Ewa Lipska: An Acute Inflammation of Light

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This feature on the work of Ewa Lipska, one of Poland’s mostly widely admired contemporary poets, grew from what was originally intended to be no more than a modest review of a new bilingual selection of her work. However, the review developed into something more like an essay. Subsequently, after several email exchanges with Robin Davidson one of the two translators, I suggested that we might include some poems.  I am, therefore,  extremely grateful to Robin for her enthusiastic help and encouragement in this project. DC

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The High Window gratefully acknowledges that all poems from Dear Ms. Schubert. Poems by Ewa Lipska, translated by Robin Davidson and Ewa Elżbieta Nowakowska, and published by Princeton University Press , are reprinted here by permission of Princeton University Press

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The EssayThe PoemsThe Translators

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Dear Ms. Schubert. Poems by Ewa Lipska, translated by Robin Davidson and Ewa Elżbieta Nowakowska. Bilingual.  Paperback. Princeton University Press ISBN: 978-0-691-20748-3

Born in Kraków in 1945, Ewa Lipska has published some thirty collections of poetry for which she has received many awards in her native land. Her poems have also been translated into more than fifteen languages, including several selections which are currently available in English. The volume under review brings together sixty-one brief poems addressed to a certain Ms. Schubert or, in the original Polish, Pani Schubert, the sound of which may remind some readers of Zbigniew Herbert’s Pan Cogito. There is indeed a similarity in the way that both ‘characters’ began to appear in occasional poems, but then took on a life of their own. However, the similarity stops there. In Lipska’s poems Ms. Schubert is merely a recipient. She does not respond and we cannot really say we know much about her. Unlike Pan Cogito, she is never the focus of any clear narrative and does not instigate any action or line of thought. Moreover, we do not know who her correspondent is either, although there is a valiant attempt in the translators’ Afterword to imply that there has been a romantic connection between Ms. Schubert and the person sending the messages. It is suggested, also, that whoever it is, they are most likely to be male and so, presumably, not the poet herself. However, based on the poems gathered here, it seems more useful to think of Ms. Schubert as a simple sounding board against which the poet can bounce ideas, that she is an idealised or theoretical reader, such as Auden evoked in ‘The Fall of Rome’:

All the literati keep
An imaginary friend.

However, it is perhaps worth noting, in the light of Poland’s traumatic history, that Ms. Schubert is named for one of Austria’s greatest Romantic composers. From its First Partition in 1772 until 1914, Poland had no independent existence as a nation-state but was repeatedly carved up by its powerful neighbours: Germany, Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the Second World War it was partitioned again, this time by the Russians and the Nazis until its ‘liberation’ in 1945, when it became a Soviet satellite. These circumstances have inevitably shaped its literature and often led to the expectation that its poets should in some way engage with them. During the communist era, a degree of obfuscation was probably also the order of the day. Interestingly, some Northern Irish poets at the time of the ‘Troubles’ seemed to identify with much of this. Seamus Heaney and Tom Paulin, for example, have expressed their admiration for Miłosz, Herbert and Różewicz, while others, like Mahon, Muldoon, and Heaney also, were, perhaps like Ewa Lipska herself, unwilling to saddle themselves with this burden. One suspects, also, that Lipska’s oblique approach to her art reflects a world view that is not dissimilar to that expressed by Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s Ulysses: ‘History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.’

In his brief Foreword, Adam Zagajewski, a fellow poet, friend and exact contemporary of Lipska’s, emphasises her independence from all movements both literary and political. He also refers to her ‘surrealist wit’, but is right to distance her from the effusiveness that is often associated with that movement. Her poems are distinguished, rather, by a hard- edged hermeticism. They are concise and carefully controlled. At its best, her imagery offers moments of epigrammatic insight. At its worst, it can be enigmatic to the point of opacity. She can linger in the mind or leave the reader floundering. She is certainly uncompromising, a poet who requires careful and repeated reading until one has managed to tune in to her frequency. One might add also that in an age of ‘fake news’ and simplistic narratives her clear-eyed sophistication is more necessary than ever: ‘Dear Ms. Schubert, I won’t translate the words / for you I never said. They got all tangled up / with childish excuses.’ (‘Lightning’)

Turning now to ‘Ancestry, Dear Ms. Schubert’, the first poem in which she appears, the reader will discover a blend of bold statement and riddling images. In the light of what has been said above, its opening sentence seems clear enough: ‘Ancestry, Ms. Schubert, is a submission to memory […]’. Transparent, too, is her neat encapsulation of Poland’s supressed identity and culture: ‘We are all foreigners translated into German.’ However, ‘ancestry’ is also described as ‘the sin of comparing hot chocolate with the wet beach of a bed’. ‘Hot chocolate’ would seem to evoke Vienna’s café culture, particularly, when we learn that the poet divides her time between Kraków and Vienna. In the light of this, we may be entitled to assume that an invalid’s bed symbolises Poland’s historic weakness, subjugation and cultural effacement: an interpretation that is confirmed perhaps when, further on, ‘ancestry is also referred to as ‘Shorthand records of a dying asthma […].’

