In her introduction to this compact volume, Joanna Kurowska reveals that these poems were originally written in her native Polish. She translated them into English when she emigrated to the USA and adopted the nation's official language for her writing. I have sufficient knowledge of a couple of foreign languages, neither of them Polish, to be impressed by the enormity of her ambition. While I could understand her desire to reach a wider audience than she could ever obtain for Polish poetry, I was intrigued to investigate whether the translations would work, though sadly I'm unable to compare the translation to the original myself.
My first impression was of their short, precise form. The poems are all very brief, with few, short lines, most fitting on to a single page of my Kindle, with an economical, condensed use of language that sits well in our digital age. While scholars might decry the short attention span of the modern consumer, and the desecration of language by the enforced brevity of so many modern written communications, I believe that social media and text messages have given many people a greater appreciation of the virtues of economy in language.
While the scale and shape of Kurowska's poems feels up-to-the-minute modern, her themes are timeless and profound: familial love, life, death, liberty, theology, and eternity. Though the poems often ooze fear, doubt, and anxiety, they are ultimately upbeat, uplifting, and often gently humorous. They are the product of a mind that has faced and explored life's uncertainties and chosen to embrace the positive.
Some of the poems specifically evoke life in Poland, not only by references to Polish settings in their titles, but by capturing the flavour of local culture and traditions, in particular its politics and Catholic faith. The second poem (untitled) in the collection is a wry portrait of her grandmother's religious principles. She returns frequently to this humorous questioning of organised religion and the authority of the priesthood, which it seems she has tried to abandon but cannot entirely let go. These are the thoughts of a wistful, wondering agnostic, rather than a convinced atheist. The politically themed poems are a powerful evocation of her countrymen's culture of surviving in adversity. "Ten Years Ago in Olsztyn", about her relatives' political imprisonment - "my father - political prisoner, locked up with a rapist and a murderer" - is especially moving.
Yet the recurring motif of the wall is not just an obvious political reference to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of communism. Kurowska's wall is intangible, though she often tries to give it physical form. It causes her to probe deeper, posing questions about the human spirit striving for daily existence and survival. Fragile birds and butterflies symbolise her own feeling of vulnerability, combined with a tantalising and playful freedom of spirit.
The book is also pervaded by a feeling of restlessness, even after she has left her homeland for America (though Poland never seems far from her thoughts). This is another reason why the book feels so universal -- it is not so much about Poland or America or issues of nationality and belonging, but about a citizen of the world, seeking meaning and validation in an ever-changing, beautiful, but risk-riddled, environment.
Kurowska's choice of words offers frequent small pockets of joy: "Look, a rainbow above us - the rain's prayer"; "the tenant-building is holiday-clean"; the old woman too weak to do anything is described as, "weeping that she has missed her ticket to nonexistence"; on a train, "identical faces of other passengers wrapped up in wall-like silence". It is this powerful phrasing that enables her to create vivid scenes and moods in every line. (The first of two poems called "In a train" worked especially well for me.)
So, was her English up to the translation? Having now read her poems, I am embarrassed to have been so patronising. Any doubts of her bilinguistic ability were decimated within the first few pages. These are deft, assured poems by any measure, and I'm thankful to have had this opportunity to explore and appreciate Kurowska's work.