Art as a Guide through the Labyrinth: On the Poetry of Tadeusz Różewicz
Małgorzata Baranowska examines the threads that link the works of Tadeusz Różewicz, a poet who easily shifts between literary genres and styles
In the writings of Tadeusz Różewicz there appears the modern tendency to mix and "swap" genres. One can never know whether we will encounter in his poetry a fragment of a play or in his plays a poem, a novella or a tale. He is known as a poet - what we call writers who earn their living from different literary genres, if they produce different kinds of writing, not limited to the writing of poems. Poetry is, as we all know, the queen of literature. But is that what it is about here? Perhaps we should simply regard the oeuvre of Różewicz as one great poem. Perhaps that would be the fairest thing to do. If, that is, at the beginning of the 21st century the names of literary genres still mean anything at all.
Różewicz's approach to form is best characterised by the title of one of his volumes: Zawsze fragment ["Always a fragment"] (1996). He constantly treats the whole of his creative work as unfinished, not ready. Before the war, he published several poems and, as a partisan, a mimeographed volume of prose and poems entitled Echa leśne ["Forest echoes"] (1944), something akin to a silva rerum. But his real poetic debut, endowed with the unrepeatable Różewicz tone, was the volume entitled Niepokój ["Disquiet"], (1944). Already here we have the outline of a drastic image of a world crushed, desecrated, denigrated, deprived of hope, faith and perhaps even love (except maternal love) by war. We should not be fooled by the appearance of the young man and his assumed innocence - after years of war. He is not young. He is both an executioner and a victim already. He has been deprived of the modern world full of the goodness of saints and of the ancient world full of the noble strength of heroes. His faith has disappeared (the poem Lament ["Lament"]).
So far, there is none of the fragmentariness so characteristic of Różewicz's work today but in a certain sense we find out what in large measure constitutes the source of his later form. He has rejected the song-like nature of the old pre-war world (which was also his) but he has not yet reached the truth of the fragment.
There is, however, the silence that is so important in all of Różewicz's work. In the poem Nazywam milczeniem ["I name it silence"] it is quite directly named silence. The poem begins:
The unnamed I can name with a word
I can name it fatherland
Love gold a rose
I can call out or be silent.
Patronage for this work is provided by the conviction that after the extermination you cannot write or speak. After the extermination only silence is important. Does, however, Różewicz as a poet have a way out? He has to speak. And he has to propagate silence. This happens simultaneously. Because only thinking and only literature, particularly poetry, can express the impossible. Only literature and poetry can free people from the burden of the contradictions and paradoxes with which they have to deal in lives that are absolutely not literary.
This does not mean that the old literary entirety, the entirety of art, has been irreversibly lost. It is transformed. And it is not possible to find out to what extent the poet's imagination is affected by so-called inspiration and to what extent it is his developed conscious action. In addition, literary historians know well, although today they may be speaking in another language, that inspiration has unexpectedly a great deal in common with the so-called spirit of the times, the historical spirit of the times. And the spirit of the times is also shaped by the inspiration of these great times. Różewicz the poet is undoubtedly such a catalyst for an understanding of the 20th century through poetry.
Among other reasons, Różewicz's poetry has become great poetry because it talks with incredible sensitivity and obstinacy about matters that cannot be resolved, about matters about which other people do not speak, about matters that are often horrifying. The poet never runs away. On the contrary, he goes into the very heart of the uncomfortable mental contradictions of humanity, the nation, the human being. Problems that can be solved and states that can be fully understood find themselves outside the field of his interests. To live after the world's catastrophe, to write poems without writing them, to call out in silence.
Furthermore, Różewicz is above all a poet of culture. Sometimes, when reading his works, we stand quite simply amazed by the crowd of artists, painters and writers appearing in his poems, by the number of references to and dialogues with texts of culture. Because the whole of his oeuvre, as befits a dramatist, is very dialogical. It seems that the poet's propensity for engaging in dialogue appears in his poetry precisely in this way. He is a dramatist. He hears the world like a dialogue. He cultivates dialogue. He thinks in dialogues.
There are poets from whom we will never find out what they read. But in this poetry, which processes reality to such a great extent, we can find out. Obviously, this is not simply about counting. Sometimes there are surprisingly complicated relations. One of the most interesting poems seen from this point of view is Czytanie książek ["The reading of books"] from the volume Płaskorzeźba ["Bas-relief"] (1991). In a shocking way, Różewicz describes the passage of time, the course of his own life, as the reading of books, the writing of poems and the writing of letters which should not be put off for later because the addressees might die and they do die. The poem begins so innocently with the stereotypical beginning of bureaucratic life histories:
I, the here undersigned
Son of Władysław and Stefania
Born in 1921
In the town of Radomsko
Nothing much is happening. The poet goes for a newspaper on 5 November 1978:
"How time flies"
It is already July 1984
Evening, 8 p.m.
