Reviewed by Claudia Stanek, East Rochester, NY, United States
TTR warmly welcomes guest blogger Claudia Stanek. Claudia, a fine poet, has spent time in Bialystok, Poland. Today she discusses Scattering The Dark, a collection of poetry by Polish women. Welcome, Claudia!
In the anthology Scattering the Dark (White Pine Press, 2015), Karen Kovacik has collected 115 poems written by 31 Polish women poets, the vast majority still living, writing, and publishing. From Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska to younger poets such as Agnieszka Mirahina, All of these poets are well-published though their names may be unfamiliar in the United States. Kovacik has selected work from diverse poetic styles: formal, free verse, and even neo-Language. There is also one poem composed in English, by Ewa Chruściel.
This anthology follows two other anthologies of Polish women poets’ work: Ambers Aglow: Contemporary Polish Women’s Poetry edited by Regina Grol (Host Publications, 1996, in English and Polish) and Solistki edited by Maria Cyranowicz (2009, Polish only). Scattering the Dark features poems translated into English without the original Polish side by side. Editor Karen Kovacik has translated more than half of the poems in this volume. While not translating their own poems into English, many of the poets included in this anthology are translators themselves.
In collecting these poems, Kovacik has created eight sections: “Lifting the Veils of History,” “In the Theater of Dreams,” “Reimagining the Bard,” “The Ironic Art of Poetry,” “A Gallery of Myths and Masks,” “Transitions, Transformations,” “The Domestic Arts,” and “Curating Objects.” She introduces each section with a brief annotation. Kovacik has selected poems and poets representative of life under communism and post-communist capitalism, as well as aspects of women’s lives as far back as World War II and up to this decade.
One does not need to be familiar with Polish history and culture though such familiarity most certainly adds to the appreciation of the work. In her annotations, Kovacik explains what one must know to fully enter the poems. Such an example appears in the section “Transitions, Transformations.” Here the Matka Polska (Polish Mother)—a popular concept due to tripartite Poland under Prussian, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian rule—“a sorrowful madonna, mourning the tribulations of her divided country” is featured in the poem “I Banged My Head Against the Wall” by Anna Swir, translated by Piotr Florczyk. The symbolism of the three partitions of Poland in 1772, 1793, and 1795 which resulted in the 123 year-long erasure of Poland from the map of Europe is echoed:
Then I was killed by lightning three times,
and I had to be resurrected three times
without anybody’s help.
Now I am resting
after three resurrections.
It is the art of translation that enlightens speakers of other languages to historical and current perspectives and themes. A good translation balances the form (or formlessness) of a poem, the literal sense of each word, the literal sense of each concept, concrete and metaphorical images and their multi-faceted implications, grammatical structure, and the intent of the poet for the poem. In explaining her selection of poems Kovacik writes, “My own editorial preferences for short lyrics, an ironic coolness of tone, and poems that in some way give voice to gendered concerns… influenced selection.”
One challenge in translating Polish to English is that Polish does not use articles. The distinction of “the” from “a” comes instead from the complexities of Polish grammar and the context of word choice. As a poet and linguist, I can say from my very limited experience in studying Polish that its grammar is extraordinarily difficult to master. There are seven “cases” used under very specific rules which may appear arbitrary to non-native speakers of Polish but are absolutely essential to the expression of the language. English has no corresponding way to treat these cases.
Poems in this anthology run the spectrum of poetic styles. Here is Kovacik’s translation of Agnieska Kuciak’s sonnet “Meter”:
At times, it’s like returning home: already
on the threshold, dogs shake off whole years
of absence, and again you scratch their ears,
and at the matted table, quite unsteady
you’ll touch the dimpled wall—its penciled lore,
its maps of names and dates—where years ago
you strained so tall to reach each line to grow.
So, too, with meter, when you pause before
a wall of paper filled with dates and names,
believing in the wall, to which you’ll run
from freedom’s frying pan into rhyme’s
fire. But at times, like fate, it seeks to pen
intention with caesura, or run on to some other
line, one devoid of home or dogs or mothers.
How I wish the original Polish were on the opposing page, not to hyper-analyze and compare the rhyme scheme and meter between both languages, but to have a visual appreciation for both Kuciak’s original and Kovacik’s translation. The lack of the original Polish is my only criticism of this anthology.
At what is perhaps the other end of the spectrum is Joanna Mueller’s neo-Language poem “Proofreading.” Regarding the translation of this poem Kovacik writes, “I was able to find meaningful equivalents for the Anglophone reader, while also preserving the poem’s music and punning.” The poem begins, “The rhythm of language, the poem’s rhyme / is not the rhythm of life.”
Further in we read
“Blunders occur when we wander among letters:
misplaced modifiers, a persecution complex,
a hunt for needles in haystacks.”
And finally, “Manuscripts / are fragile. Though they won’t burn, his [the proofreader] / one careless move will turn them into”. That last preposition leaves the English-speaking reader to draw a conclusion (or not).
Scattering the Dark is a solid exploration of contemporary Polish women’s poetry in translation.
A bit about Claudia . . .
Claudia M. Stanek’s chapbook, Language You Refuse to Learn, was a co-winner of Bright Hill Press’s 2013 annual contest. Her work has appeared in Bitterzoet, Ithaca Lit, Sweet Tree Review, Redactions, and Ruminate, among others. In 2010 Claudia was awarded a Writer’s Residency in Bialystok, Poland, where her work has been translated into Polish. Her poem “Housewife” was selected for a commissioned libretto by Judith Lang Zaimont for the Eastman School of Music’s 2009 Women in Music Festival. She holds an MFA from Bennington College. Claudia lives among the birches in East Rochester, NY with her rescued pets.
You can find more from Claudia Stanek at her blog, Poetic Effect