You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Against Color

Sobbing Superpower: Selected Poems of Tadeusz Rózewicz
By Tadeusz Rozewicz
Translated by Joanna Trzeciak
(W.W. Norton, 364 pp., $32.95)

New Poems
By Tadeusz Rozewicz
Translated by Bill Johnston
(Archipelago Books, 259 pp., $16)

They Came To See A Poet: Selected Poems
By Tadeusz Rozewicz
Translated by Adam Czerniawski
(Anvil Press, 268 pp., $22.95)

The Survivor And Other Poems
By Tadeusz Rozewicz
Translated by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert Maguire
(Princeton University Press, 160 pp., $30.95)

In retrospect, all revolutions seem inevitable. It might seem obvious today that Polish poetry after World War II would appear as something radically new, unlike anything that was written before in Poland, or, for that matter, anywhere else. The narrative is all too familiar by now. The soul-corroding witness to the Holocaust, the daily terror of brutal Nazi occupation, the seemingly futile heroism and unpunished vileness, the betrayal by Western allies, and the imposition of a totalitarian communist regime—all this must have resulted in a thorough recasting of metaphysical and moral concepts. The poetry that emerged from this terrible crucible would have to be stark, stripped of decorum, unsentimental, relentlessly precise, objectified to the bone, much like the pebble from Zbigniew Herbert’s poem, “aware of its boundaries” and looking at the world “with a calm and very clear eye.”

Of course, this is exactly what happened, making the poetry of the Polish war generation—represented by Tadeusz Rozewicz, Zbigniew Herbert, and Wisława Szymborska, and also by their older colleague Czesław Miłosz—arguably one of the most original developments in European writing of the second half of the twentieth century. But was the emergence of this new poetry inevitable? After all, both during and immediately after the war many Polish poets, old and young, kept on writing pretty much as they had written before the cataclysm. There was still a lot of post-romantic pathos, tragic lyricism, and turn-of-the-century symbolism, with pockets of pure aestheticism and avant-garde experimentation added to the mix. It was partly a desperate attempt at continuity amid extreme discontinuity, but not all of it was quaint or insignificant.

As is often the case, the shock of transformation came almost out of nowhere. In fact, it can be traced to a single man and a single book. Tadeusz Rozewicz is less well-known in the United States than his two famous contemporaries, the master of stoic fortitude Herbert and the ironic moralist Szymborska. And yet it was Rozewicz who started it all. Szymborska, only two years his junior, was right to say, shortly after receiving the Nobel Prize in 1996, that it would be difficult to imagine Polish poetry without the poems of Tadeusz Rozewicz. “We all owe something to him,” she said, “although not everyone is ready to admit it.”

This relative obscurity comes as a surprise, because from the very beginning Rozewicz was graced with brilliant translators into English, who included Czesław Miłosz; Magnus Krynski and Robert Maguire; Rozewicz’s longtime friend, the bilingual British-Polish poet and critic Adam Czerniawski; and more recently Bill Johnston and Joanna Trzeciak. Each of the many books of Rozewicz’s poetry available in English has its own strengths, and they need to be read jointly in order to form a complete picture of the poet. Joanna Trzeciak’s Sobbing Superpower, which is the most recent addition to the Rozewicz bookshelf, is probably the most personal and selective one. Faced with over six decades of Rozewicz’s output, she concentrated on the early, formative books as well as the recent and still uncollected poems, while limiting the presentation of the middle part of the poet’s career to just a few carefully selected poems from each of his consecutive books. Sobbing Superpower is beautifully translated and occasionally shows a more playful, relaxed, and even lyrical side of the poet than many of his readers came to expect. But the collection omits several important poems, and although I quote here mostly from Sobbing Superpower, I occasionally have to refer to other translations as well.

