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from the June 2016 issue

“Scattering the Dark: An Anthology of Polish Women Poets” edited by Karen Kovacik

Reviewed by Gordon Slater

A lively selection of Poland’s women poets writing before and after the fall of communism.

In The Joy of Writing, Wislawa Szymborska writes of the liberating, creative power of poetic language:

Is there then a world
Where I rule absolutely on fate?
A time I bind with chains of signs?
An existence become endless at my bidding?
The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
Revenge of a mortal hand.

Szymborska is the most famous of the Polish women poets, a recipient of the Noble Prize in Literature who is widely admired as a poet, essayist, and translator. Her sense of self within a poetic “world / Where I rule absolutely” defines a particular desire, one that is apparent among many Polish women poets, to control and preserve their voices and their narratives. Scattering the Dark: An Anthology of Polish Women Poets, edited by Karen Kovacik, can be seen, like Syzmborska’s writing, as an act of revenge. Kovacik, a Professor of English at Indiana University and Purdue University Indianapolis, means to set the record straight, to redefine the boundaries of the Polish canon by bringing to the forefront a deep catalogue of uniquely impressive women poets.

As Kovacik notes in her introduction, literary anthologies of Polish poetry have almost entirely ignored the work of women poets. Not only are women poets underrepresented in mixed-gender collections, works by Polish women poets have rarely been translated into English. Kovacik describes Scattering the Dark “as a corrective” measure, an act of preservation for a large body of work from Polish women spanning multiple generations, poetic styles, and thematic interests. The assertion of this varied anthology is that these poets, these poems, deserve the serious attention that has been denied them by a male-dominated literary establishment in Poland and the West.

Polish poetry and literature has changed dramatically as the country has experienced political and social upheaval throughout the past two centuries. While the fall of communism brought widespread social change and an increase in civil liberties—particularly for minority populations—Poland’s shift to global capitalism has been coupled with the rise of conservative, nationalist, and religious movements. Kovacik explains that conservative elements in the nation see a shift toward civil liberties and liberal, EU-driven reform “as threatening Polish identity by disrupting traditional gender roles.” The role of women poets is particularly vital at this moment, as Poland struggles to define itself in a modern context. In “Drawer,” Julia Fiedorczuk describes the process of collecting, understanding history:

Some collect shavings of the past.
They’re as precious as hoarfrost on roadside birches—
especially valuable at the rare moments of absolute presence of mind,
of equinox.

Fiedorczuk’s title is a reference to poetry as a private, personal act. Especially under communism, many poets in Poland wrote for themselves, filling drawers with notes. This private domestic moment merges with a larger national struggle to understand the past, to piece together a coherent narrative of what it means to be Polish. Women’s personal relationships to history, these “rare moments of absolute presence of mind,” emerge in this collection as a potent force for renewal of traditional Polish identity. Indeed, poetic form also provides a space for personal and communal renewal. In “The Sentence,” Julia Hartwig evokes the creative potential of a formal poetic space:

Everything in me craves that moment when form
Envelopes the formlessness where I’ve been suspended
Suffering from the mild if constant ache of the indescribable
From the scattering of my thoughts and feelings
Where I live as if deprived of air

Hartwig’s threshold, between poetic form that provides the possibility for meaning and the formlessness of an indescribable world, positions the poet on the verge of liberation. In his collection of essays The Government of the Tongue, Seamus Heaney writes that, “Poetry is more a threshold than a path, one constantly approached and constantly departed from . . .” Hartwig’s relationship between a stable poetic form and the dynamic, “indescribable / . . . scattering” of her mind is symbiotic, a constant exchange between opposing and dependent forces.

Polish national identity is linked, according to Kovacik, to a conception of the nation as a chained woman who needs to be defended. This patriarchal mythology permeates the work of the country’s Romantic poets, and many of the poets in Scattering the Dark are consciously speaking into and against this history. The possibility of poetry as a vehicle of expression for Polish women’s experiences is clear in poems that reimagine myths and fables, such as “Philomela” by Agnieszka Kuciak:

“If you can’t speak, weave instead”—words 
she managed with her tongue cut out.
And with crooked needle and dark thread,
She stitched her scream, the rapist in retreat.
There she meant to end, but the stark stitching
led her onward.

Kuciak describes Philomela, who was raped and had her tongue pulled out by her sister’s husband, learning how to tell her story without any voice. Through her weaving emerge “words / she managed with her tongue cut out,” a voice that is insistent and powerful. The process of creating, the agency of story telling, “led her onward,” and here Kuciak posits the power of poetry to communicate, to give voice to the voiceless. As Polish women poets explore issues of identity, domestic life, poetic form, and women’s experiences of historical violence, trauma, and war, the ramifications of their poetry are radical, challenging the very foundations of traditional Polish identity.

The project is an ambitious one, and the variety of poetics on display can be difficult to keep apace with, though Kovacik provides clear and succinct introductions to each section with biographical, theoretical, and historical contexts for the poems. The anthology is structured thematically, with eight chapters organized around broad themes of interest for the poets, including history, dreams, and the unconscious; Poland’s tradition of bardic nationalism; the art of poetry itself; the advantages of using myths and masks; notions of home; life transitions; and objects as emblems.

Rather than dividing the work chronologically or by types of poetic form, Kovacik is invested in bringing the thirty-one poets into conversation with one another, illustrating their shared and divergent sensibilities across subject matters. Some of the poems deal directly with the relationship between Polish women poets. In “Old Woman Poet,” Krystyna Rodowska describes a legendary, older poet:

This old woman poet
shows you’ve got to hum
to keep from screaming
and rather than standing over the abyss
you nestle into it

For Rodowksa, the old woman poet is a figure to admire, and she stands out as markedly different from the archetype of the male, romantic, artist figure. Whereas the implied man “stand[s] over the abyss,” dominating it, attempting to control the existential questions a poet addresses, the woman poet “nestle[s] into it,” embracing rather than rejecting the problem. This subversive power is on display throughout the collection, in the myriad rejections of traditionally masculine forms of expression and communication.

The power and difficulty of translation is a common thread throughout the anthology. While Kovacik describes all of the poets as cosmopolitan, deeply embedded in a transnational, intertextual literary community of translators, writers, and academics, Kovacik provided first translations for many of the poems in the anthology. In “My Translators,” Ewa Lipska describes working with translators:

My surgeons’
transplanting of words. Them.
in this brief epic.
And I
am in love with so many languages at once.

The back and forth between the poet and “My surgeons’ / transplanting of words” is complicated by what may or may not be “Untranslatable.” Kovacik, and the many other translators in the anthology, do not render the poems inelegant, though, and what is clear is not the gap between languages but that for these modern, Polish women poets, translation means more agency, more creative expression, and, vitally, a broader audience for their narratives. 

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