Although his works are published at regular intervals in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, one has to go back over thirty years to find more than a handful of poems last published in the United States by Tadeusz Rózewicz. No doubt the poet’s somewhat contentious relations with fellow poets, particularly the late Czeslaw Milosz, and his stance as an outsider in his country have both contributed to his remaining on the fringes of who’s who of Polish poetry. With this pocket-size publication, however, which gathers the poet’s three most recent collections in splendid translation, another of Poland’s greats is at last being reintroduced, albeit without a helpful preface, to American readers. In fact, New Poems gives us reason to celebrate, not only because a poet whose mastery is indisputable has authored it, but because it may very well deepen our understanding of what Polish poetry is and what it’s been up to lately.
Unlike most established poets in Poland, Rózewicz, who was born in 1921 and lives in Wroclaw, continues to be immensely prolific and embraced by readers old and young alike, including young poets, which in itself is an anomaly, an explanation for which one finds in the poet’s work. Having fought in the underground army and survived World War II, Rózewicz burst onto the scene writing about the horrors he had witnessed firsthand. However, what distinguished him from others was his rejection of classical overtones and elaborate forms in favor of verse that was both direct and stripped of any pretentiousness associated with Poland’s traditional labeling of poets as bards and other figures of almost messianic qualities. Keeping in mind Adorno’s questioning of poetry’s validity after Auschwitz, Rózewicz wrote verse that has become synonymous with the kind of poetry of witness whose sheer poignancy not only battles the reality of wartime horrors but also questions the act of writing itself.
We can be grateful that Tadeusz Rózewicz’s approach and attitude haven’t changed. He remains a poet of extraordinary intellect, wit, and irony, a poet often writing with a kind of acerbic awareness of what it means to live in this day and age. His mixture of philosophical and pop-cultural references gives birth to a poetic cocktail that’s hard to turn down, even though his detractors choose to focus on his overt use of irony and sarcasm, calling it nothing short of nihilistic. The truth—something that Rózewicz seeks more than, say, beauty—however, lies in his desire to scrutinize both past and present without fear of being consumed by either. This is a lifelong project. In one of his newer poems, entitled “so what if it’s a dream,” the poet writes, “I write on water // from a few phrases / a few poems / I build an ark,” and the only thing one can say in response is: keep writing, keep building. New Poems is a necessary book.
-Piotr Florczyk, Wilmington, Delaware