The poet reads about Dostoevsky, thinks about eternity, but "immediately afterwards":
I return to November 1978
I carry on reading "The battle for content"
... "the death of realism is regarded as something
That goes without saying
The poet admits that Irzykowski, not Witkacy, is right and goes to throw out the rubbish, and switches on the radio, where he hears a modern song. With increasing frequency he does not finish his poems, tales, letters. Letters turn out to come too late - in relation to the lives of the addressees. From his next book - when? - there emerges the voice of Rembrandt:
"Stay at home," he said to the young artist
Who wanted to go out into the world.
"Stay at home. Life is too short
For the cognition of the miracles
That can be found there."
The poet reads a few books, notices several moments - counted precisely in his reading, in the writing of a letter or even in not writing it. These moments sometimes have their own names in the form of hours or years or days. But there are only a few moments. Quite simply, nothing. The man, the poet, wakes, muses, reads, enters into an internal discussion with a few old artists, writers. And in real life, "completely unexpectedly", several decades pass. He himself does not even think about submitting to Rembrandt's advice. On the road to his own form he visits that of others.
The description of the passing of time, epochs, historical events at an unbelievable pace will appear in his poetry again. Here is an extract from the poem "Regression in die Ursuppe" from the volume Szara Strefa ["The grey zone"] (2002):
Finally even I was born
Into this world in 1921 and suddenly...
Atishoo! I am old and forget my glasses
I forget that there used to be
History Caesar Hitler Mata Hari
Stalin capitalism communism
Einstein Picasso Alka-pone
Alka-seltzer and Alka-ida
History passes in the time of a sneeze. And although the poet states that he has forgotten history, it is from his memory that there flow historical names and notions. The very creation of the world, its appearance with "God as the creator of man, woman, sun, cat and tick", takes up a considerable amount of space here. Then there are only phenomena originating in culture, objects created by mankind. And all of life emerged from some kind of ur-soup. The poet claims that in front of his eyes the reversal of this process is going on. Everything is changing into one soup, the soup of death. On this occasion it is not "nothing" but formlessness that is endangering us.
In 1971 there appeared the volume entitled Przygotowanie do wieczoru autorskiego ["Preparation for a literary soirée"], which became a great event - this collection of sketches, reminiscences, fragments of works from various genres, being one great auto-commentary, is also a great search for form. This strenuous search characterises the whole oeuvre of the poet. Różewicz is the first and the greatest post-modernist in Poland.
He is always a poet. But what does it mean to be a poet and where does this come from? Here is a fragment of the chapter entitled "Przygotowanie do wieczoru autorskiego" ["Preparation for a literary soirée"] from the volume of the same name:
"Who condemned me to such a life. I did not choose it. I was chosen. By whom?
I will try to give a clear answer to this question. I do not remember when I wrote my first poem or what it was about. I also do not remember why I wrote my first poem. I will not make up a 'legend'. Nobody 'chose' me or 'appointed' me. One thing is certain: one day I wrote my first poem. Did I from the very first poem work on its form, its shape? I cannot remember. When and why did I work on the form? I cannot remember. Who forced me to do it? I cannot remember."
Poetry is ruthless. It demands complete submission to itself. From the poem Zwiastowanie ["The annunciation"] from the volume entitled Zawsze fragment ["Always a fragment"] (1998):
The annunciation of poetry
Arouses in a person
Who is full of life
Nobody knows how it happens that poetry seizes a young person. It happens at a certain moment or more precisely it appears that this is so when you no longer have a choice. Poetry rules.
A characteristic feature of Różewicz's oeuvre is the creation by him of books not only combining various literary genres but also embracing unpredictable areas. Are "family books" in themselves in some way unexpected? In essence there is nothing more straightforward. Numerous people who are not poets collect materials and reminiscences for them in somewhat similar almanacs. But somehow, given the background of the earlier works by Tadeusz Różewicz, two of them do seem to be surprising: Nasz starszy brat ["Our older brother"] (1992) and Matka odchodzi ["Mother is leaving"] (1999) - for which he received the Nike Award in 2000. The former contains notes and works by Janusz Różewicz, the older brother of Tadeusz, the poet, and Stanisław, the director. There are also poems and notes, Tadeusz's reminiscences and Stanisław's reminiscences. In the latter the poet combined under one cover the fascinating reminiscences of their mother about the countryside at the beginning of the twentieth century, Tadeusz's memories of his mother, pages from his diary, Stanisław's reminiscences and Tadeusz's poems.
