I was hoping to send Bill Johnston a bunch of questions about Tomasz Różycki’s Twelve Stations over the weekend, but the general exhaustion from MLA, Greyhound bus rides, and doing three events in three days won out. With a little luck I’ll have something from him to post next Thursday.
In the meantime, I thought for this week I’d post a few quotes from the part of the poem I’ve read with some initial reactions.
As someone who doesn’t read a lot of poetry, I tend to gravitate to collections at two very different ends of the spectrum: crazy experimental things that are completely divorced from the prose that I usually read, or poems that are more narrative based (like Twelve Stations) and feel comfortable, like fiction with line breaks.
Although that might seem like the case, the reading experience is very different when you’re reading fiction—especially conventional, “realistic” fiction—and reading a poem like this. With a novel, you can focus on pulling out the essential elements of plot, character, theme, etc., amid a wash of extra words that fill things out by adding texture and adjusting the book’s pacing.
Poetry, even narrative poetry, is more condensed. As a reader—and I know this is veering into Oprah Book Club territory here, but if there’s one thing I’d like to do with these RTWBC posts, it’s talk about books as a reader and not as a critic trying to show off my intellect—I appreciate the experience of having to slow down, go back a few lines, pause. In starting Twelve Stations, I found myself rushing past things, as if it were a story that I could gloss and still get it. There’s something to be said for dialing it back and taking extra time to read.
In Bill Johnston’s intro (which I referenced here), he mentioned the “gawęda, a long-established Polish literary tradition of prose writing in which the pleasure of pure storytelling trumps the need for tidy narratives and overarching plots.” This influence is evident right from the start, and really enjoyable. I like the ramble. And the lists. Reminds me a bit of Rabelais, although not as vulgar or extended, I suppose.
There’s an effusiveness to this poem that’s palpable on every page and somehow—through the lists? the abundance of language?—creates a sort of bustle, a fullness of motion, which drives the book as a whole. In contrast to a lyrical poem about a thing/emotion/moment, the first four “stations” of this book feel like they’re running towards something, gleefully veering out of control, or rather, almost spinning out of control, instead coming back to particular touchstones within the scene to keep the whole thing grounded. Reading this book is a bit of a trip.
Finally, this bit below also has a bit of the Polish history that Bill also addressed in his introduction. It’s interesting to think about a group of Poles moving into a bunch of abandoned houses and towns, creating a community with a set of habits and typical actions different from the people who had been living there, and different from the rest of Poland. For whatever reason, that concept really intrigues me.
So, to give you a sense of how all of those things seem to work together, and to try and convince everyone to get on board with reading this, here’s a long excerpt from the opening section of the poem:
He entered, then, through the wide-open door of a building
and proceeded directly to a first-floor apartment.
First he knocked, yes indeed, he knocked and waited a moment,
but hearing no reply he depressed the handle of the door.
He was not in the least surprised at the local practice
that permitted all doors and windows and gates
to be left open on the outside, notwithstanding intercoms
and all the break-ins, robberies, and crimes against property so common today.
In other regions of that venerable city, in such a place
one would see chains, bars, barb wire strung across balconies,
mad dogs and, even worse, mad pig-dogs white or pink in color,
with tiny eyes, imported from Anglo-Saxon lands, capable
of biting an automobile in two or gnawing through the door behind which
the birthday guests would be standing, flowers and a modest gift
in hand. The owners of such beasts, as they went to bed with a sweet sense of security,
would come in time to resemble their own defenders,
eventually assuming their stance, their habits, their diet.
Thus it was often in Poland, or rather in the land that since the war
has always been referred to as Poland; but not here. This realm here
was governed by its own laws. A person arriving uninvited
would sometimes have to search the entire apartment for their host,
who, leaving every door unlocked, was presently taking a nap
in a distant chamber, snoring beneath a heap of blankets, head wrapped
in a towel or dressing gown, such that any attempt to wake him would be madness.
So it was now.
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