Like many a poet of his generation, Bonowicz has read Tadeusz Różewicz as both an apprentice and an interlocutor. After all it was the old master who, having cleansed his verse of what he deemed superfluous ornamentation, demonstrated that it was possible to write poetry after Auschwitz. In doing so, Różewicz aimed to make sense of our postapocalyptic existence by questioning the basic principles of human nature and language’s role as our would-be ally in the process of acquiring meaning. Having reached the end of the road — words have been used up, he reminded us time and again — he pulled no punches, becoming, especially towards the end of his life, one of the most vocal commentators of current events in Poland and abroad.
For his part, Bonowicz, who was born and raised in the shadow of the death camp, seems to have internalized that aspect of Różewicz’s work in particular, for while his poems embody an individual lyric experience, their formal asceticism belies their extensive thematic and rhetorical reach. The fact that Bonowicz’s poems, like the best poems by Różewicz, are not discursive but rather employ a mixture of suggestiveness and lapidary gestures, doesn’t mean they lack a narrative or purpose. As a spiritual poet, who also questions poetry’s utility in the age of mass culture, Bonowicz resurrects the idea of conscience as the heartbeat of a poem. Whether interrogating his beliefs or illuminating the shortcomings and joys shared by all of us, Bonowicz writes the type of a poem that carries within it a salutary aim. His poems may be spare, enigmatic even, but somehow they speak loud and clear.
Różewicz is one of the “primary care” poets in Poland. I got to know him years back, in primary school. When I started writing at the age of eighteen, I shamelessly imitated his poems, because he seemed easy to imitate. Numerous budding Polish poets still fall victim to his poetry’s illusory simplicity. I soon became aware that I was not able to imitate Różewicz well. Luckily, I did not get offended and I kept reading him. I still do. He remains among the most important poets in our literature, and one of those who stay closest to our reality. You just believe him.
Translated by Kacper Bartczak
Among many other things, poetry is a drama of the poet’s hand. The writing hand, the hand of the writer, may be treated as both metaphor and metonymy, and it is in-between these two figures of speech that a distinct narrative of Różewicz’s work unravels. In several of his poems, the hand is a metaphor of writing, and it is very often accompanied with images of exhaustion and emptying. At the same time, it is a metonymy of the poet’s body, which is revolting and not at all committed to what the mind intends to say. Sometimes the poet writes against himself, unable to stop the flow of language, giving in to the repeated mechanical gestures that mean (simulate, represent, and reproduce) death and writing. I remember Różewicz complaining in one of his texts: “my poems don’t breathe […] they are inorganic things.” He desperately wanted them to live. He wanted life for his poetry, and poetry in general. Yet he always lacked words that would express his longing and his dream. What was left was the writing hand, the automatic hand, the inhuman hand. His final medium. And his fate.
For someone who has worked with, and in, words, Różewicz has always approached language with an uncompromising suspicion. I cannot think of another poet who distrusts words more consistently. After the war, when words seemed compromised, Różewicz made a utopian attempt to rebuild trust in words by returning to simplest phrases and basic truths. “This is a man / this is a tree this is bread” — he would reteach himself, or name things again, as a new Adam, in his early poem with the Dantean title “In the Middle of Life.” Różewicz knew that with no transcendent sanction that would guarantee anything for us, we are left alone in this attempt: “the sky is silent,” so “if you hear a voice / this is a voice of another man.”
Words are mercenaries and turncoats, drifting entities ready to be used and abused, which we are only too ready to take as standing for permanent and thus unquestionable meanings — this is possibly Różewicz’s most important lesson for me. From this he drew conclusions which questioned the sense of poetry and proclaimed the priority of ethics over aesthetics. “Above all I am not concerned with Poetry” — to quote Wilfred Owen, a poet miles apart from Różewicz, but strangely close in his conclusions — “All a poet can do today is warn.” This distrust of words manifested itself in Różewicz’s reticence in isolated lines enveloped by long disturbing silences, but also, on the other hand, in his paradoxical talkativeness, with lines spilling from page to page in an endless uncensored chatting flow. What at first was a response to a deeply felt sense of the post-Holocaust crisis was later followed by the poet’s awareness of another danger: of the world going to the dogs, immersing itself in the banalities of mass culture. Różewicz’s poetry was in fact an act of dismantling poetry which has lost its raison d’être in the modern world. “It’s more difficult to spend a day well than to write a book,” I heard Różewicz at what was possibly his last public appearance, quoting Adam Mickiewicz, another giant of Polish poetry.
What I must have read as the essential feature of his poetry was its relentless focus on evacuating the world sensorium, which turned the poem into a condensed meditation on the poverty of the human — a condition whose unmistakable topic is the nothingness of life. This was its signatory presence that I track down at each reading, which I search for in each phrase, its basic narrative, in the taste of the poem’s flesh. It is this feature that for me makes him — although formally he is distant to me — the ultimate poet of dissent: he dwelled in the essential discord with the world, life, himself. Criticism, suspicion, bitterness, and irony — these are the four basic vectors of his poetic movements, which he follows invariably. Mostly, he is deprived of the easy solace which he never seeks, albeit incidentally finds at times. Charitable toward life’s by-products, but alert in tracking down their consequences. Always sharply perceptive of man’s continuous falling, a bottomless falling, simultaneously in all directions, an inescapable falling, out of which the only exit is in sobering paradox and saving distillate.
Tadeusz Różewicz’s poetry has kept me company — since I got hooked on poetry at all — on a very irregular basis. We are talking about a peculiar type of keeping company: its continuity is erratic, it assumes changeable dimensionality, its temperature fluctuates. As far as Różewicz’s writing is concerned, I have had two spells that can be called feverish: the first was in my youthful years; the other was directly related to his death. In both cases, Różewicz had a blasting impact — he offered poems like bones nibbled to the marrow. There was power in this austerity, this withdrawal, but there was also an insufficiency — a deliberate one no doubt. So I thought of a Różewicz poem as of a projectile, but one without a casing, thrust right into the bull’s-eye, the target being one’s receptivity to naked content.
Translated by Kacper Bartczak