I thought long and hard to find the word that best describes Grzegorz Kwiatkowski’s writing style before finally deciding that the most appropriate adjective was “peculiar”. The styles explored by this Gdańsk-based poet contrast so starkly with the registers currently fashionable among his literary peers as to make him an entirely separate phenomenon, one as likely to pique the readers’ interest as he is to surprise them. This year’s bilingual (Polish/English) edition of Kwiatkowski’s first three books of poetry by London publisher OFF_Press offers a good opportunity to discuss the peculiarity of his work.
It appears that the uniqueness of the poet’s work hinges on a pair of characteristics, the first of which is his conscious rejection of what may be described as the achievements of late modernism, that is a propensity towards formal experimentation, the all-encompassing use of meta-language, and the excessive impenetrability of the text. None of the above are present in Kwiatkowski’s poems. It is as if his poetry were spirited in from some alternative universe where the history of literature had taken a different course, and where the work of such figures as Lautremont, Pound, and Joyce never saw the light of day; where the limits of formal audacity in poetry were set by the verses of Celan and T. S. Eliot, and later, in Poland, by Grochowiak, Różewicz, or the late writing of Staff. Kwiatkowski’s words are inextricably bound to their meaning; there is little room for linguistic experimentation. Even when the poet does employ meta-literary devices, he does so candidly and unambiguously. The poem apes, found in the volume titled Crossing, is a good example.
white apes in a hot spring
snow around the pond
steam rising up through the air
suddenly the apes are startled
(they probably sensed I am trying to describe them)
one gets out of the water and says:
we are white apes
in a hot spring
snow around the pond
steam rising up through the air
(Crossing, p. 71)
As one might imagine, the author of Eine Kleine Todesmusik borrows more heavily from such writers as Baudelaire and the aforementioned Grochowiak than from Ashbery and his Polish followers. The association between Kwiatkowski and the first of these poets is particularly evident in his apparent desire to shock the bourgeoisie. The young poet’s field of interest goes far beyond the limits of social norms and taboo. To paraphrase Miłosz, Kwiatkowski revels in turning over stones that reveal worms. Thanathos and entropy are a dominating theme in his work, often in the most literal and carnal form. His other topics, such as dysfunctional family ties, violence, and the Holocaust, are equally difficult. While the very same subjects may be addressed by other authors, they produce an extraordinarily heavy, perhaps even crushing, atmosphere when combined with the poet’s literal use of language. This quality is at once the greatest strength and the greatest fault of Kwiatkowski’s poems. The author’s strategy often leaves an indelible mark in our minds (as in house, from Crossing), but sometimes this mark is one you would just rather forget (two sisters II, also from his début book). Whatever our impressions about the poet’s work, it is an unquestionably authentic and powerful art project.
The characteristics enumerated above contribute to the signature archaic and archetypal — or perhaps, more aptly, the morbid and melancholy — atmosphere of Kwiatkowski’s poems. The atmosphere is, as I mentioned before, peculiar, and is just as likely to strike readers as attractive as it is to repulse them. I personally find it to be a breath of fresh air after the countless overwrought and excessively formalised books of poetry, or to quote Karol Maliszewski, books that “imitate poetry”. The pros outweigh the cons. Perhaps potential readers will be won over by another piece in which Kwiatkowski fully realises his poetic strategy.
I saw three suns through the window
they were whirling and singing:
all the best all the best long live John
what John? I asked
St John of Patmos
the Apocalyptic one
today is his birthday
so spoke the three suns
don’t talk crap
but St John
was eaten ages
ago by ants
I replied a little upset
said the suns
which has been
to this very day
(Eine Kleine Todesmusik, p. 33)
The poems lend themselves well to translation and contain neither the linguistic pitfalls nor the intertextual tropes that are often lost in translation. The characteristically morbid and melancholy atmosphere of Kwiatkowski’s poetry also comes across quite well in English. Reading the translations by Marek Kaźmierski (who is also the publisher), I had the occasional nagging feeling that something or other could have been done differently, but this pertained exclusively to the distribution of secondary accents and had no meaningful impact on the resonance of the piece in question. More importantly, thanks to the translator’s proper linguistic instincts, Should Not Have Been Born is just as powerful in English as it is in Polish.
In sum, Should Not Have Been Born is definitely a unique trilogy, one that explores styles that contrast with those found in most of the poetry currently being published by young authors, and it warrants a reading if only for that reason. Readers who find it to their liking and make it through the 300 page set will eagerly come back to it time and again.
translated by Arthur Barys
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