Tuesday, February 21, 2006


Tadeusz Rozewicz

Tadeusz Rozewicz (1921 -- ) is one of the most important and most influential Polish poets since World War II. University educated in art history, he fought in the Resistance against the Nazis; the horrors of that struggle marked him deeply and shaped his attitudes and beliefs. His bleak view of life revealed itself in his earliest poetry, work that dealt with the experiences of the war, as in the poem "The Survivor":

I am twenty-four
led to slaughter
I survived.

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 it:
truckfuls of chopped-up men
who will not be saved.

Ideas are mere words:
virtue and crime
truth and lies
beauty and ugliness
courage and cowardice.

Virtue and crime weigh the same
I've seen it:
in a man who was both
criminal and virtuous.

I seek a teacher and a master
may he restore my sight hearing and speech
may he again name objects and ideas
may he separate darkness from light.

I am twenty-four
led to slaughter
I survived.

(Translated by Adam Czerniawski)

He cultivated a plain, unadorned style which was intended to communicate as directly and uncompromisingly as possible the stark realities of human existence:

"In The Middle Of Life"

After the end of the world
after my death
I found myself in the middle of life
I created myself
constructed life
people animals landscapes

this is a table I was saying
this is a table
on the table are lying bread a knife
the knife serves to cut the bread
people nourish themselves with bread

one should love man
I was learning by night and day
what one should love
I answered man

this is a window I was saying
this is a window
beyond the window is a garden
in the garden I see an apple tree
the apple tree blossoms
the blossoms fall off
the fruits take form
they ripen my father is picking up an apple
that man who is picking up an apple
is my father
I was sitting on the threshold of the house

that old woman who
is pulling a goat on a rope
is more necessary
and more precious
than the seven wonders of the world
whoever thinks and feels
that she is not necessary
he is guilty of genocide

this is a man
this is a tree this is bread

people nourish themselves in order to live
I was repeating to myself
human life is important
human life has great importance
the value of life
surpasses the value of all the objects
which man has made
man is a great treasure
I was repeating stubbornly

this water I was saying
I was stroking the waves with my hand
and conversing with the river
water I said
good water
this is I

the man talked to the water
talked to the moon
to the flowers to the rain
he talked to the earth
to the birds
to the sky
the sky was silent
the earth was silent
if he heard a voice
which flowed
from the earth from the water from the sky
it was the voice of another man

(Translated by Czeslaw Milosz)

Nor can one turn to the various beliefs of the past for help in confronting the darkness:

"Homework Assignment on the Subject of angels"


flakes of soot
cabbage leaves stuffed
with black rice
they also resemble hail
painted red
blue fire
with a tongue of gold

fallen angels
moons that press
beneath the green nails of the dead

angels in paradise
resemble the inside of the thigh
of an adolescent girl

they are like stars
they shine in shameful places
they are pure like triangles and circles
they have in the middle

fallen angels
are like the open windows of a mortuary
like the eyes of cows
like the skeletons of birds
like falling airplanes
like flies on the lungs of fallen soldiers
like strings of autumn rain
that tie lips with a flight of birds

a million angels
over a woman's palm

they lack a navel
on sewing machines they type
long poems in the shape
of a white sail

their bodies can be grafted
on the stump of an olive tree

they sleep on ceilings
they fall drop by drop

(Translated by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire)

Love, too, is viewed darkly:

"Draft of a Modern Love Poem"

And yet white
is best described by gray
bird by stone
in December

love poems of old
were descriptions of the flesh
described this and that
for instance eyelashes

and yet red
should be described
by gray the sun by rain
poppies in November
lips by night

the most tangible
description of bread
is a description of hunger
in it is
the damp porous core
the warm interior
sunflowers at night
the breasts belly thighs of Cybele

a spring-clear
transparent description
of water
is a description of thirst
it produces a mirage
clouds and trees move into
the mirror

Lack hunger
of flesh
is a description of love
is a modern love poem

(Translated by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire)

Love, relationships -- these always culminate in separation, loss, absence:

"A Visit"

I couldn't recognize her
when I came in here
just as well it's possible
to take so long arranging these flowers
in this clumsy vase

'Don't look at me like that'
she said
I stroke the cropped hair
with my rough hand
'they cut my hair' she says
'look what they've done to me'
now again that sky-blue spring
begins to pulsate beneath the transparent
skin of her neck as always
when she swallows tears

why does she stare like that
I think I must go
I say a little too loudly

and I leave her,
a lump in my throat

(Translated by Adam Czerniawski)

Only rarely does life and the world offer us safety, protection, comfort:


My little son enters
the room and says
'you are a vulture
I am a mouse'

I put away my book
wings and claws
grow out of me

their ominous shadows
race on the walls
I am a vulture
he is a mouse

'you are a wolf
I am a goat'
I walked around the table
and am a wolf
windowpanes gleam
like fangs
in the dark

while he runs to his mother
his head hidden in the warmth of her dress

(Translated by Czeslaw Milosz)

Occasionally, the darkness of his view is lightened briefly by flashes of self-directed irony:

"Among Many Tasks"

Among many tasks
very urgent
I've forgotten that
it's also necessary
to be dying

I have neglected this obligation
or have been fulfilling it

beginning tomorrow
everything will change
I will start dying assiduously
wisely optimistically
without wasting time

(Translated by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire)

But ultimately man and his desires are defeated:


four drab women
Want Hardship Worry Guilt
wait somewhere far away

a person is born
starts a family
builds a home

the four ghouls
hidden in the foundations

they build for the person
a second home
a labyrinth
in a blind alley

the person lives loves
prays and works
fills the home with hope
tears laughter
and care

the four drab women
play hide-and-seek with him
they lurk in chests
wardrobes bookcases

they feed on gloves dust
kerosene mud
they eat books
fade drab and quiet
by icy moonlight
they sit on paper flowers
the children clap
trying to kill a moth
but the moths turn into silence
the silence into music

the four drab women wait

the person invites
other people
to christenings funerals
weddings and wakes
silver and gold anniversaries
the four drab women
enter the home uninvited
through the keyhole

first to appear is Guilt
behind her looms Worry
slowly there grows Want
baring her teeth comes Hardship

the home becomes a cobweb

in it are heard voices groans
gnashing of teeth

the awakened gods
drive off
importunate humans
and yawn

(Translated by Bill Johnston)

I know him and like his poetry. Unadorned poetry full of depth.
I came across "The Middle of Life" in a Polish exhibition in the library of my university and was transfixed! Simple, stark, bold and beautiful and childlike... and something so rare in modern/postmodern poetry, the ultimate reaffirmation of human life and existence amid the frightening bleakness conditions impose. Its simple beauty gave me new impulse and energy as I sat down and re-opened my very unpoetic Macroeconomics textbook..

Thanks for sharing his other poems =)
I'm glad you both found something to like in his work. Thanks for letting me know.
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