TADEUSZ ROZEWICZ WAS born in 1921 in the small town of Radomsko in central Poland, one of three sons of a petty court clerk. “We lived more than modestly,” his mother would remember years later. “Food was in short supply.” Together with his older brother Janusz and his younger brother Stanisław (the future film director), he took an early interest in literature. Janusz, who could claim a number of publications in pre-war periodicals and who corresponded with several prominent writers, was a mentor and an idol to his younger siblings. Tadeusz, still in junior high school, also saw some of his juvenilia in print—in a rather sundry assortment of places, from ephemeral avant-garde leaflets to inspirational magazines for Catholic youth.

After graduating from gymnasium, Tadeusz tried to get accepted into a teachers’ college but failed the entrance exam. (Apparently singing was not his forte.) As his second choice, he was considering a school of forestry, but the outbreak of the war prevented any further education. For a while he helped to support his family by doing menial jobs, but upon turning eighteen he followed Janusz into the underground Home Army. He completed a clandestine officer’s course and was assigned to a partisan unit operating in the local forests. At the same time he was also working as an editor of Polish clandestine publications and continuing his own writing.

In 1944 he published a volume of lyrical poems, satires, poetic prose, and journalism called Echoes in the Forest, in which he proclaimed his belief in the ultimate victory of civilization over Nazi barbarity, but also gave voice to the first expressions of disenchantment with the Polish patriotic myths, and of anxiety about the war’s moral impact on his generation. Shortly after Tadeusz’s book appeared, Janusz was arrested by the Gestapo, and then executed after a failed attempt to obtain his release in a British-mediated prisoner exchange. Though treated with great reticence, the event looms over many of Rozewicz’s poems, some of which he collected in 1992 in Our Elder Brother.

After the war, the twenty-six-year-old Rozewicz finally managed to get a high school diploma. For a while he was living in Kraków, the cultural capital of Poland, where he studied art and made friends with a group of young expressionist painters, who, like Rozewicz in his poetry, were searching for a radically new aesthetic idiom capable of expressing the anger, the disillusionment, and the dislocation felt by their generation. The new idiom—in fact a whole new poetics-revealed itself in Rozewicz’s first book of poetry, Anxiety, published in 1947.

In that book the practically unknown young man set down what quickly became his generation’s credo. “I am twenty-four/led to the slaughter/I survived,” he wrote in “Survivor,” his most frequently quoted poem. But what survived, he continued, was just an empty shell. Lost was the faith in basic human values and notions. Terms such as “man and animal/love and hate/friend and foe/light and dark” became “empty and equivalent.” He challenged philosophers and moralists by declaring that “concepts are only words,” and that “Virtue and vice weigh the same/I’ve seen:/a man who was both/vicious and virtuous.” And he blasphemed against God and against the human spirit, neither of which, he said, were present during the slaughter: “Man is killed just like an animal/I’ve seen:/truckloads of chopped-up people/who will never be saved.”

Photo Credit:

In Anxiety, Rozewicz also apologized to the dead for the life that keeps going on. “I am bored I write poems/I think about death/I buy pretzels and fuzzy/peaches that look like baby mice.” He painted himself as a murderer and a monster, “as blind as a sword/in the hands of an executioner,” with “fumes of blood” gushing from his nose. And he called into question the very sense of telling it all: “Why did I loosen my tongue/forfeiting a telling silence/a gabbler who will say nothing new/under the sun.” Yet he seemed to end with something like a plea for help, without knowing where the help might come from: “I’m searching for a teacher and a master/let him give me back my sight hearing and speech/let him name objects and concepts again/let him separate the light from the dark.”

The tone, the imagery, the sheer anger and vehemence of this one little volume was like nothing that had been written in Polish before. The publication of Anxiety was greeted as a sensation by Polish writers and critics of practically all generations, including Miłosz, who dedicated one of his early postwar poems to Rozewicz. Many were shocked, however, by the poetic language in which Rozewicz laid it all down. It seemed to abandon all traditional forms of versification, all semblance of meter, all poetic diction that would distinguish the poem from ordinary speech. It eschewed abstraction and focused almost exclusively on simple, irreducible facts, images, and perceptions. Some critics noted that Rozewicz’s poems seem to be highly condensed fragments of descriptive prose.