The title of the next poem, ‘The Abyss That Brings Us Together’, not only presents us with a paradox but then goes on to describe Mitteleuropa as a familial and, consequently, cultural melting pot, although, in ‘Echo’, an obsession with the past is again compared with an illness:

Dear Ms. Schubert, I can’t muffle the return of
the past. The noisy quarrels of foreign languages.
I can’t mute our loud hot-headed fevers […]

What does the doctor say?
It’s just an untreated case of chronic echo. (‘Echo’)

At this point, it is worth noting, also, that the poet mentions, presumably in recognition of their importance, a considerable number of cultural icons produced by those very nations who have been responsible for the marginalisation of Poland’s own language and culture: Nietzsche, Marx, Dostoevsky, the Brothers Grimm, Richard Wagner. However, with reference to the latter, she wisely draws a distinction between the artist and his work:

I wouldn’t want to meet Richard Wagner in person –
Please, just make me an appointment with his music. (‘Wagner’)

In the ten lines of ‘The Hero of the Novel’, she takes us from an unspecified past back into the contemporary world via its internet trolls:

Dear Ms. Schubert, the hero of my novel
lugs around a trunk. It holds his mother, his sisters,
family, war, death. I’m not able to help him.
He drags this trunk through 250 pages.
He’s sapped of energy. And when he finally exits
the novel, he’s robbed of everything.
He loses mother, sisters, family, war, death.
It serves him right, say the posts on an Internet forum.
Maybe he’s a Jew or a dwarf? Witnesses claim
they will remain silent on the subject.

The lesson here seems clear: that we need to explore the past with a view to learning from it, rather than repeating its mistakes. However, in ‘The Dead’, we are warned that too great an obsession with the past and its many victims can itself become counter-productive, literally a dead end: ‘Dear Ms. Schubert, we’re tracking the dead, increasingly. We monitor the places where they no longer exist. […] We hunt down absence with our eyes. And all the while, imperceptibly, we follow them. And from them, nothing but winter […]’.

Alongside her attempts to find meaning in past events and to discover their relationship with the present, Lipska, like Augustine, is fascinated with the nature of Time and its many paradoxes. In ‘Absentmindedness’, she asks: ‘Dear Ms. Schubert, have you noticed how / Time’s been increasingly distracted lately?  Mathematicians […] say its days are numbered.’ In ‘Piano’, she suggests: ‘So let’s play it again, dear Ms. Schubert, because it’s still too early to be too late.’ In ‘A Typo’, the idea of ‘fake news’ becomes the subject of a metaphysical speculation:

Dear Ms. Schubert, as you know, stories that never
happened circulate among us. Once a woman
came up to me and said, “I am a Date, though
there is no place or time within me. No
epoch-making events are associated with me. [..]”
So you ask, when didn’t this happen? I can’t say. (‘A Typo’)

Enigmatic and challenging, Ewa Lipska is above all an artist and one who, like Wallace Stevens, creates her own universe in an attempt to discover transcendent truths or, as she expresses it in ‘Poetry’: […] It’s good there’s still / a country called Poetry.’ A poet who is both playful and serious, she makes her appeal to the intellect and is wary of any aesthetic that works too nakedly on the emotions. This is the theme of ‘Opera’: ‘[…] in my youth I often / fell sick with opera. Tragic opera, which / sprinkles poison into life, stabs a dagger into fear / is killed in a duel, or takes its own life’; while, in ‘Soloist’, her depiction of the hero: ‘I am alone on stage […]’, inevitably brings to mind Pasternak’s ‘Hamlet’. Pushing language to its limits, Lipska follows her muse wherever it takes her, even if what she discovers is unpalatable. In ‘Nero’, the poet is driven by the same artistic impulse as a ruthless tyrant; while, in ‘Sudden Brightness’, there is a recognition that often it is easier for us to cling to our illusions rather than face the truth: ‘[…] we were only afraid of one thing: acute inflammation of light, a disease in which sudden brightness could kill us.’ Ewa Lipska is a poet who is well worth the attention of Anglophone readers and one can only be grateful to Princeton University Press and the editors of their wonderful Lockert Library of Poetry in Translation for publishing these scrupulous and elegantly phrased versions by Robin Davidson and Ewa Elżbieta Nowakowska.

David Cooke is the editor of The High Window. His eighth collection of poetry, Sicilian Elephants, will be published by Two Rivers Press later this year.

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LANGUAGE

Dear Ms. Schubert, I’m writing you in
Polish. A strange tongue. It sticks to the palate.
It has to be translated, constantly,
into foreign languages. Sometimes it gives off
a dull smell and tastes like apathetic mustard.
Sometimes though, it relaxes in love.
Do you remember how dizzy our words were
when we ran along the beach, and rain
washed from our mouths the remnants of speech?