In these two books there is a partial explanation as to why there appears in the poet's works the state of existence between life and death. The state of suspension in the space of feelings that are at the same time violent and as if ossified. The older brother, Janusz, also a writer of poems, Home Army officer, shot dead by the Gestapo on 7 November 1944, was a role model for Tadeusz. And in large measure it was his death that influenced the freezing of Różewicz in the feeling of the ubiquity of death. Maybe it was not only the heroic death of his brother. It is even certain that it was not just that.
Above all, however, let us quote from Tadeusz's memoirs:
"Paris. Somehow Paris tormented us in Radomsko. Maybe because it was just as unknown and unavailable as Atlantis. And in Paris we were supposed to meet under the Mickiewicz monument... we promised ourselves that it would be on such a day in such a month at 12 noon that we would be waiting for each other... after the end of the war we would go there for the meeting for three successive years, we would make every possible effort to keep the appointment... if we did not meet for three years after the end of the war, that would mean that we would never meet again."
Tadeusz went to Paris in 1957.
"I look at this city as if... as if I had come to it after death... In my indifference there is something unnatural or maybe... I am just quite simply dead."
Czesław Miłosz was at that time horrified by his state. He feared for Polish poetry. He did not know that this was unwarranted, because Różewicz's poetry, suffused with eternal mourning, gained an additional great dimension.
The hopes, however, of all three brothers proved to be vain after all - Stanisław, the director, was Tadeusz and Janusz's brother as well. The surviving brothers had to experience the moment of liberation which also turned out to be the moment of catastrophe. The memory of the suffering and the death of their brother, like those of other soldiers from the underground, were deprived of truth. This generation was robbed not only of the post-war victory parades but also of the conflict itself. In many cases, also of graves. Not in this case. From the book Nasz starszy brat ["Our older brother"], we learn that after the war, during the time of exhumations, Baczyński's mother recognised him only from his medallion. The father of Janusz Różewicz and his brother, Stanisław, had to identify Janusz's body.
"We identified him," writes Stanisław, "from the shape of his head, teeth, hands, fingernails. His black breeches."
Buried together, after a certain time in the ground they had all become similar to each other.
Now - this is described in Nasz starszy brat ["Our older brother"] in the text from 1 September 1992 - Tadeusz Różewicz has a problem that has troubled so many people before him. He would like to tell his older brother the history of the family from 1944, when he had been imprisoned by the Gestapo:
"...but I am not certain whether in this old person he would recognise his younger brother, Tadek... so I smile and slowly move off in the direction of the Elysian Fields. I look behind me and I see against the background of the sky the dark figure of Adam Mickiewicz which is wandering towards the Fatherland... I see you... the movement of your hand in my direction..."
In his poetry, Różewicz very often meets and talks with the dead. Powrót ["Return"] from the volume Matka odchodzi ["Mother is leaving"] (1999):
Suddenly the window will open
And mother will call me
It's time to come back
The wall will split
I will enter heaven in muddied boots
Both these books, made up of very diverse materials, suddenly showed us Różewicz as an autobiographical writer. But is this really so surprising? In his works there is no lack of autobiographical elements, which we often cannot recognise at first glance because we place him in an abstract avant-garde context or because, as an ironist and a profound critic of reality, he emphasises threads and events in such a way that we allow ourselves to be deceived.
Under no circumstances would we call Różewicz a symbolic writer either. But someone who is a writer of culture cannot avoid symbolic threads entirely. The clearest and, it would seem, simplest (although this is only an appearance) symbolic motif in the poetry of Różewicz is the most trivialised and also the most symbolic flower for humanity - the rose. It appears as early as the volume Niepokój ["Disquiet"] in the poem Róża ["Rose"]:
Rose is a flower
Or a dead girl's name
Today a rose flowered in the garden
Faith and the memory of the living died
And thus in this poem Różewicz immediately leads us into the world of his poetry, in which he places himself in the strange space between the dead and the living, in the memory and in despair, in the search for words and in the discretion of silence.
The rose in this poem is a link between the world of the living and the dead, between youth and old age, between sensuality and death, between the life of art and life itself.
