A world according to G.W.
On Grzegorz Wróblewski
Translated from the Polish by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese.
Reading Hotel Cats (Rita Baum, 2010), Grzegorz Wróblewski’s collected poems, I wondered how best to talk about his first three collections: The Chewiness of Life (bibLioteka, 1992), Planets (bibLioteka, 1994), and The Valley of the Kings (Biblioteka KARTEK, 1996). Logically, I would have to place his early volumes within the artistic and literary frameworks of the 1980s and 1990s. I would need to outline his response to the most essential questions posed by art (and poetry) at the end of the twentieth-century. I was aware, however, that Wróblewski’s views and attitudes would announce themselves more clearly if such a reading was completed with a reading of his later poems, those from the first decade of the twenty-first-century: The Master of the Year, Grass and Turquoises (FA-art, 2009) as well as Candidate (Rita Baum, 2010). Therefore, I decided to examine Wróblewski’s books from both vantage points simultaneously.
Let me begin with an overview of the aesthetic framework and, more specifically, its three vital characteristics. First of all, the 1980s bring a significant change in neo-avant-garde strategies of “doing away” with art. After performance art and conceptualism, the neo-avant-garde search focuses on earth art, environmental art, body art and art exploring technological progress (including multimedia). This search leads to the altered understanding of such concepts as nature, environment, and space; it also highlights the numerous possibilities technology offers art. Secondly, aesthetic debates of that time stress more and more frequently positive outcomes from the contemplation of the “crisis” in art and aesthetics. Contemporary aesthetics invites optimistic predictions about the death of fine arts and aesthetics, which can be traced back to, among others, Hegel’s assertions that art belongs to the past. Transcultural, multimedia and pragmatic types of aesthetics seem to suggest a way out of an impasse in discussions about the significance of art in contemporary society. Finally, changes in our understanding of the status of art and in our attempts to define art (urged by “heirs” to the Dadaists and Duchamp) consolidate thoughts about the relationships between politics, economy and culture. According to Hal Foster, in the 1950s this kind of thinking, criticized both by traditional approaches — keen to see the significance of art in the realms of confession and expression — and by avant-garde formalisms, gave rise to two groundbreaking movements: minimalism and pop art, which were then taken up by feminist art, postcolonial art and cultural studies. “As minimalism challenges this order of modern aesthetics, it also contradicts its idealist model of consciousness. For Rosalind Krauss this is the central import of the minimalist attack on anthropomorphism and illusionism” (Foster, The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century 42). The attack on anthropomorphism and illusionism as well as the emphasis on the materiality of art and its economic entanglements resulted from political radicalization of the 1970s.
If we choose to view the abovementioned queries of twentieth-century art and aesthetics as questions of poetic activity, we can easily notice inquiries about the significance of poetry as an institution, about the privileged status of poetry in a given country, and about the authority of the poet as a national bard. (Following the antipoetic examples of Tadeusz Różewicz, Miron Białoszewski, Stanisław Grochowiak, and Rafał Wojaczek, poetry loses its moral and aesthetic grounds, although it acquires cultural justification. The paradigm of mass communication is considered a threat as early as mid-1990s by such poets as Krzysztof Jaworski, Darek Foks, and Robert Tekieli.) Critical readings of the poem as an aesthetic form weaken; the poem understood as a cultural artifact comes under attack. Language experiments and concrete poetry of the 1960s and 1970s, which stressed the antirealism of poetic representation by foregrounding the poem’s textuality, language itself and its control over the speaker (the equivalent of neo-avant-garde tendencies to emphasise metaartistic reflection) live on in the work of so-called deconstructive or poststructuralist poets Andrzej Sosnowski, Tadeusz Pióro, and Eugeniusz Tkaczyszyn-Dycki, to name just a few. Finally, at the start of the 1990s the contestation of the New Wave poetic school and the politicization of poetry in its socialist version produced a variety of countercultural approaches which diversified the understanding of the political. Numerous poetry books (by such authors as Marcin Świetlicki, Krzysztof Śliwka and Jacek Podsiadło) sought to snub “the idealist model of consciousness” (Krauss’s term) with its transcendental aspirations and lack of response to the social and material world around it.
