Arc Publications, 2001
Polish poet Tadeusz Różewicz's collection recycling boasts a surprising cover for a book of poetry: a black-and-white photograph shows an elderly man (the author himself) lifting the lid of an overflowing garbage can with a curious, if slightly disgusted, expression on his face. Can this be meant to suggest that something as unappealing as eggshells and old newspapers is actually the stuff of poetry?, one might ask. Yet the notion of recycling hints at one of the collection's central ideas, for many themes and images from Różewicz's earlier work reappear here in new forms, often merging past and present as in a double-exposed photograph.
This process of recycling is defined, in dry, straightforward German, in the epigraph to the title poem:
"Was ist Recycling? Die Wiederverwendung
bereits einmal oder mehrfach benutzter
Rohstoffe zur Gewinnung neuer Produkte"
An example of how this concept of recycling works in Różewicz's poetry is found in his depiction of the experience of war and the holocaust: central to the poet's early poems, it is linked here—through stark images of slaughter—with Europe's ongoing BSE scare.
The poem "Recycling" is a cycle of three poems, entitled "Fashion," "Gold" and "Meat." The first poem, "Fashion," juxtaposes modern fashion trends, which evoke images of bodies at a meat market, with the clothing worn over half a century before in concentration camps.
In the second poem, gold taken from Jews by the Nazis resurfaces to mourn its past. The poetic voice reports matter-of-factly:
strange signs have appeared
on gold bullion
in the vaults of the Riksbank
the central bank of Sweden
the gold began to weep
tears of blood
are sealed like gas chambers
but you can hear grinding teeth
a dank carrion stench
escapes from safes
gold laundered in Switzerland
decomposes and rots
in antiseptic Sweden
The third part of the cycle, entitled "Meat," can perhaps be best described as a verbal collage (recalling the collage form of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound) of two news items from our time: mad cow disease and animal cloning. The scenes of slaughter evoked here create a parallel with the images of murder contained in the previous two poems. The combined effect in turn recalls the following lines from the poem "Ocalony" ("The Survivor") from Różewicz's collection Niepokój (Anxiety) from 1947:
I am twenty-four
led to slaughter
The following are empty synonyms:
man and beast
love and hate
friend and foe
darkness and light
The way of killing men and beasts is the same
I've seen them:
truckfuls of chopped-up men
who will not be saved
[translated by Adam Czerniawski]
In the postscript to "Recycling," Różewicz calls both "Fashion" and "Meat" virtual poetry, describing the form of "Meat" as "a rubbish dump (information dump) with no center, no core." Thus, Różewicz "recycles" in another sense as well, and many of these poems play upon the worn-out phrases that are our daily fare as consumers of mass media. In this context, Różewicz's sparing style can be seen as a protest against too much talk and wasted words. Indeed, the collection contains a good dose of criticism of the detritus of our age, parodying catchphrases by parroting them.
A poem entitled "The Hyperactive Family," for example, depicts a radio show called "Radio Dribble" in which frustrated parents call in about their hyperactive children. The talk-show host in the poem recommends the medicine Rytalin, while the poetic voice cites a deeper cause, suggesting that hyperactive children merely mirror the society they live in. Here, not only children, but even grandparents and politicians are hyperactive, as conveyed by both the images and frenetic rhythm of this passage:
in our parliament
we have hyperactive members
they never stop wriggling
they read the papers
raise a hand
drop a leg
exit pursuing a bar
the hard stuff
enter pursuing a court
to denounce themselves
they hide in the toilet
thus creating a government crisis
Antipoetry and silence
At the end of the seven-page poem "Gold," the following message has been added:
what a long poem! it
drags and drags master don't you get bored
can't it all fit into
a haiku? It can't.
Elsewhere as well, Różewicz describes poetry as an entity with a mind of its own: poems continue to grow and mutate—and are recycled, as things both trivial and deadly serious keep coming back to us in new ways. The volume's second poem declares:
my short poem
slips from my grip
Indeed, there is a tension in Różewicz's verse between a pared-down, antipoetic style and the need to speak of things. When his poems do grow long, it is more often than not someone being quoted, rather than the poetic voice, who is verbose.
The collection recycling was first published in Polish in 1998. This new edition is bilingual (a feature all too rare in collections of translated poetry), allowing the non-Polish-speaking reader to see the original work alongside the English interpretation. The translation, skillfully done by Barbara Plebanek and Tony Howard, succeeds in its expressed aim of "exposing" the fabric of the work, giving us the same minimalist quality of the original language, stripped of punctuation, capital letters and traditional poetic devices. This effort to de-poetize poetry is not new to Różewicz's verse, but can be traced back to his earliest work. This is poetry as "raw material," and it is a very concrete, physical poetry that does not seek to hide the creative process that produced it.
Silence is a recurring theme in this collection, and it is often linked with ageing. The poem "Mirror" opens with the following lines:
after years of noise
silence enfolds me
silence is my poems'
their reflections say nothing
Yet, as this volume attests, Różewicz has not fallen silent. In the year 2000 he received the Nike Prize—Poland's most prestigious literary award for the best book of the year—for his prose memoir Matka odchozi (Mother departs, 1999). As Czesław Miłosz has said, "Różewicz is a poet of chaos with a nostalgia for order. Around him and in himself he sees only broken fragments, a senseless rush." The images contained in these poems are often bleak, but as the cover photograph suggests, the collection is not without humor. At age 79, this poet, dramatist and prose writer continues to surprise his readers, creating new art out of the raw material of life and literature.
Julie Hansen, 23 September 2001