In fact, the structure of Rozewicz’s poems can be highly elaborate, and his metaphors can display an almost baroque inventiveness, as when he compares fallen angels to “streaks of autumn rain/connecting lips with birds taking flight.” But for the most part this complexity is well hidden behind Rozewicz’s seemingly plain diction and his seemingly straightforward declarative statements. As a Polish critic observed, his poems remind one of a cubist painting, in which each image constitutes a building block and the relations between those blocks reveal themselves only to a trained eye.

A reader familiar with modern American poetry will quickly notice certain parallels with the imagist revolution of nearly a generation earlier—with Ezra Pound’s command that “poetry must be as well written as prose,” and with William Carlos Williams’s concept of “no ideas but in things.” Rozewicz would later acknowledge his indebtedness to Pound (and also to Beckett), but it is possible that he arrived at this style on his own and only later discovered his kinship with other poets and schools. What is more important, in the case of Rozewicz, the style had a moral dimension as well as an aesthetic one. It was a sort of answer to Adorno’s famous question about the appropriateness of writing poetry after Auschwitz. If poetry after Auschwitz is to continue, Rozewicz was saying, poetry must become something it never has been before. It must stop being overly concerned with its own alleged uniqueness, with its elevated status among human expression. Instead, poetry should reduce both itself and the reality it describes to their fundamentals, dissect and analyze them. In one of his many poems about the poetic art, “On the Surface and Inside a Poem,” Rozewicz gave his poetic credo: “One must remove words/slowly carefully/peel image off image/colors off shapes/ feelings off images/down to the core/ to the language of suffering/till death.” And in another poem, “Non-Stop-Show,” he declares: “In order to write in our time/one needs to hold back give in close off/turn deaf/in the past people wrote from excess/nowadays from lack.” Only such reduced, refined poetry may become what the poet calls “a battle for breath,” the last defense against despair, because when such poetry ends “for a poet/an abyss opens/life/closes.”

ROZEWICZ WAS LUCKIER than Szymborska or Herbert in making his mark in the short period after the war when, despite the tightening of communist political control, there still existed a relative freedom of artistic expression. He managed to publish one more book of poems, Red Glove, in 1948, before “socialist realism” became the only sanctioned artistic mode. Unlike some of his colleagues, he was able to continue publishing, although his writing was met with increasing official disfavor because of its pessimism and its alleged Western influences. Rozewicz penned a number of ideologically “correct” poems about the working class, the promise of socialism, and the iniquities of capitalism. He seemed to signal his willingness to accept a more optimistic attitude in the poem “A Reply,” where he declared: “If poetry demands/seclusion/self-sacrifice/and despair/reject it,” and “create a new one/which builds/upon commonplace feelings/simple words.” But what he wrote in the 1950s was usually less propagandistic and more genuine than the majority of the officially sanctioned literary production of the time. It included some truly great poems on the subject of the Holocaust, such as “Ponytail,” about a little girl’s ponytail found on a heap of human hair in Auschwitz, or “Plains,” in which the poet follows the wandering spirit of a murdered Jewish girl in an attempt to preserve “the small sun of her smile.”

Like many of his contemporaries, Rozewicz had to master the art of evasion. Together with his friend Tadeusz Borowski, he apparently considered traveling to the West, and applied for a grant to go to Paris. His request was denied, and he settled for a few months in Budapest. After his return to Poland, he left behind the closely watched and increasingly fractious literary circles in Kraków and settled in the culturally insignificant Silesian town of Gliwice. Only Stalin’s death and, a few years later, the partial liberalization of political and cultural life in Eastern Europe allowed him to pick up the main themes of his work—a meditation on death and the unstoppable pressure of life, the fate of ethical and aesthetic values, and the search for some sort of accommodation with a world seemingly injured beyond repair.

