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from the November 2017 issue

From Excess to Ascesis: Ryszard Krynicki’s Verses Confront the Perils and Ruins of History

Reviewed by Sean Gasper Bye

In thinking of Polish poetry after the Second World War, a characteristic tone of sharp-eyed moral clarity often comes to my mind. Czesław Miłosz exemplified this school of writing, and codified a canon of like-minded writers in his influential 1965 anthology Postwar Polish Poetry. That book included giants of Polish poetry such as Wisława Szymborska, Zbigniew Herbert and Tadeusz Różewicz, who confronted the traumas and injustices of that country’s 20th century with spiritual honesty, righteous judgment, and— sometimes—rage.

Rage was the weapon of choice for Ryszard Krynicki during his poetic coming-of-age in the late 1960s and 1970s, a generation after Miłosz. Previously little translated into English, some of his best works are now available in two major books published this fall in the US: his 1977 collection Our Life Grows (New York Review Books, translated by Alissa Valles) and Magnetic Point: Selected Poems 1968-2014 (New Directions, translated by Clare Cavanagh). Together, they offer a compelling portrait of this powerful and unique poet.

Krynicki was born in 1943 in a Nazi labor camp in Austria. After the war, his family was settled in the “reclaimed” territories of western Poland that had been broken off from Germany and emptied of their pre-war populations. Born in a nonplace and brought up where the past had been wiped clean, the poet seems to have nursed a sense of otherness throughout his life.

Krynicki was still a boy in 1956 when the dark days of Stalinism came to an end. As a young man, he watched promises of reform and liberalization give way to sclerosis, finally descending into outright depravity in the watershed year of 1968. That March saw massive anti-regime protests in Warsaw violently suppressed by the government, which blamed the uprising on “Zionist” agents. A nationwide anti-Semitic campaign ensued, driving much of Poland’s remaining Jewish population out of the country. Then in August, Poland joined the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact forces, helping to crush the nascent pro-Western reforms of the Prague Spring.

The very next year, Krynicki published his first major poetry collection, Akt Urodzenia (meaning both “act of birth” and “birth certificate”). He was one of a generation of poets and intellectuals disgusted by the events of ’68 and scornful of moral equivocation and political compromise. Krynicki would spend much of the 1970s causing trouble and getting into it. He battled with censors, published underground editions, endured police harassment, and in 1976 was finally banned from even being mentioned in print.

In 1977, he published Our Life Grows with an émigré press in Paris. Many of these poems had been mangled by Communist censors, but in the NYRB edition they appear in their unexpurgated form. I found them shockingly raw: Our Life Grows felt like a beam of fury focused squarely at the brutality, stupidity, and double-speak of People’s Poland. The collection includes landmark works like “Our Special Correspondent,” a poem so ideologically incendiary it got Krynicki’s editor fired by the authorities, and “Posthumous Journey (III),” whose litany of political and literary dissidents, its mocking reference to Stalin, and allusions to violent suppression of striking workers was the cause of Krynicki’s complete print ban in 1976.

As well as politics, the collection explores themes of spirituality, love, and the social and cultural role of the poet in the twentieth century. Krynicki circles around a familiar repertoire of structures, themes, and images. Formally, he seems to favor three types of poem: mid-length, reflective works; extremely short and aphoristic ones (sometimes even a single line); and long, often very political tours de force. His recurring images include animals like axolotls and snails, human anatomy like brains and blood, and the tools of censorship: sheets of paper, card indexes, red pencils and, of course, the censor himself, who at times appears as a character in the poems.

Krynicki’s imagery is always powerful, if sometimes baffling. Valles does an excellent job of keeping these difficult images tangible and concrete, as in this example from “Much Simpler” (featuring the aforementioned card indexes):

fingerprints circulate in unfathomable space
card indexes faded, were burnt or shredded
your you is astonished at your I
nothing’s for sure
took the elevator down
while everything’s possible
was laboring up the stairs

Readers of Polish poetry expecting something closer to the philosophical detachment of Miłosz or the wry gallows humor of Szymborska may find this collection jarring. Krynicki’s poems are darker, stranger, and more mysterious.

A fuller, more nuanced picture of Krynicki emerges in Magnetic Point: Selected Poems 1968-2014. The late poet and translator Stanisław Barańczak once described Krynicki’s oeuvre as “moving from excess to ascesis.” In this collection, we watch this transition as it happens, and Cavanagh’s translation maintains a remarkable (and beautiful) unity of voice, even as Krynicki experiments with new themes, imagery, and forms, including prose.

The work in Magnetic Point reveals a huge range of influences. Krynicki often dedicates poems to other poets or refers explicitly to others’ poems. He is a translator of Paul Celan and Nelly Sachs, and the German tradition shines through in his work. A period of engagement with East Asian poetry has borne fruit in the form of, among other things, numerous references to the Japanese master poet Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) and Krynicki’s own experimentation with haiku.

His later work also develops his ambiguous relationship to geography and history, both in Poland and abroad. Unlike his contemporaries Barańczak and Adam Zagajewski, Krynicki did not choose emigration to escape Communist rule. But that does not mean he felt at home—his 1987 poem “This Country” states in its entirety:

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

and places.

Spirituality is often a current running powerfully through these reflections. For instance, in the prose poem “A Stone from the Village of New World” from 2005, Krynicki describes accidentally finding the remains of a Jewish gravestone:

I found the stone in a yard overgrown with weeds and bushes, just after buying a run-down house in the hamlet of New World: I’d picked it more for the auspicious name than for the place itself. Exiles like me—from the East, from beyond the Bug River— settled here after the war. Germans had lived here before, they left a moldy scrap of a 1936 newspaper in the attic and countless broken medicine bottles.

I’m not asking when and how it ended up here, or who committed this atrocity. I only want to preserve it from further destruction, I seek a refuge more lasting than my weak letters. I don’t know what to do.

While Krynicki’s anger seems to subside over the course of Magnetic Point, it is clear he has lost none of his desire to challenge simplistic narratives and to ask difficult questions. In an author’s note to Our Life Grows, Krynicki writes, “In my time I dared to oppose Zbigniew Herbert, [saying] that the drama of language should not obscure for us the tragedy of the world. I thought I was right—I was wrong.” Yet even at this mature stage in his career, Krynicki’s suspicion of the power of language remains. It seems fitting to end on one of the last poems in Magnetic Point, which address this skepticism and shows that perhaps the Krynicki of today is not so different from the Krynicki of Our Life Grows:

Sweet, Innocent

Sweet, innocent words,
sweet, full sentences,
from sweet, gently
curving commas
seep pure

poison

(Nowy Świat, July 8, 2004, B.)

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