Which elements of this intellectual and aesthetic climate find their way into Wróblewski’s first books? Neo-avant-garde inspirations, though not readily visible in his poetic strategy (for instance, he rarely resorts to metatextual strategies), are clearly there. Wróblewski is not interested in formally offensive linguistic experiments; he does not set off to prove the literariness of literature, nor does he want to emphasize its representational character. He does not turn his poem into an object, the way concrete poets do; neither does he stress its materiality, which does not mean, however, that his texts are deprived of self-reflexivity. For him these aspects are of secondary importance. He does not want a lyric poem to recover traditional aesthetic values (such as experiencing and contemplating) or to restore traditional readings of poetry. Wróblewski does not seek to prove that reality is artificial, construed or simulated; nor does he wish to reveal secret dimensions of reality. Interestingly, he does not strive against high modernism and its perceptions of art: many of his poems offer some form of confession, though always framed by the understanding of art as resistance, not as affirmation. Neo-avant-garde inspirations can easily be noticed in Wróblewski’s opinions about the relationship between art/poetry and the whole human world (which is not identified with the linguistic medium) and in his convictions about the critical, contestational function of art in society.
It is exactly this “non-reconciliation” (akin to non-affirmation) that I consider fundamental to the social and aesthetic premises established by Wróblewski as the author of Candidate, and to his neo-avant-garde affiliations. In Counterrevolution and Revolt, Herbert Marcuse – the leader of counterculture in the 1970s – emphasized the importance of this non-reconciliatory aspect of art:
The affirmative character of art was grounded not so much in its divorce from reality as in the ease with which it could be reconciled with the given reality, used as its décor, taught and experienced as uncommitting but rewarding value, the possession of which distinguished the ‘higher’ order of society, the educated, from the masses. But the affirmative power of art is also the power which denies this affirmation. In spite of its (feudal and bourgeois) use as status symbol, conspicuous consumption, refinement, art retains that alienation from the established reality which is at the origin of art. It is a second alienation, by virtue of which the artist dissociates himself methodically from the alienated society and creates the unreal, ‘illusory’ universe in which art alone has, and communicates, its truth. (97)
Marcuse recommends art that is able to represent “the forces of oppression” which epitomize the raison d’état or the social status quo: “This is an order which demands resignation, authority, control of ‘the vital instincts,’ recognition of the right of that which is” (95).
Marcuse’s text is vital not only as a document, but also as a set of instructions: although nowadays we are aware of the fact that the ease of reconciling the world with art does not necessarily prove the surrender of art to the commercial and political demands of the established order (pop-art and postmodernism have been accused of submissiveness to capitalism and consumerism), we continue to appreciate the readiness of art to revise the status quo. Artistic activity reveals not only the forces of repression, but also its consequences and connections with other dominant forces — the whole multiplied and multifarious network of relationships and influences, which frequently renders the positioning of various subjects unclear and ambiguous so that it is no longer possible to outline the simple symbolic dichotomy: the governing/the governed. Art and poetry which concentrate on “non-reconciliation” disclose relationships (usually invisible due to resentment, pride, frustration or upbringing) between subjects and processes happening under specific conditions. Wróblewski writes about society, culture, sex and race. A closer look at his poems reveals how the relationship between particular elements of the presented order (social, cultural, aesthetic, etc.) frequently assumes a negative form which results from the duality and uncertainty of every action, position or reaction. The poet’s task (or ambition) is to examine these forces, to avoid presenting them as too anonymous or too personal, and to show how they interrelate under specific temporal and spatial circumstances.
In “Midsummer Night’s Concentration,” from The Chewiness of Life, the speaker’s story suggests a connection between St. John’s Eve celebrations (a custom which might seem a vacant gesture in a contemporary metropolis such as Copenhagen) and primeval forces of the past, most probably not fully apprehended. Their effect on the speaker is perceived most clearly when he observes, “A bearded man in a horned helmet is eyeing me. / He must be a Viking, but I play it cool. / Let him be the first to draw a sword …” Similarly, “A Mexican Ribbon” (The Chewiness of Life) uncovers the relationship between technological culture and magic beliefs.