Aside from his verse, Rozewicz published two volumes of short stories whose tragic, often war-related subjects were presented in a relentlessly “objective,” emotionless style that resembled Borowski’s wartime narratives. In the 1960s he started writing experimental, open-form dramas and screenplays in the mode of Beckett and Ionesco. The heroes of those writings are usually passive individuals trapped inside their own obsessive reveries and assaulted by a barrage of messages and demands from a chaotic external world. The best known is The Card Index, published in 1960, in which an adult man identified simply as Hero lingers in bed taking stock of his hollow existence, interrupted by a Greek chorus and a stream of visitors from various periods of his life.

The time of political upheavals in Poland that started with the student protests of 1968 and culminated in the Solidarity uprising of 1980 presented Rozewicz with a dilemma. Throughout his career he had been a resolutely private person avoiding even a semblance of political engagement, both in his life and in his poetry. Like most of his fellow writers, he was quickly disillusioned by the communist project, but he refused to play the role of a “dissident” writer. He never joined any movement or organization, official or clandestine; never signed political manifestoes; never got involved in protest activities; and, with very few exceptions, never tried to smuggle political implications into his poems or his plays.

This detached, apolitical stance was perceived as something odd, even suspicious, in Poland’s politically charged literary circles of that time. It was most likely the principled choice of a writer who consistently rejected the idea of the poet as a moral authority. Czerniawski suggests that one of the reasons for Rozewicz’s relative obscurity in the United States may be the fact that he could not be easily written into the cold war narrative of Eastern Europe. But even at home the poet must have felt marginalized and mistrusted. He moved again, this time to Wrocław (the former German city of Breslau) in southwestern Poland. He traveled in Western Europe and North America. But between 1983, when the book On the Surface and Inside a Poem was published, and 1991, he fell practically silent.

The fall of communism in Eastern Europe provoked another turn in Rozewicz’s work, and the last two decades have been exceptionally prolific. Departing from the dense, economical verse that had been his trademark for much of his career, Rozewicz started experimenting with a more relaxed and open form, and he introduced humor and self-irony—virtually absent from his earlier writing—into his work. Some of his more recent poems resemble verbal collages or scrapbook entries—fragments of conversations, letters, press clippings, quotations from his own earlier poems. But even in this freer, lighter verse, wartime memories tend to recur with the old force and immediacy. A good example is a long poem called “The Professor’s Knife,” which builds on a series of conversations and letters between the poet and a friend, the Polish art historian and camp survivor Mieczysław Porębski. In the poem, the two octogenarians quarrel about the best ways of cooking eggs, exchange dietary advice, and discuss the utility of modern gadgets and the meaning of atheism. The knife of the title, which the poet spots among the professor’s art books, is an ingenious contraption fashioned by camp inmates out of a piece of barrel hoop, and used to slice and divide bread. It is not a weapon; it is a symbol of the cleverness and the survival skills that led to the professor’s long and accomplished life.

And yet the coarseness, the rusty grimness of the tool is also a memento of death—the deaths of millions murdered in the camps, the deaths of departed friends, the death of the evil twentieth century, the deaths of things, images, and memories. Robigus, the lesser Roman deity associated with rust and blight, appears often in the poem. So do freight trains—strings of cattle cars moving through idyllic meadows “so quietly the buzzing of bees can be heard.” Those trains “loaded with banal Evil/banal fear/despair/banal children women/girls/in the blush of youth” mingle with modern bullet trains connecting European cities. They are phantom trains, still departing from little stations that no longer exist, or grand terminals converted into art centers. They are lurking at the edge of consciousness waiting to “fall like an avalanche/on humanity/not on ‘humanity’!/on a human being.”

