Sobbing Superpower: Selected Poems of Tadeusz Rozewicz
Translated by Joanna Trzeciak
Foreword by Edward Hirsch
Norton – £14.99
One of my favourite all time poets, T. S. Eliot, once wrote: ”Very few people, I suspect, know how to read” – that is, ”in the sense of being able to read for a variety of motives and to read a variety of books each in the appropriate way.”
In many, if not most instances, this is probably true. But there are surely some instances, especially when it comes to poetry, where the reader doesn’t really have to ”know how to read.” Reason being, the subject matter they’re reading is so empirically powerful and unquestionable, that it just is.
Such is the case with most of the writing(s) throughout Sobbing Superpower – Selected Poems of Tadeusz Rozewicz; wherein a great deal of the subject matter and indeed, the way it is approached, is wholeheartedly anchored within the parameters of true-grit, raw, literary minimalism.
This may partially explain why Tadeusz Rozewicz is widely held to be one of the most influential Polish poets of the last century.
Apart from anything else, his poetry is haunted by the Holocaust and the all round failure of civilization to save humanity – both then and now. As Joanna Trzeciak writes in the Translator’s Note: ”Simply one of the great witnesses to the twentieth century, Rozewicz gives voice in a sharp, disturbing, and clear way to the crisis of values that has plagued our civilization – the impotence of culture, science, and religion when confronted with unspeakable evil.
One such powerful yet pristine, dark yet disturbing, humane yet harrowing examples of said ”unspeakable evil,” is depicted in Five Poems (1950) where, in ‘Pigtail,’ Rozewicz writes:
When all the women
from the transport had their heads shaved
with brooms made from linden twigs
swept and gathered up the hair
Behind the clean glass
lies the stiff hair of those gassed
in the gas chambers
there are pins and bone combs
in this hair
No light shines through it
no breeze parts it
no hand touches it
nor rain nor lips
In giant chests
clusters the dried-out hair
of those gassed
and an ashen pigtail
with a little ribbon
pulled on at school by
At this juncture, I once again feel compelled to refer to T. S. Eliot.
For while trying to come to terms with what we all already know about the Holocaust – of which ‘Pigtail’ is a perfect depiction – I remember him writing: ”Philosophy is difficult, unless we discipline our minds for it; the full appreciation of poetry is difficult for those who have not trained their sensibility by years of attentive reading.”
To my mind, Eliot’s words are particularly pertinent with regards the following eight lines form the poem ‘Gold’ (from 1998’s always a fragment. recycling):
”The means by which Germans liquidated Jews
rests on their conscience.
Reaction to those means,
however, rests on our conscience.
A gold tooth extracted from a corpse
will bleed forever,
even when no one remembers
where it came from (…)”
While it could be said that the aforementioned ”sharp” and ”disturbing voice” is almost relentless, there are also moments of candid and dare I say it, comedic light relief scattered throughout Sobbing Superpower – of which there are a number of examples, the final four lines of the rather elongated ‘Mr. Pongo’ being one of my favourites:
it’s feeding time
thank goodness they no longer
throw Christians to the lions
or even ”atheists”
Many of the poems herein are truly exceptional – even if they were written by an anti-poet.
Not only are they capable of vehemently stopping one from doing whatever it is they’re doing; they are darkly informative to the point of (unwanted) contagion. And on that note, I’ll let Old Possum have the final and perhaps most warranted word: ”devotional reading is the most difficult of all, because it requires an application, not only of the mind, not only of the sensibility, but of the whole thing.”