Memory and Longing

The Folding Star and Other Poems, Jacek Gutorow, translated with an introduction by Piotr Florczyk (84pp, $16.00, BOA Editions)

In 'Letter from Poland: On Translating Poetry' (published on the Poetry International website, July 2011), Jacek Gutorow argues that in translation there is a danger that the poet's 'first intentions are somewhat flattened and subdued.' He goes on to suggest that

     There is something paradoxical about the effects created by
     poetry in translation. The poets who are deeply immersed in
     their native language, who are capable of articulating complex
     meanings connected with innumerable modulations of colloquial
     speech, and who manage to sound out the unique frequencies
     of their languages by experimenting with etymology or
     phraseology, are usually poorly served by translators whose
     technical abilities may be splendid but who cannot write with
     the nerve of common speech. On the contrary, the poems
     written in an abstract, impressionistic or philosophical manner
     read and sound good in translation, precisely because their
     language is neutral. Very often the popularity of a foreign poet
     is due to the fact that his or her poetic idiom is unmarked and
     devoid of strong local or personal intonation.

These are points that are not made often enough. There are, of course, many other factors involved in what passes into other languages. For example, it's now clear that our perception of poetry from central and eastern Europe has been irrevocably damaged by the vast translation project of the 1960s and 1970s which fostered a view of that poetry as free speech under pressure, coded narratives and lessons from history. One suspects that there is some interesting work to be done into the economics of the project: who funded it and why. At the same time, things pass into a target language because they allow its speakers to have things they would reject from their own native authors. And, from a postwar British perspective, one wonders whether our own native authors suffered because money and resources were focused on translating European poetry.

Gutorow's own poetry does read and sound very good in Piotr Florczyk's translations. I can't judge their faithfulness to Polish and Florcyzk tells us that he and Gutorow made changes, presumably in the interests of better English poems. Gutorow's poetry does deal with philosophical issues around language and perception but its passage into English has produced language that is far from neutral. 'Let the drum whoop', 'a plastic airplane / flies and flies in a clenched fist', and 'the heartless night ending with the yellow horsewhip / of the east' show how carefully Gutorow grounds what might seem to be abstract concerns. His poetry has other distinctive features. Many of his thoughtful, meditative poems are full of the effects of sunlight, the fall of shadows and the portrayal of weather as a kind of ontological landscape. There is a precise focus on moments of being and time that turn out to be elusive and these moments are often located in childhood. Finally, there are a number of poems that deal with the moments when we make the world into language.

'Hebrew (after Charles Reznikoff)' talks about having 'only two tenses': 'The memory tense: so many things have passed. / The longing tense: so many things won't happen.' For Gutorow, poetry and our life in the world—which is also our life in and as language—happens across and between these two tenses. 'Poem (for Wojtek)' portrays the making of a poem as the speaker falls asleep and the writing of it just after he awakes. But the long night between hypnagogic and hypnopompic states has made the words 'nervous' and 'They don't want to shine brilliantly.' The resultant feelings of loss and regret stem not from 'the lost poem' but from the loss of the self 'at that moment / before sleep.' This is typical of the way that Gutorow's poems seem to be about writing but then suddenly open onto wider concerns. The speaker of 'What the Dutch Didn't Paint' wants 'to walk out beyond the frame of the poem—toward what's unnamed.' This is one version of 'the longing tense' but 'Poem (for Wotjek)' and many other poems in The Folding Star
refuse to be confined by their initial framings.

One way that Gutorow achieves this effect is by making poems whose carefully worked wholes are made up of phrases and sentences that continually revise their predecessors. There is, then, a curious but satisfying tension between argument and randomness and between the writing self who tries to make sense and the everyday self who is so buffeted by life's 'various moments' ('The Theater Square') that he feels 'blurred' ('The Footnote Man'). If this suggests that Gutorow is a postmodernist poet (whatever that means in English or Polish in 2012) then such a hasty categorisation should be resisted. The poetry in The Folding Star
is the work of an accomplished lyric poet who has a deep understanding of what might be called the epistemology of lyric as a genre. Lyric is at once embodied knowledge and the realisation that a record of that embodiment is a kind of fiction. In the words of 'Mallows', 'Poetry blocks my view'. So, the dream remains of 'a poem unfiltered' ('Notes Towards a First Poem') but there is a 'who' as well as a 'what' doing the filtering. Language and the selves that use it are, in Gutorow's poems, a single yearning for authenticity that can never be fulfilled. It is one of lyric's paradoxes that we believe the filter can stand for and as the first intention.

      © David Kennedy 2012