The poem ends without a clear conclusion, neither on the side of life nor on the side of death. The narrator informs us that on his way to visit the professor in his summer residence on the sea coast, he stopped at “the hometown of the poet Jawien” (the pen name of Karol Wojtyła, the future John Paul II) and was moved by “his mountains his clouds/the house he grew up in the school and the simple church.”

THIS INCONCLUSIVENESS IS quite characteristic of Rozewicz, especially of his later poetry. His world fragments and decays, death penetrates life, words lose their meaning and fall into silence. The darkness and the pessimism rise and ebb, never receding but also never triumphing. The dominant tone of this poetry is not black but gray; and the poet seems to use shades of grayness as his preferred palette. In the poem “gray area” from a book of the same title, Rozewicz observes that “my gray area/increasingly includes poetry/here white is not absolute white/black is not absolute black/the edges of these noncolors/touch.” The poem takes as its motto a quote from Wittgenstein’s “Remarks on Color,” in which the philosopher ponders whether the “neutrality” of grayness is subjective and psychological, or whether it is logical, deriving from its position between white and black; and whether a color filling a shape changes the nature of that shape.

For Rozewicz, the shape, the outline of a thing, is definitely more important than its color. Colors are an unnecessary distraction, a form of disguise. That is why, the poet says, “by its very nature/a drawing is/closer to the absolute/than a Renoir painting.” Rozewicz’s poetry certainly has a monochromatic feel. Landscapes, scenes, faces have an unmistakably pale, grayish tone, as if in old faded photographs. Color is hardly ever mentioned, and when it is, it stands for pretense and superficiality, as in the long poem “Et in Arcadia Ego,” where street urchins in “colored stripes,” “a cherub with ruby lips,” and prostitutes resembling “shining seals/fat/multi-eyed red/shining red and silver” turn the narrator’s pilgrimage to the art of Italy into a Felliniesque carnival of garish if titillating forms. “The world we live in/is a variegated vertigo,” Rozewicz says in “gray area,” “but I don’t live in that world.”

Just like his stripped-down, seemingly colorless language, grayness in Różewicz’s universe is something of an ethical statement as well. It is a mode of living, of experiencing one’s existence. Gray, unremarkable people leading gray, barely examined lives are the ones who command his compassion, and even his respect. Geniuses, prophets, and visionaries are treated with suspicion. In “A Didactic Tale,” Rozewicz meditates on the painting “The Fall of Icarus,” traditionally attributed to Brueghel. In the painting, which has inspired several poems, most notably Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” Icarus’s fatal fall is virtually unnoticed by the central figure of the painting, the ploughman preoccupied with his mundane task. The earthbound gravity wins over the reckless upward striving of the human spirit. But unlike Auden’s stoical, detached observation (“everything turns away/Quite leisurely from the disaster”), Rozewicz unambiguously takes the side of the ploughman. At one time, he says, he might have thought he had the right to shout “look look listen you blockhead/Icarus is falling/Icarus the son of vision is drowning.” But now he understands that “the ploughman ought to till the land/the shepherd watch over his flock/the venture of Icarus is not their venture.” It is the unremarkable folk, the common people, who keep the world from self-destructing. Like Brueghel’s ploughman, they move around with their eyes fixed on the ground, preoccupied with the necessary tasks of caring and feeding.

This salutary grayness is often personified in Rozewicz’s writing by old women—those constantly irritated, tired, unkempt women who were the fixture of endless food lines in the declining years of communism in Poland, and who carried on the task of feeding their families with angry, blind, unreflective determination. In a poem called “The Story of Old Women,” the poet praises these emblems of survival for bringing all great aspirations down to their proper proportions “commensurate with the demands/of everyday life,” while their sons “discover America/perish at Thermopylae/die on the cross/conquer the cosmos.” Those women are “like an ovum/a mystery devoid of mystery/a sphere that rolls on.” Yet the praise is oddly mixed with disgust. In the drama “Old Woman Broods,” Rozewicz portrays one of those survivors as a grotesque Mother Earth “brooding” over an egg in a restaurant that is slowly turning into a garbage dump. Informed that World War III has just broken out, she commands the waiter to buy her a sack of flour. “I’ll eat dough,” she says. “I’ll fatten myself up. They’re making war and I’ll make dough. I will paste the war over with dough.” And she addresses her egg, supposedly containing her yet unborn, or maybe already dead, son: “You see, my boy. We must perform our tasks. We have to eat and give birth.”