“Mr. Cullen’s Raid” draws our attention to a bigger history: the 1836 truce between colonizers and Native Americans, as shown through the prism of obsessive actions, seemingly grotesque and funny, but in reality pointing to the speaker’s fundamentalist and nationalist leanings. In “The Parliament” (The Valley of the Kings) Wróblewski focuses on social dynamics, demonstrating how a community can achieve them. The economic controversies, which lead to political and cultural fervor “on the square of Ålholm” — the titular parliament — signal the communal ways of communicating and creating social ties. This poem finds its equivalent in “Psycho Taiga” from Candidate. Here the ecological, social and cultural issues are expressed in the aggressive and frustrated language of those whose voice in public debates typically goes unheeded. Interestingly, these voices were named in “The Parliament,” but in “Psycho Taiga” remain anonymous; they could even belong to the system’s beneficiaries, who believe themselves to be its victims. Such a reading may be justified by “Larsen Tells Us in a Christinshavn Pub about His Undeserved, Little Stabilization” in The Principle of the Series (Instytut Wydawniczy Świadectwo, 2000). None of its interlocutors are satisfied with their position in the social hierarchy: despite higher standards of living, they still perceive themselves as low-wage workers, unwilling to accept their present “bourgeoisie” lives, while at the same time unable to return to their previous status. Moreover, their current, privileged position makes them superior to all those “sad-looking / boys in orange vests / who cut weeds on the moat / since the early morning.” The poem’s protagonists cannot identify with any of the life models presented — this inability proves that “unalienated” life is impossible.
In Chewiness of Life, Planets and The Valley of the Kings the speaker’s disapproval of his own life can be understood literally as an expulsion from various geographic spaces, and symbolically as the speaker’s examination of different factors responsible for integrity or disintegration of societies. For example, in “The Transfer” or in “My New Day” the speaker investigates the conditions that enable people to find their place in a given community. Such an active observation allows conclusions drawn from the failure of “assimilation” efforts. Wherever he is, he perceives himself as an odd element, disturbing the social message; however, thanks to his oddness, he manages to uncover the relations which unite or destabilize a given society, although there is no space here for the carpe diem of the individual fully indentified with the world of social and economic structures.
From the vantage point of Wróblewski’s later volumes, the fundamental thought of his first three books can be easily spotted: being at odds with any socio-economic order. In “A Passenger” from Rooms and Gardens (Biblioteka Narodowa i Duński Instytut Kultury, 2005), the animal world is ruled by economic principles: corruption and venality cannot be avoided in the capitalist system. Unclear relationships between sexes are described in, among others, “She Said: You Resemble an Ape” (The Master of the Year, Grass and Turquoises) and “Masters of the Night” (Candidate). Here Wróblewski proposes a holistic vision of the world where the relations between culture and non-culture create intriguing combinations: the macho needs not only a victim, but also humiliation. Humiliation, in turn, allows the speaker his rites of passage (as it happens in “She Said: You Resemble an Ape”); leaving behind his childhood and infantilism, he gains enough strength to confront himself. The subcultures of macho men and “good girls,” which condition one another, are presented in simple and clear situations where their interconnectedness emerges through minute meaningful details.
Wróblewski’s poems — focusing our attention on culture, sexuality, politics, economics, or social conventions — offer an excellent opportunity to examine the contemporary world. They zoom in on its complexity while relishing in its detail and hyperbolic shortcuts. At the same time they constitute a camouflaged response to conflicts of our world: they insist on rehearsing thoughts banned by a community, they turn new mythologies inside out. This dismissal of any system where Wróblewski’s speaker could function often leads to the private reappraisal of the paranoia implicit in such a system. “Dodo” (The Master of the Year, Grass and Turquoises) closes with the description of the speaker rolling “in a jam jar / together with a damaged cherry / and an autistic beetle.” This intensification of the speaker’s paranoic states — his self-defence against the world — proves right on numerous occasions, each time differently. Here, the dodo, a species which ceased to exist at the end of the seventeenth century, becomes the future of a human being. The poem’s closing lines sound like a confession of museum exhibits. The resemblances are not merely coincidental, even if we think that we have puzzled out our biology, and there is no connection between such a complicated creature as a human being and something as plain as “a damaged cherry.” However, this is not only about the impossibility of adaptation. The cherry and the beetle embody the process of mutation; hybridity signals the damage (rather than the rot) of the fruit. The word choice referencing technology rather than organic structure points to a peculiar crossover between a living organism and a mechanical object. Similarly, the beetle’s autism (its malfunctioning brain) complicates its categorization as an insect. Equally mutated is the “rolling I” — it is impossible to guess the speaker’s sex, gender or age. All the features that usually assist the identification of “objects” in space and allow their classification have become deformed. The world of distinct categories for human beings, animals and plants belongs to the past. All the parameters specifying category boundaries have eroded, and yet — if the poem’s temporal setting can be established as “post-mutational” — the memory of the dodo, an odd creature, persists.