JĘZYK

Droga pani Schubert, piszę do pani w języku
polskim. To dziwny język. Przykleja się do
podniebienia. Trzeba go stale tłumaczyć na języki
obce. Ma czasami tępy zapach i smakuje jak
apatyczna musztarda. Bywa, że rozkręca się
w miłości. Pamięta pani ten leksykalny zawrót
głowy, kiedy biegliśmy przez plażę, a deszcz
zmywał nam resztki mowy z ust?

HISTORY

How, dear Ms. Schubert, does one go down in history?
By storm, like tyrants? By guile, like poets?
By applauding the encore it makes
at the request of the audience? Which audience?
Or keeping quiet when it sends on chance and fate
as its spies? Can one actually make an exit?
A seasoned fire shoots down the thought in flames.

HISTORIA

Jak wejść do historii, droga pani Schubert?
Szturmem, jak tyrani? Nieśmiało, jak poeci?
Oklaskiwać ją, kiedy bisuje na życzenie
publiczności? Jakiej publiczności? Milczeć,
kiedy wysyła na przeszpiegi przypadek i los?
Czy można z niej wyjść? Doświadczony pożar
stuka się w czoło ognia.

CASINO

Dear Ms. Schubert, good-for-nothing Fate
led me into the casino. I was greeted by the bustle
of chips, a concoction of gambling leaves,
and the brass glances of a croupier. I always bet
on our odd numbers, dear Ms. Schubert,
and the red squares, chits of our debt-laden strolls.
From “probability theory” it follows that
the eye of roulette is not the eye of Providence.
And a marble dog standing watch in front
of the casino is positioned for
a losing streak.

KASYNO

Droga pani Schubert, nieprzydatny do niczego los
zawiódł mnie do kasyna. Powitał mnie gwar
żetonów, napar z liści hazardu, mosiężny wzrok
krupiera. Stawiam zawsze na nasze nieparzyste
numery, droga pani Schubert, i na czerwone pola,
fragmenty naszych zadłużonych spacerów.
Z „teorii prawdopodobieństwa” wynika, że oko
ruletki nie jest okiem opatrzności. A stojący na
czatach przed kasynem marmurowy pies leży na
przegranej pozycji.

NERO

Dear Ms. Schubert, I didn’t yield the floor
to my imagination, and yet it happened.
Dinner with Nero at the Hotel Hassler in Rome.
“Are they still gossiping about me?” But Lucius,
I say, they have other problems now, the dollar
is dying. We eat leeks with oil. Gucci dresses
swirl around us. You’re having a concert today,
I say, you’re playing the lute and reading poems.
It’s always unbearably hot in the vicinity of death,
but who remembers?

NERON

Droga pani Schubert, nie udzieliłem głosu swojej
wyobraźni, a jednak się stało. Kolacja z Neronem
w hotelu Hassler w Rzymie. „Czy dalej o mnie
plotkują?” Ależ Lucius, mówię, mają teraz inne
problemy, dolar jest umierający. Jemy pory z oliwą.
Dokoła nas kręcą się sukienki Gucci. Masz dzisiaj
koncert, mówię, grasz na lutni, czytasz wiersze.
W okolicy śmierci zawsze panuje nieznośny żar,
ale kto o nim jeszcze pamięta?

QUESTION

Dear Ms. Schubert, I can’t answer
your question, who “shall inherit the earth.”
History is silent on the subject. For some
unknown reasons the last page was torn
out of the flying bird of messages.

PYTANIE

Droga pani Schubert, nie mogę odpowiedzieć
na pani pytanie, kto „odziedziczy ten świat”.
Historia milczy na ten temat. Z niejasnych
powodów z lecącego ptaka wiadomości
wyrwano ostatnią kartkę.

HOME

Dear Ms. Schubert, sometimes I feel like
a house put up for sale. Inside me are six
bedrooms, two kitchens, three bathrooms and one
hunched-over attic. Theoretically, I have two exits,
though the one to the backyard’s always kept closed.
I stand in all the windows and look out at the tree,
which, like a fragment of unwritten prose,
rustles, to outtalk fear.

DOM

Droga pani Schubert, czasami czuję się jak
wystawiony na sprzedaż dom. Jest we mnie sześć
pokoi, są dwie kuchnie, trzy łazienki i jeden
przygarbiony strych. Teoretycznie mam dwa
wyjścia, ale od podwórza wiecznie zamknięte.
Stoję we wszystkich oknach i patrzę na drzewo,
które, jak fragment nie napisanej prozy, szumi,
aby zagadać strach.

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The Translators

Robin Davidson is a poet, translator, and professor emeritus of literature and creative writing at the University of Houston–Downtown. Twitter @RobinDavidsonr.

Ewa Elżbieta Nowakowska is a poet, short-story writer, and translator who lives and teaches in Kraków.

Davidson and Nowakowska are also the translators of a previous collection of Lipska’s poetry, The New Century.

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