Unlike those unappealing, stubborn protectors of life, a genius, a seer, a titan of the spirit is always too careless with the fundamentals of existence. While trying to embrace everything, he (it is always a “he”) misses some essential bit of the puzzle. One can almost detect a note of schadenfreude in Rozewicz’s poems describing fallen greatness. Such is the poem that recounts the sordid (and now debated) circumstances of the death of the Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini, and another one, about the similar death of the German aesthete Johann Winckelmann. Elsewhere he dwells on the suicide of Rilke’s abandoned daughter as a gruesome attempt to challenge her father’s aestheticism, to “debase/too lofty ambitions/to shatter/the crystal ball.”

ROZEWICZ'S HUMANISM, his attempt to find a counterbalance to pessimism in “commonplace feelings,” is often strained and unconvincing. It is clear that he does not really like his heroes, or his heroines, of gray existence. He seems to realize that “eat and give birth” is hardly a moral program. It is interesting to observe how Rozewicz tries to resolve the metaphysical implications of his pessimistic vision. In some poems, he seems to come close to nihilism. In “Unde malum?” he calls human existence a “work-related/accident/of nature/an error.” And in the poem titled “Nothing in Prospero’s Robes,” Caliban-humanity (“mug in dung/feet in paradise”) is awaiting an answer from his master, but “nothing arrives”: 

nothing in magic robes
Prospero’s robes
nothing from streets and lips
from pulpits and towers
nothing from loudspeakers
speaks to nothing
about nothing

But elsewhere he appears to be desperately rummaging in the near-forgotten lumber room of Christian symbolism and imagery. In the poem “Dostoyevsky Said,” Rozewicz approvingly recounts the Russian writer’s saying that having to choose between truth and Jesus, he would choose Jesus. “The birth life death/resurrection of Jesus/are a huge scandal/ in the universe,” Rozewicz says. But “without Jesus/our little planet/is devoid of consequence.”

In “Thorn,” one of his earliest poems about religion, Rozewicz declares that “I don’t believe/as patently deeply/as my mother/believed,” but he also declares that God’s absence is “the thorn which tears/our eyes and lips/now/and at the hour of our death.” Sometimes he presents God as a cultural construct, but a construct that is the fundament of humanity. In “Tempus Fugit,” he points out that “humans are the only creatures/who created God who created/humans,” suggesting that by creating God, Man in fact created himself. Unfortunately, this act of creation is being undone. Echoing Nietzsche, Rozewicz seems to doubt whether man, self-created in the image of God, can survive the death of God.

Often described by critics as an atheist, Rozewicz in fact seems obsessed with God. (This is not uncommon among atheists.) He constantly ponders the philosophical and moral implications of God’s nonexistence. He prays to the absent God, quarrels with Him, mourns His death, blames Him for his own inability to believe. Sadness rather than a fear of absolute extinction is the usual motivation of these encounters. In “The Gate” a freethinker’s defiant call—“courage!/ beyond that gate/there is no hell”—turns into a plaintive acceptance: “courage!/ beyond that gate/there will neither be history/nor goodness nor poetry/and what will there be/dear stranger?/there will be stones.”