Wróblewski aims at recording the images of the world in a manner which could be described, after Walter Benjamin, as dispersive. His construals of mini-observations capturing multifarious relations are akin to Jean Dubuffet’s dense canvases, the detailed art of calligraphy and tachism — the techniques that assemble spatially and temporally disconnected details and found objects. Such assemblage causes dispersal and, at the same time, concentration (fragmentation does not exclude detailed attention), which are not systematized by any unifying principle.
Most importantly, Wróblewski’s work reveals its ethnographic potential. His are poems which discover different geographic spaces organized into distinct forms of life. Wróblewski explores them from multiple perspectives: political, historical, economic, racial, and sexual. They are evoked in the images of concrete human subjects and in their responses to reality.
The poet searches for locality and specificity; he turns away from the universally unchangeable. For these reasons his speaker is not a superior, transcendental author of his texts. None of the perspectives which allows observing and recording various systems, models, orders is privileged; no vantage point becomes the reference point. Therefore, the speaker is always included in the observed order, although he never identifies with it. Moreover, his own perspective is frequently questioned, with its extreme positioning which tends to distort and magnify observed events and phenomena. The borderline between the repressed subject and the upholder of the given system, between the system’s beneficiaries and its victims, is fuzzy. These continual shifts of perspective are essential to demonstrate the hidden complexities of the system which do not allow control over all the processes and relations.
Wróblewski avoids the trap of an ethnographic approach. As Foster warns, numerous artists are susceptible to pseudoanthropological art, where the subject is defined in the terms of cultural identity, and not in economic terms, the tendency noted since the 1990s. Foster points to minimalism, social and theoretical pressures, and postcolonial studies as responsible for such an ethnographic turn. “Thus did art pass into the expanded field of culture that anthropology is thought to survey” (184).
Read from this perspective, Wróblewski’s poems show their multiculturalism. They describe how human behaviour is influenced by a particular space and time; how individuals are conditioned by, but also free from, the culture where they grow up and live; how they are affected by political, social, biological and environmental changes. In other words, such an ethnographic approach foregrounds examinations and interpretations of the “overlap” between cultures in the studies of emigration and uprootedness. A Night in Cortez’s Camp (WBPiCAK, 2007) provides ample evidence: it is a book which focuses on the confrontation (military, religious and, most importantly, communicative) between the Aztec culture and the Spanish culture. Also, the reading of Planets cannot forego the narrative of cultural reciprocity between indigenous peoples and incoming peoples. The ethnographic miniseries created by such poems as “A Visit,” “The Celebrations of a God,” “TV Easter,” “A Reading Room in Christianshavn,” “On the Beach in Dragør,” “Bente,” “Local News” and “Dolny Mokotów” comments on the different manners in which people are organized in space. These different sceneries — beach, reading room, public space, private flat, school — alongside numerous habits, obsessions, oddities, prejudices, rituals, and attitudes (work or leisure, religion or other cultures) build up Wróblewski’s story about his selected corner of the world (his 2000 collection of essays entitled Copenhagen also shows its ethnographic character). In this pursuit Wróblewski shows his affinity with Miron Białoszewski, who was very much intrigued by the diversity of human behaviour.
With their disciplined anthropological attention, Wróblewski’s poems search in whatever conditions for regularity within the origins, existence and activity of the species called humankind. These observations of complex biological, social and cultural systems present the human world in all its rich diversity. This diversity of human life forms constitutes the basic principle governing the world. As Clifford Geertz argues in The Interpretations of Cultures, “If we want to discover what man amounts to, we can only find it in what men are: and what men are, above all other things, is various. It is in understanding that variousness — its range, its nature, its basis, and its implications — that we shall come to construct a concept of human nature that, more than a statistical shadow and less than a primitivist dream, has both substance and truth” (52).
