a kind of pilgrimage by train, things less tangible than clothes, rescuing what we can from the general disintegration of the self among other places and people that dramatize our inconsequence (“lost in their great numbers”). We may be homeless, as the volume’s title indicates, in one way or another, perhaps because we could not be at home where we come from—and this might be especially true for the very private Dycki, apparently homosexual in deeply Catholic Poland. In its impersonal landscape, the poem is very Polish, as the national rail network still provides the primary mode of long-distance transportation for most Poles. The view from the trains, when it does not look out at the endlessly flat Polish countryside (excepting the Tatras mountains in the south and the Baltic coast in the north), is often of an industrial landscape:the occasional power plant; the ubiquitous and uniform Communist-era concrete blocks of flats (in which most Poles still live), mutely expressive of so many juxtaposed interiorities, with their identical windows and balconies variously decorated; the many small parks and extremely well-tended cemeteries, flowers seemingly on every grave; and the endless tiny and medium-sized train stations at which few trains stop. We also recall that some of these train tracks were used by the Nazis to transport Jews and others seen as unfit, including homosexuals, to the concentration camps.
“Like the beds of great rivers” naturalizes the loose, almost organic connection of towns, villages, and cities through the network of rails, and the sense of perpetual motion flows through the unpunctuated lines—indeed Dycki never uses periods or commas, though he occasionally uses the dash and parenthesis. The abandonment of punctuation was likely inspired by Poland’s second-wave literary avant-garde before World War II, according to Bartczak; it was a particular trait of the Lublin poet Józef Czechowicz, whose work Dycki encountered as a student at the University of Marie Curie-Skłodowska, where he earned an M.A. in Polish philology. At each destination, some are arriving, but without joy or warm greetings. Do they curse because Polish trains are notoriously late? Or because they are arriving in haunted hometowns? Whatever the reason, the speaker, shifted to the first-person, has not arrived; he continues on the train to escape from himself, “toward the border” but not, perhaps, beyond it.
Borders and boundaries are as ubiquitous in Dycki as in Herbert, recalling the dramatic and traumatic shifts in Poland’s borders in the 20th century, but in Dycki they usually bear more personal than political significance. He was born in 1962 in the village of Wólka Krowicka, near the border with Ukraine, in southeastern Poland, and grew up speaking a local dialect. He learned standard Polish at school as an adolescent. Like Czesław Miłosz—who was born in Szetejnie, Lithuania, and grew up in what was then the Polish city of Wilno (now Vilnius), with allegiances to both Lithuania and Poland—Dycki is deeply influenced by the Ukrainian language and, according to Johnston, is not entirely at peace with his choice to write in Polish. The matter is complicated by the bitter history of conflict between Poland and Ukraine as well as the current political importance of Ukraine to Poland, which crucially supported the Orange Revolution in 2004, although Ukrainians who come to work in Poland are often denigrated, somewhat like Mexican and Central American laborers in the U.S.
In the stranger second poem, XXXII, the first-person plural speaker suggests greater desperation in the first quatrain’s closing simile—are these potential suicides? drug addicts? Again we travel along the rail network, until the personified past and future crowd onto the train—Polish trains, especially in second class, can be extremely crowded, with much scrambling and shoving to secure seats. It’s worth noting that Przemyśl (a real town in southeastern Poland near Dycki’s hometown)—composed of the prefix prze meaning “re” and the first half of the verb myśleć “to think”—brings to mind the verb przemyśleć, which in various constructions means “to reconsider,” “to think through,” “to think over,” “to think better of,” etc. Again the self lacks integrity over time and across space, as “the younger one”—presumably the future—apparently wants “to give / birth to one of us”—a fellow passenger’s, or a possible lover’s, future self, who must continue blindly moving into the future? Is she, as well as the personified future standing for the inevitable force of change, a real woman who influences the speaker’s life somehow?
In other poems, Dycki repeats the same lines in the second section of the poem (e.g., the striking “schizophrenia is a house / of God since I fell ill”) or otherwise takes up some of the same phrases in sequential poems. It is tempting to consider another of these paired variant poems. Here is one that concerns a subject as important to Dycki as it was to Dickinson:
I’ll tell you about death in my imperfect
tongue renowned for its imperfection
but before I tell you about death as I have
already done for many before you
I’ll tell you about death in my imperfect
tongue renowned for its imperfection
but before I tell you about death
as of something beautifully lost
Here Dycki perhaps hints at the reputed difficulty of Polish, though he also means, of course, his own poetic voice, seductive in its imperfections. What’s remarkable about Johnston’s translations is how fluently they read in English. They sound like poems, indeed they are poems, in English, not awkward, unidiomatic prose broken into lines. This should not be as remarkable as it is. (See “Some Problems with Modern Polish Poetry in Translation.”)
