3 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Vincent Francone on Kopenhaga by Grzegorz Wróblewski, translated by Piotr Gwiazda, from Zephyr Press.

Chad had previously mentioned this book of poetry in a Poland-Love post; his enthusiasm wasn’t misplaced. Wróblewski has a delightfully and “casually strained” voice at times, an affect that, in my mind, resembles fleeting (and sometimes snarky) thoughts or internally-screamed observations one might make in a crowded grocery store line behind an old woman who is slowly counting out coupons for Campbell’s soup and cat food, and then the teenager at the register hits the wrong button and ALL THE LIGHTS START TO FLASH AND OH, MY GOD, MURPHY’S LAW YOU’VE PICKED THE WRONG LINE YET AGAIN. Anyway, this little bilingual volume is definitely one to take a look at.

Here’s an extract from Vincent’s review:

It may be worth considering the purpose of prose poems, specifically in the case of Wróblewski. The theme of Kopenhaga, if one can be found, is the familiar one of writer-in-exile and the pieces that comprise the book—usually only running a paragraph or two, sometimes only a sentence—are episodic in nature, often funny, deceptively disconnected, and frequently profound. While constructing these poems, Wróblewski did not concern himself with meter so much as impact. Brief meditations on the everyday life of a poet in exile can go in numerous directions. Such freedom requires breaking out of traditional form.

Despite the random feel of these musings, the book is a complete and intentionally constructed work (even though the reader learns from translator Piotr Gwiazda’s introduction that the English edition is a collection of different texts). The fragments (I think this is a better description) discuss the trepidations of exile, but also incorporate pop culture, URLs, personal recollections, advice to beginning writers (“If an editor doesn’t respond at all . . . you need to calmly drain two bottles of cheap wine and discuss the matter with local pigeons”) and sardonic jokes. The result is a perfect example of the poet as witness. Better: poet as anthropologist, observing and reporting on the absurdity of orienting to shifting cultures.

For the whole piece, go here .

3 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

“What if even in the afterlife you have to know foreign languages? Since I have already suffered so much trying to speak Danish, make sure to assign me to the Polish zone . . .”

So reads a typical aphoristic “poem” in Kopenhaga by Grzegorz Wróblewski. I use quotation marks in an attempt to indicate that while the book is being advertised as poetry, the form hardly matches one’s expectations. This, depending on your perspective, is a good or bad thing. As I touched on in my last review, poetry is not a huge seller in these United States. If you are the sort of reader who finds line breaks infuriating and coded language obnoxious, Kopenhaga is poetry for you. If you’re a purist—look elsewhere.

Or maybe you’re used to this technique. It’s not like other writers haven’t dabbled in prose poems. Still, while the approach is nothing new, how many readers of Baudelaire go beyond Les Fleurs du Mal into Le Spleen de Paris? Even seasoned poetry readers tend to shrug off prose poems.

Example: an associate of mine, a poet, flipped through Wróblewski’s book and commented that, while it seems quite interesting, it isn’t poetry. I could practically see the dismissal manifest physically. Never mind the content—the form doesn’t work for him. This is lamentable and further evidence that poets and their readers may be poetry’s worst enemy.

It may be worth considering the purpose of prose poems, specifically in the case of Wróblewski. The theme of Kopenhaga, if one can be found, is the familiar one of writer-in-exile and the pieces that comprise the book—usually only running a paragraph or two, sometimes only a sentence—are episodic in nature, often funny, deceptively disconnected, and frequently profound. While constructing these poems, Wróblewski did not concern himself with meter so much as impact. Brief meditations on the everyday life of a poet in exile can go in numerous directions. Such freedom requires breaking out of traditional form.

Despite the random feel of these musings, the book is a complete and intentionally constructed work (even though the reader learns from translator Piotr Gwiazda’s introduction that the English edition is a collection of different texts). The fragments (I think this is a better description) discuss the trepidations of exile, but also incorporate pop culture, URLs, personal recollections, advice to beginning writers (“If an editor doesn’t respond at all . . . you need to calmly drain two bottles of cheap wine and discuss the matter with local pigeons”) and sardonic jokes. The result is a perfect example of the poet as witness. Better: poet as anthropologist, observing and reporting on the absurdity of orienting to shifting cultures. Wróblewski quantifies his existence by writing:

A letter from the insurance company PFA. My life is currently worth 7,993 Danish crowns. (The amount my family will get if I unexpectedly relocate to the next world.) Cosmic Loneliness. Thank you, Krystopher, I will keep you in my thoughts when I’m underground. A unique combination of protein and paranoia: 1,330 bottles of beer (or four tickets to Poland.)

What might otherwise be a brief interlude in a different book stands out on its own as a contained thought, yet serves a larger goal. In this sense, Kopenhaga is a piecemeal accumulation that deserves to be read in its entirety. Picking isolated movements feels criminal and detracts from the cumulative effect. In this sense, the poems adhere to a theme and build upon each other not unlike a novel. Any one page from Kopenhaga can stand on its own, but taken as a whole it makes a larger, albeit bizarre, sense.

And for all his concern with his homeland and his adopted country, in the end Wróblewski’s realization is that they are irrelevant:

bq, What terrifies me in Denmark (the land of Bohr and Kierkegaard, a caring tolerate state, with a high standard of living, etc)? What terrifies me is homo sapiens. Also in Wilanów and other wholly innocent corners of the Earth. What terrifies me is homo sapiens.

In this brevity, Wróblewski communicates the enormity of not only the exile’s tragedy but of all of humanity’s. The joke, it seems, is on us all.

3 September 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

And:

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!”

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