The ethnographic potential of Wróblewski’s work complicates its positioning within the artistic framework at the end of the twentieth century. The philosophy of art and aesthetics of that time — neo-avant-garde experiments with referentiality or representation, as well as existential and metaphysical responses to reality — cannot provide a relevant context for the discussion of Wróblewski’s poems. However, it is exactly the ethnographic framework that can tell us more about the speaker, reality, and language in this poetry.
What does such an ethnographic impulse introduce to our reading of Wróblewski’s work? First of all, it allows us to understand that the poet creates “raw” and “dense” ethnographic records. It helps us to realize that his speaker is not a textual construct, an individualist project of the I or a creation which will dissolve the borderline between the text and the world. Rather, he is “a social actor” (Geertz’s term for the subject of his ethnographic texts), the first-degree informant who creates his own interpretations and who is aware of his own interpretative — authorial, in this case — power. The typical starting point for Wróblewski’s observations of the dynamics of the cultural space created by his poems is an appearance of strange elements on some familiar territory, when known and understandable forms of communication reveal the fragility of convention and context. Alternatively, he introduces familiar elements onto a foreign ground.
This may be one of the ways to read Candidate. Just like Rooms and Gardens as well as The Master of the Year, Grass and Turquoises, Candidate reveals ethnographic ambitions and ushers in different spaces or, to be more precise, space without any temporal, geographic, national or social borders. Whereas A Night in Cortez’s Camp can be considered overtly ethnographic because of the ease with which we can separate the contemporary narrative from that of the past, only occasionally getting lost in time loops, The Master of the Year, Grass and Turquoises can be seen as set in a peculiar non-time and outside any symbolic borders of human administration. In “Jaguar/ Cage” the speaker’s desire to live suggests that the so-called natural space (of the city, forest, countryside) does not exist: “Let’s get out of here quick, to the sun / and plutocracy. / (O! After all, Mary has suffered from a heart attack) / Through the doors. Onto the street. Into the cacti or / egiptology. // Among the people, pretending / they are great cats.” “You Tell Me Too Much about Angels” substitutes the reality of concrete, glass and other materials — which constituted the natural surroundings of the protagonists of Planets, The Principle of the Series and The Chewiness of Life or the metaphysical space of dreamlike visions from Rooms and Gardens — with the terrain reduced to “black insects / and colourful butterflies.” Interestingly, The Master of the Year, Grass and Turquoises swarms with comments about insects, spiders, salamanders, birds and other animals, as if only those forms of life were possible in the world which had suffered a severe stroke. In “Mercury Project,” “the Earth’s nervous snigger” is one of the signals perceived by the terrified speaker “watching / A pack of brown animals romping in an abandoned / Motel parking lot.” [Above: Wroblewski, “Statistics and Informatics.”]
We might say that the landscapes described in these poems are deprived of the symbolic reference which allowed humans to first orient themselves (not only in space) and which defined them as human, or at least gave them their recognizably human shape. It is no longer the vision of multiculturalism known from Wróblewski’s earlier books, but the project of a world without any cultural framework – under such circumstances humans do not differ from other living creatures. Such a claim is supported by the following verses: “Everything boneless / avoids me” (“The Spirit of Flat Opuntias”) and “I’ve ended up among horned insects” (“The Master of the Year, Grass and Turquoises”). If the slogan that a human being does not exist outside culture is still valid, then Wróblewski’s recent books revive it with all their might. Candidate continues this process of (metaphorically speaking) positioning some sort of human being outside cultural influences, although the book does feature protagonists newly situated in the urban space with all its human behaviors — fitness clubs, beaches, cannibal clubs, male and female courtship games, lotteries — all while waiting for God or fate: “It’s enough to register. The signature / And you will finally / be saved” (“Everything Goes. Hunting for a Candidate”). So we deal here with a human hybrid which is neither a project nor a projection.
Allow me my final interpretative remark. Considering the possibility of generalization in reaching ethnographic conclusions, Geertz proposes vitally that “The locus of study is not the object of study” (22). Bearing Geertz’s comment in mind, we should avoid a literal reading of Wróblewski’s poetic situations, which would turn them into simplistic sociological observations. Although Danes, Greenlanders, Poles and Dolny Mokotów, Japan and Zen Buddhism, Mexico and flower wars are all particular and peculiar individual cases, they afford the generalization and synthesis of what we at times call “the pulse of the planet.”