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Review of Poems Letters Drawings

Lesley Chamberlain, Times Literary Supplement, 29th July 2005

Relaxation with ashes


Cyprian Kamil Norwid was, in the view of the outstanding Slavist Roman Jakobson, "one of the greatest world poets of the later nineteenth century". Born near Warsaw in 1821, to an impoverished noble family, Norwid was a coeval of Clough, Baudelaire and Emily Dickinson, though the overlaps in their works are more curious than revelatory.

Apart from tendencies of character, which included timidity with women and an eccentricity which grew with age, loneliness and poverty, it was Norwid's fate to be accident- ally exiled from Russian-ruled Poland. While studying sculpture in Italy he lent his passport to a political agitator and was permanently distrusted by the Russian Embassy as a result. An outsider in foreign Polish communities, perhaps largely because he failed to win the woman he wanted, he lived in Rome and Paris, where he was befriended by Chopin. He knew Adam Mickiewicz and was friendly with Julius Slowacki, the two great Polish Romantic bards of the previous generation. Driven by lack of money to try his luck in America, he found none, and returned via England to France, where he died in a Polish charity hostel in 1883.

Norwid's work was not fully published in Polish in his lifetime. The collection Vade-Mecum (1865), which became a ragged palimpsest testifying to a fretful last twenty years, only appeared in holograph in 1947. Jakobson wrote the first of two short essays, "Przeszlosc Cypriana Norwida", in 1960-61, and Czeslaw Milosz followed with a masterly fourteen pages in his History of Polish Literature in 1969. The first English version of Vade-Mecum was published in Tunbridge Wells in 1954. George Gomori maintained the small flow of interest through the 1970s and 80s, when modern Polish poetry benefited from attention generated by the Cold War. Adam Czerniawski and Jerzy Peterkiewicz also contributed to that stream, but this is the first time either has attempted to introduce Norwid to the general reader; and now we have two introductory volumes to compare.

Inevitably there is rivalry. The Anvil volume, Selected Poems, appearing four years after the Carcanet collection, Poems, Letters, Drawings, expresses this directly. In an introduction, Czerniawski's adviser and collaborator, Bogdan Czaykowski, suggests that Peterkiewicz has misunderstood the essence of Norwid, as well as ignoring his Catholicism. Jerzy Peterkiewicz, who edited and translated Poems, Letters, Drawings, was worried by subsequent ages stamping their prejudices on a malleable oeuvre, and evidently wanted to show Norwid in and of his own time.

Readers will be glad of all they are offered in both volumes and find much to enjoy and admire, but the marked difference between them is likely to create above all an appetite for the original Polish.

"The Past", the three-stanza Vade-Mecum poem commented on in Jakobson's first essay, has typical Norwid features. Consisting of three rhymed four-line stanzas, it is extraordinarily compressed, using no adjectives, and while its subject is abstract, its verbal tools are colloquial. Most striking is the way monosyllabic interjections like "but", "so", "well", "you see" entirely justify the space they occupy. The last two lines of "The Past" are an exemplary tangle of negative expostulations. "No", "nothing of the kind", "nowhere" accompany the simplest substantives - "village", "people". The last word, a simple, pertinent "was", is followed by omission marks.

Peterkiewicz preserves the rhyme scheme at the cost of losing Norwid's gemstone concision. He also fills out the lines. The effect is to give us a nineteenth-century poet who knows melancholy but not despair, and for whom the roundness of language is a solace:

Not God created the past, or death, or agonies,
But the breaker of what is right
Who cannot bear the sight
Of any day and, sick, pushes back memories.

Compare this, though, with Czerniawski's scornful, jerky twentieth-century voice:

Death, pain, the past, are not God's,
But his who breaks the laws;
So - he can't bear the days;
And, sensing evil, wants remembrance spurned!

Peterkiewicz pads, and also substitutes a noun for one of Norwid's few crucial verbs. "Breaks" here is even an allusion to Satan from the Book of Wisdom. To replace "evil" with "sick" meanwhile transforms Norwid's world-view from religious to materialistic-socialistic and denies the existence of evil. People who break what is right are sick! To bring this behaviourist world into the poem is a monstrous imposition.

Czerniawski also removes a rare and crucial verb with religious overtones. In the original: "Not God created death, pain, the past". His substitution generates the pseudo-inflected awkwardness of "but his who", and his "so" hangs redundant. But he makes us feel for Norwid's ability to put muddled and fuzzy human articulation to higher use, and that is an important achievement.

Norwid likens the man who spurns memory to a child in a moving cart thinking the trees are moving. The spiritual child can't cope with the past, can't even see where it is:

The past - is now, though somewhat far:
Behind the dray a farm,
Not something somewhere
Never known to man!

Czerniawski's emphases, not in the original, are effective in so far as they convey, both visually and in sound, scorn at the dim world. The poet is now inhabiting the common mind, now reproducing its colloquialisms critically.

Peterkiewicz turns "The Past" into a gnomic parable, but misses the delicate philosophy behind it. Norwid offers an enchanting point of departure for thoughts about imaginative language, the mysteries that can be conjectured through grammar, and what is ultimately true.

Peterkiewicz comes off better in a two-stanza jewel from Vade-Mecum he calls "Tenderness". Adam Czerniawski's "Feelings" loses the necessary contrast between the abstract and the tangible. Under this heading, Norwid proposes four out of an indefinite number of similes for tenderness: like a war cry, an eddying current, music at a funeral, and a silver watch worn by a widower on a plait of blond hair. The vividness, density and brevity of this poem are dazzling. The conclusion is a knot of ordinary words and extraordinary meaning, just as in "The Past"; how to greet, resist, wear and record time remains the preoccupation. The quest for rhyme and roundness again misleads Peterkiewicz, while both translators omit the crucial epithet "ordinary" before "watch". As Jakobson observes, musically and meaningfully Norwid links krzyk (war cry) with zwykl (ordinary). The sense is of an opening question and a closing answer.

Peterkiewicz renders his nineteenth-century Norwid in a language consonant with the line drawings, which include brisk caricatures, Bible illustrations, studies of action and contemplation, and autobiographical lampoons. Norwid's graphic work reflected the same scope and themes as his written output and occasionally earned him a meagre living. Some of the poetry was further preoccupied with statues and monuments, and poetry's relation to them. In this, Norwid was reminiscent of Pushkin, and it seems possible that Mickiewicz, who sparred with the Russian poet on just this theme, made his fellow Pole aware of an interesting legacy.

In several senses, the Russians were never far away. Jerzy Peterkiewicz immortalizes a corner of nineteenth-century local history when he provides a version of "Fortepian Szopena", "Chopin's Piano" with its central image of Norwid whisking the shade of Chopin back to a burning Warsaw to witness the Russian occupier throwing his instrument out of a window. The theme of exile, too, is omnipresent, and it is worth noting that exiles, including Jakobson and Milosz, have brought us our belated English Norwid.

He was a versatile and surprising poet. He wrote quasi-epic, narrative poems sometimes conceived as letters, and tackled autobiographical themes in a charming, mocking tone.

IRONY, the only personage I knew
Wholly alive, grand lady dressed askew
And stirring quiet ashes with her toe,
Her tresses ginger, her face a red moon-glow.

It may be true that the enigmatic variations of Vade-Mecum, because of their gnomic intensity, will never be at home outside the language of their birth; but when the English language and English imagination can relax and be themselves, amid society and satire, they evidently have a place for Cyprian Kamil Norwid.
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