Loving the Polish: Grzegorz Wróblewski's "Kopenhaga"
Recently I found out that, contrary to my past belief, I’m not 1/4 Polish, but 3/4 Polish (or Prussian, or whatever—most everywhere my family is from has changed hands over and over and over) and have since been on a bit of a Polish pride kick, mostly related to soccer players like Robert Lewandowski (Dortmund’s still perfect on points!), and, after he shut down the dreaded Tottenham Spurs and then trolled their fans, Arsenal’s keeper, Wojciech Szczesny.
All of which is a long and unnecessary way to plug soccer and lead-in to the fact that I received a copy of Grzegorz Wróblewski’s Kopenhaga this morning and am really digging this book.
First, here’s a bit about Wróblewski from translator Piotr Gwiazda’s introduction:
Born in 1962, Polish poet, playwright, and visual artist Grzegorz Wróblewski has lived in Copenhagen since 1985, “far from Poland and far from Denmark” (in his own phrase). Kopenhaga, a collection of prose poems based on his experiences as an emigrant, was published in Poland in 2000. [. . .]
Wróblewski at once exemplifies and complicates the notion of an émigré writer introduced by Joseph Brodsky in “The Condition We Call Exile.” In his 1987 essay Brodsky describes the émigré writer as a person who perpetually looks backward and as a result fails “to deal with the realities of the present of the uncertainties of the future.” Like Brodsky’s typical writer in exile, Wróblewski clings to what is most important to him, his native language, which has suddenly turned from being his “sword” into his “shield.” His lyric narrator in Kopenhaga seems to be in a state of permanent disquiet; he is vulnerable, anxious, self-estranged. We observe his tendency for psychological extremes, his morbid fascination with death and decay, his crippling paranoia and “cosmic loneliness.” But Wróblewski’s self-imposed exile in Copenhagen, which continues to this day, can also be regarded as a kind of metaphysical luxury.
On the subject of “death and decay,” here are a couple of Wróblewski’s prose poems that particularly grabbed me:
You will survive in the minds of distant relatives and cousins, in their memories of you . . . (Motherfuckers! What if they deliberately choose to forget you!) And then, when they also depart, you will be no more.
A long and eventful life? The doctors make no bones about it . . . Your blood cholesterol: 350. You must go on a diet immediately. Reduce your intake of alcohol and start playing sports again. Unless nothing matters to you anymore. If that’s the case, then don’t change a thing. Within three, four years you can expect your first, possibly fatal heart attack. Mind you, though, you still have a chance for a long and eventful life. The Amazon Jungle? Numerology? Sheraton Everest Hotel? Think abou tit!!! It’s all up to you. Unless nothing matters to you anymore. (I think there is a lot to be said for spiritualism, quite a lot, in spite of much imposture. H.G. Wells.)
Going back real quickly to Gwiazda’s intro, here’s a nice bit for all the translators and translation students reading this:
Like most translators, I often found myself confronting aspects of the original text that remained stubbornly untranslatable—I mean interjections (which Roman Jakobson called the “purely emotive stratum in language”), idiomatic and onomatopoeic expressions, clichés, puns. For example, my translation of the phrase “Ołowiany tornister duńskiego narodu”1 only partly succeeds in reproducing Wróblewski’s brilliant reworking of the common Polish metaphor—the literal rendering would have been “Danish nation’s lead satchel.” I was also eventually unable to fully convey the double meaning of “pieczony kurczak przeistacza się szybko w różowego pawika”2—in Polish “paw” refers to “peacock” but also, in a slang phrase, to the act of vomiting.
There’s also a bit about the challenges of dealing with a “linguistically heterogeneous text” that reminded me of things that Esther Allen has talked about previously. But rather than quote that here, I think you should just buy the book and read the intro.
But I’ll end with one last fun opening that will sort of seal the deal on why I would be a fan of this collection:
You’ve got to watch experimental films! Underground. Underground poets. Tripping. Alcohol and sluts. Everything experimental. Nothing ordinary. (A: “Alcohol slows your reflexes.” B: “What reflexes?” A: “Your judgment.” B: “Is judgment reflexive?” A: “Fuck off.”)
1 He translated it as: “A collection of national hang-ups!”
2 Translated as: “Roasted chicken soon turns into flying vomit!”