“Magnetic Point” by Ryszard Krynicki [Why This Book Should Win]

Today’s entry from the BTBA poetry longlist is from writer and translator Tess Lewis, who also has a title longlisted on the fiction side of things.

Magnetic Point by Ryszard Krynicki, translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh (Poland, New Directions)

To write so that a hungry man
might think it’s bread?

bq., First feed the hungry man,
Then write so that his hunger
won’t go in vain.

          “How to Write?,” Ryszard Krynicki

Auden’s line that “poetry makes nothing happen” is not the programmatic cudgel it is often taken to be. Despite his loss of faith in poetry as an agent of concrete political change, Auden never doubted its survival or its ability to effect internal, intangible change. Ryszard Krynicki, a poet of extreme and elegant concision and occasional translator of Auden’s poetry, is a master of nuanced irony and skilled in undercutting definitive pronouncements with skepticism. In his terse poem, “At Least,” his final reservation places poetry in an ambivalently subservient position to history.

A misprint, a lapsus linguae
may change the course of history
—or at least of poetry.

And perhaps through poetry, in turn, the course of history?

The poems collected in Magnetic Point and impressively translated by Clare Cavanagh—some together with Stanislaw Barańczak—are especially tonic given the erosion of language and discourse in our tub-thumping age. The poem “Truth?” cajoles and goads the reader into examining his or her own assumptions and the self-evidence with which claims of veracity are put forward and instrumentalized.

What is the truth?
Where are its headquarters?
Where is its board of directors?
Where is its legal team?
Where are its bodyguards?
Where is its marketing?
Who are its overseers?
Who handles follow-up?
Who are its media sponsors?
How does it sell?
Has it gone public?

What are its shares going for?

Heavily censored and even banned from publication for a time, Krynicki certainly witnessed the manipulation of ‘truth’ on multiple levels. He was a prominent figure, with Barańczak and Adam Zagajewski, of the “New Wave” of Polish poetry, a group of poets who wrote against the state’s subversion of language. Unlike them, however, he remained in Poland. Although he has referred to himself “unfit for exile,” his sardonic poem “This Country” acknowledges the fact that fitness has nothing to do with exile.

In this country? Yes, I stayed in this country.
Exile comes in many shapes

and places.

Born in a Nazi work camp in Austria in 1943 to parents who were Polish peasants deported as slave laborers from Western Ukraine, Krynicki, along with his mother, was later forcibly resettled from their home in what had become the Soviet Union to former German territories awarded to Poland after the war. He compresses the geo-political maelstrom of his personal history into a three-line poem titled Folk Etymology.

I was born in Austria during the war
so my village schoolmates from Poland called me Kangaroo.
But usually for them I was Russky, Kraut, Jew.

For his classmates, indifferent to finer points of geography, Austria might as well be Australia. Their sense of superiority is captured concisely and exquisitely in the italics of from Poland since they themselves were no doubt also relocated, not from the suspect areas like the Ukraine, the Soviet Union, or the former German Reich, but from “real” Poland—justification enough to turn on the “foreigner.”

Although written under specific historical conditions, Krynicki’s poetry transcends its particular situation, raising the political to the metaphysical. You’re All Free details no less than the human condition.

You’re all free—says the guard
and the iron gate shuts

this time from the other side.

Language, connection, and communication, fragile and tentative as they are, are rare defenses against internal and external restrictions.

Selected from six poetry collections published between 1969 and 2010, Magnetic Point also includes touching love poems, poems of mysticism and spirituality, and haiku that is sparked by, as Clare Cavanagh states in her illuminating introduction, “his relentless, ethically charged attention.” Because of the richness, elusive irony, and compactness of Krynicki’s poems, it is tempting to quote them in full one after the other. I will end only by urging you to pick up a copy of Magnetic Point right away—it will help you whether or not you are in an hour of need. After all, help, like exile, comes in many shapes and places.

Poor moth, I can’t help you,
I can only turn out the light.

          “I Can’t Help You,” Ryszard Krynicki

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