I’d like to reflect briefly on some of the choices that Johnston makes in his translations by looking at the Polish originals, as well as offer a better sense of the poetry itself. Many of the poems are addressed to “you,” the reader and/or a potential or actual lover, such as the “VII. Ad Benevolum Lectorem,” a poem in two sections from the original volume of Peregrinary. For our brief foray into the Polish, I’ll just quote the first quatrain of the first section, with the original on the left and the translation on the right, as they appear in the book :
książki mojej nie czytaj do not read my book
jeżeli chcesz zapomnieć o sobie if you wish to forget yourself
oddaj się raczej rozpuście devote yourself to debauchery rather
niż wdychaniu wierszy bardzo smrodliwych than the inhaling of stinking poems
The poem is a significant one for many reasons, among them that it introduces Dycki’s intimacy with the reader and hints at his darker subjects—taboo eroticism and death. In the first quatrain of the first section, the original syntax (literally, “book my [do] not read”) must be sacrificed, and it is a question whether “don’t” might be used, given the direct address and lack of capitalization, but for the rhythm, one can arguably choose “do not.” The verb for “forget” loses a subtle distinction from the Polish, which has two versions of verbs, an imperfect one for habitual actions and a perfect one for actions performed once. French is similar, except that in French the root verb is the same; in Polish, the two verbs may be similar, but they are never identical, and some look nothing alike. Zapomnieć is the perfect form of the verb for “forget,” suggesting that the wish to forget oneself is specific to this occasion. It’s also worth noting that the verb “chcesz” is more precisely the direct, everyday word for “want,” not “wish,” for which Polish does have a different verb. “Oddaj się” (again, the perfect form of the verb) contains the root verb “dać,” meaning “to give,” and so might more literally be translated as “give yourself” or “give yourself over to,” though “surrender” and “devote” are viable synonyms as well. The noun Johnston translates as “debauchery” is more literarily “adultery” in Polish, but that word is perhaps too narrowly associated with marriage for American readers. In the last line, Johnston translates the sense closely but omits “bardzo,” which simply means “very,” and perhaps it would sound overemphatic in English to say something like, “badly stinking” or “very stinky” poems.
Although Johnston elevates the diction a bit more than I might—with “do not” and “wish” rather than “don’t” and “want” (perhaps simply because he is British and I am American), and with the Latinate and thus slightly abstract “inhaling” rather than “breathing in”—the important thing is that he brings into English Dycki’s polite, slightly confrontational tone with a consistent cadence that, as much as possible, approximates the rhythm of the Polish and tries to match the line length proportionally. (In the Polish, the lines in sequence have 7, 10, 8 and 16 syllables, while in English they have 5, 8, 11, and 9.)
The first section continues by circling around, refining and casting doubt on the language and argument of the opening quatrain:
devote yourself to debauchery if you really
are trying to cling to a piece of the world
in which there is nothing but poems
that stink because they draw you in
to the dark image in which you truly
will find nothing aside from my book
if you wish to forget yourself a task that
I cannot help you with be disposed to read poetry
of any kind at all
In other words, the speaker’s poetry is a very distinct kind, not suitable for escapist readers, and it constitutes a closed, darkly seductive world with few illusions. The next section of the poem poses an even more explicitly confrontational, possibly violent seduction, yet introduces a new note of self-deprecation:
do not let yourself be caught
in the snare I set for you
from the very first poem
I was thinking how to swallow you
and the thought gave me wings
and gives me wings still
so stop yourself from going mad
and send me away while you still have
the strength because in tangling with me
you are certain to lose in tangling
with me you’ll come out a bigger
fool than the author of this book
This version of the poem is beautifully crafted. One illustration is that it sacrifices, as it probably must, the original syntax of the opening lines—“nie daj się pochwycić w sidła / które na ciebie zastawiam”—which would translate literarily as “[do] not give yourself to be snatched by the snare / which for you I have set.” Extending it, to get closer to the original, e.g.—“Don’t let yourself be caught in the snare / that for you I set”—would slacken the poem and bring in an awkward construction. Obviously the original syntax has a slightly different, and telling emphasis, yet these are the difficult and crucial choices that a translator from the Polish must make to turn it into a viable poem in English.
While there is the occasional awkward or stilted phrase in Johnston’s translations (e.g., the unidiomatic phrases “next-door room” rather than “the next room” in “XXIX. Tumor Linguae” from Guide for the Homeless . . ., and “it’s not what I placed inside me that matters / and I tried to place lots” in “XLV” from Toward a Science of Non-Existence), there are not many, and most of them result from the great challenge of bringing the more formal and complex syntax of Polish into English, and it might be argued that the higher diction this gives Dycki in English is not inappropriate. For instance, the constructions “in which,” “from which,” “at which,” “from whom,” etc. (w które, z które, w którym, z którym, and so on) are far more common in contemporary Polish poetry than in American poetry, as here in the last lines of the poem “Caress” from Liber Mortuorum:
jego usta rozstąpią się nagle his lips will suddenly part
i wzbudzą we mnie kamień głodny z którym się and stir within me the hungry stone with which
zabieram do pieszczot ilekroć jestem z tobą I embark on caresses whenever I am with you
Here Johnston largely preserves the original syntax, and it works. While “embark on caresses” may sound strange, the Polish also sounds strange; the imperfect verb “zabierać” means “to take,” but in the reflexive form here (with “się”), it has various meanings in various constructions, from “attack” to “join [someone],” to “get around [something or someone],” to “come along.” Other translations suggest themselves, but “embark” works with the figurative patterns established earlier in the poem, related to “arrival” and “boundaries.”
While most readers of Dycki in the U.S. won’t be able to make heads or tails of the Polish (my own command of the language, without aid of a dictionary and grammar handbook, is probably at the level of a four-year-old), we should also be grateful to Zephyr Press for publishing the original poems in Polish alongside the English translations. If nothing else, this may remind us of the great effort that has gone into bringing these beautiful Polish poems into English, and of the fact that no translation can replace the original. Happily, Dycki is just one of a number of great contemporary Polish poets who have much to offer American readers. They, and we, need only wait on translators to bring them into English in ways that do justice to the artistry of the original Polish.