This lovely book arrived in the morning mail: Piotr Sommer’s selected poems RANO NA ZIEMI (Morning on Earth).
It’s just come out in a new series (Biblioteka Poezji Współczesnej = The Library of Contemporary Poetry) edited by poet Mariusz Grzebalski for the Wydawnictwo Wojewódzkiej Biblioteki Publicznej i Centrum Animacji Kultury w Poznaniu (umm, let’s just say it’s a joint venture of the Poznań Public Library and the Poznań Arts Center). Other poets so far published in Grzebalski’s series are: Andrzej Sosnowski, Tadeusz Pióro, Krzysztof Śliwka, and Grzegorz Wróblewski.
RANO NA ZIEMI includes about 180 poems from Sommer’s seven books: W krześle (In the Chair, 1977), Pamiątki po nas (What We’re Remembered By, 1980), Kolejny swiat (A Subsequent World, 1983), Czynnik liryczny (Lyric Factor, 1986), Czynnik liryczny i inne wiersze (Lyric Factor and Other Poems, 1988), Nowe stosunki wyrazów (New Relations of Words, 1997), and Piosenka pasterska (Shepherd’s Song, 1999). About half of these poems are available in English in his book CONTINUED, which Wesleyan University Press published in 2005, and which was translated by multiple hands (including those of D.J. Enright, John Ashbery,and Jarosław Anders) in collaboration with Halina Janod.
I helped out with some of the newer poems in CONTINUED, and I can vouch for the difficulty of getting them into English successfully. Sommer’s language is quite plain, understated, but so fastidiously gestural and resonant with the everyday that it resists translation. Most of the time. Here’s one, however, that I think works quite well:
You’re not going to find a better place
for these cosmetics, even if eventually
we wind up with some sort of bathroom cabinet and
you stop knocking them over with your towel—
there’ll still be a thousand reasons to complain
and a thousand pieces of glass on the floor
and a thousand new worries,
and we’ll still have to get up early.
(translated by Halina Janod and D.J. Enright)
Sommer is above all concerned with the human voice speaking out of and to private experience—rather than converting it into publicity or declaiming an ethical position. There is also a sense in these poems, even in the ones that do not make this explicit, that to voice one’s experience as directly and as precisely as possible, without illocutionary or parabolic distortion, is itself an ethical act. So much delight is taken in that voicing, so much attention paid to pitch and tone and rhythm, that Sommer’s poems might be understood as both listening (I’m thinking here from Forrest Gander’s novel AS A FRIEND, which I just read, in which the hero claims that “poetry is a kind of listening”) and singing.
The poet’s delight is never far removed from his chagrin at things going awry; and in Sommer’s poetry, that happens mainly when a listening and singing subjectivity reenters the public atmosphere. In the poem “Proofs,” such friction becomes an occasion for articulating what is important to him in language:
Don’t worry about commas, all these
punctuation marks, colons, semi-colons
and dashes which you so scrupulously
specify will be, thanks to a proof-
reader’s inattentiveness, left out; the rhythm
of your sentence, your thinking, your language
will prove less important than
you expected, or maybe than you wanted.
That was nothing but wishful thinking—
you won’t be read to the music of speech
but to the hubbub of things.
(translated by Halina Janod and D.J. Enright)
And this poetics is at the same time a political praxis, understood in terms of craft:
LIBERATION, IN LANGUAGE
These heart-stirring errors of craft—
uncertainty how a nation
should respond to violence,
made up for by an urgent
sense of mission
(words big as beans
that are hard to swallow)
and that almost obsessive
lack of detail—
yes, one can speak this way
from the stage: this language
is not beautiful but all
abruptly draw out their hands
and clap, and so, perforce,
it must be correct.
(translated by Halina Janod and Ed Adams)
All three of these relatively straightforward poems are from CZYNNIK LIRYCZNY [Lyric Factor], which Sommer published in 1986. Sommer, who is the editor in chief of the monthly magazine of international literature, Literatura na świecie, a highly influential translator of British and American poetry, and a recent DAAD Artists Program fellow in Berlin, does not match the image of the Polish poet that has developed over the past forty years. He is a bit of a pain in the ass (he likes to say, for example, what he thinks). And his poems don’t behave the way they’re supposed to either (see Kim Hjelmgaard’s review in Zoland Poetry 2006 for a good analysis of this). But for the sake of Polish poetry in English, Sommer’s work and his views on poetry are more important now than ever, precisely because they are not easy or easily digestible; they represent an opening of the field.