And occasionally, when the questioning takes on a particularly pained and personal character, God seems to respond, sometimes appearing as perfect emptiness, a void, and sometimes as a fleeting, elusive presence. He allows himself to be glimpsed only in peripheral vision, always at the moment of departing, of disappearing. In one poem we read that “upon the sands/of my words/someone drew the sign/of a fish/and walked away.” And elsewhere the poet is pondering what of this world is supposed to remain, and closing his eyes “sees two/nailed feet/they fly from the planet.” Such manifestations have nothing to do with religious ecstasy or with a mystical sense of universal “oneness.” They occur in moments of dejection, among shabby and colorless landscapes. And they are accompanied by a sense of ambiguity and incompleteness, as in the poem about the German shoemaker and mystic Jakob Boehme, to whom God allegedly appeared “in a tin pitcher/or maybe a beer mug.”

Like almost everything else, Rozewicz’s God seems to inhabit the undetermined “gray area”—neither quite present nor completely absent. And even such tangential revelations are immediately called into doubt. “The lips of truth/are pressed tight,” Rozewicz says, “the one who knew/the one who was the truth/is gone.” What remains is the mystery of “this divine earth/with its unearthly beauty/this lesion in the universe” and the sense that “sometimes ‘life’ obscures/That/which is greater than life.”

In more recent poems, Rozewicz’s religious meditations seem to bring him close to the concept of “contentless faith” that was adumbrated in the writings of liberal Protestant theologians such as Paul Tillich, who suggested that “absolute concern with being,” free of any religious symbolism, is still a form of faith, and that profound atheism—a deep, spiritual experience of the absence of God—is still a religious experience. This kind of thinking appears in Rozewicz, too, and comes to the fore in his book Exit, which appeared in 2004. In an intriguing poem titled “learning to walk,” Rozewicz talks about “taking lessons” from another German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran priest who was executed in the last weeks of the war for conspiring against Hitler. In their imaginary conversation, Bonhoeffer tells the poet to accept the fact that God, although not dead, “has gone from this world,” and man has to learn “to live with dignity/in a godless world/without counting on punishments and rewards.”

In his prison writings Bonhoeffer considered the possibility that the idea of a transcendental God may no longer be available to the modern individual, and posited the idea of an immanent God—a God that is fully of this world, and even identical with the world. A similar concept appears in some of Rozewicz’s poems. The figure of Jesus seems to suggest this kind of immanence—no other God but that which lives and bleeds with us. And in an openly mystical poem about death, called “This Rustle,” the poet seems to be one step away from making a forthright confession of faith in God’s immanence: “he whom/I sought above/waits below.”

But one step away is as close as he is willing to take us. Is this enough to call Rozewicz, after Czerniawski, one of the very few contemporary Polish religious poets? (Religious, as opposed to pious, of which there are many.) It is doubtful that Rozewicz would wish to be so explicitly defined. He clearly dislikes philosophical or theological taxonomies. For every forward step he takes, there is a step backward. In “Knowledge,” one of his poems from the 1960s, he insists that in this life “Nothing will ever be/explained/nothing leveled/nothing rewarded,” and years later in “philosopher’s stone” he repeats the caution: “we need to put/this poem to sleep/before it starts/philosophizing/before it starts/fishing/for compliments.”

This reticence is what makes Rozewicz’s poetry uniquely powerful and honest, but also makes it difficult to love. He is always vigilant not to overstep his selfimposed limits—on language, on ideas, on what can and cannot be said with some degree of certainty. His poetry seems to take away more than it gives. Sometimes one would wish for a larger horizon, for a deeper breath. But Rozewicz will never comfort the reader, and he certainly is not looking for compliments. His limits confine, but they also condense. They force everything to prove its substantiality and its relevance. Instead of answers, the poet offers only an examination. Like it or not, he says, this is all we have: a fragment, a glimpse, a rustle—the gray zone. 

Jaroslaw Anders is the author of Between Fire and Sleep: Sketches on Modern Polish Poetry and Prose (Yale University Press). This article appeared in the December 1, 2011, issue of the magazine.