The rose is so present here that it even becomes the green rose of "songness" in the somewhat ironic poem, Zielone róże poety ["The poet's green roses"], which rings with others' rhythms and comes from the volume entitled Srebrny kłos ["The silver ear of grain"] (1955):
He did not gather storms
But armfuls of roses
Each of them green
One of Tadeusz Różewicz's volumes is called Zielona róża. Kartoteka ["The green rose. The card index"] (1961). The title poem, Zielona róża ["The green rose"], is a strange poem - a rose is in the title but no rose appears in the poem, apart from a piece of an embroidered motto:
"...she sewed in green the flower of a rose..."
This idyllic motto remains in opposition to the mood of the whole poem, which in itself is a harbinger of the famous poem Nic w płaszczu Prospera ["Nothing in Prospero's coat"] from the volume of the same title (1963):
Nothing in Prospero's
Nothing from streets and towers
Nothing from the loudspeakers
Speaks to anyone
The green rose is a poem about loneliness among people, Waning "we are beginning to live more solitarily", and about the unidentified something which is no longer even an idea which might somehow be isolated, which permeates everything to such an extent and squeezes itself into the poet's consciousness and paralyses him. It is something which permeates everything and grows around and within the poet - it is in fact "nothing".
Here are the roses from the volume Czerwona rękawiczka ["The red glove"] (1948) from the poem Kobieta w czerni stąpa po różach ["A woman in black treads on the roses"]:
Waning, she sees on the road
Of her life one rose...
So she too trod on the roses
Leaning over this
Strange flower from the world
Of living thoughts and trampled happiness.
This is yet another poem of mourning. But here too the rose represents the side of life and sensuality. The fate of the rose-flower is, however, the sphere of development and flowering but also of transience. It is obvious that in Różewicz's poetry there must also appear the rose of culture, roses coming from the space of art.
There also appears the internal space of the rose itself, namely the motif taken from Rilke's Rose-Interior. This is rather difficult to define precisely although it is very typical of Różewicz to follow the motif from Rilke. In any case, in his poem W róży ["Inside the rose"] from the volume entitled Nic w płaszczu Prospera ["Nothing in Prospero's coat"], he suggests that he went into the interior of the rose after Rubens. Here, inside the flower he hears "fanfares in praise of life" and fertility. But, among the grotesque Baroque scenery, from the bottom of the image, there can be seen an underground corpse-like world.
Finally, among the numerous roses in this poetry, there appears even a Mystic Rose. Not of its own accord. Not because of the poet's internal need. But as a motif of the Grünewald altar-image. It comes here from art. We should not suspect Różewicz of any kind of mysticism. He has allowed the Mystic Rose to flower or perhaps he has been scratched by it, maybe in his sleep:
Flowered to a living
Meat of the word
An explosion of God
Of the sun
Of the yellow of Grünewald
It has been introduced here by painting, descended from the Isenheim Altar and has immediately been treated blasphemously. This kind of procedure harmonises with the way in which the whole of life, with which Różewicz finds it so hard to come to terms, is so often treated in this poetry. In this particular poem, the rose may have come from a dream. It has become a messenger from another world - the world of night visions. But the poet immediately confronts this vision with the point of view of the day:
In the hard material
The black ice-floes of night drift away
The poet not only pushes this vision away but he also immerses it in vulgarisms. Whereas for Grünewald the Mystic Rose constituted a symbol of Christ's suffering and in this meaning was beauty incarnate, for Różewicz, a poet who is our contemporary, this symbol seems to be "too beautiful". Even a step towards the symbol is for Różewicz a step on the ground, and in no sense is it a step on the road to infinity. His rose, like humans, is mortal. We would like to say - above all mortal.
The Isenheim Altar (painted in 1512-1515) became a source of comfort for the sick in the hospital by the monastery in Isenheim. Both Christ's suffering and the Light of the Resurrection, portrayed with such incredible mastery by the painter, helped those suffering to transfer their own experiences to a different spiritual level. But in the poem by today's poet nothing of the kind takes place. On the contrary. He announces his lack of interest in a way that is unceremonious, and departs.
As usual, Różewicz's poetry does not give us any comfort or, even more so, any indications as to how to live. Many times in Różewicz's oeuvre life itself appears to us to be not only tragic but also quite simply impossible, and the presence of anything transcendent is more than doubtful. The principle of existence would have to be a contradiction? From the poem Bez ["Without"] from the volume Płaskorzeźba ["Bas-relief"] (1991):
Why did you leave me
Why did I leave
Life without God is possible
Life without God is impossible
Before, Różewicz had presented the world as abandoned by God, in this poem he arrived at an unsolvable contradiction. In accordance with the essence of the whole world of his poetry.
Różewicz shows the price that we pay for parting with the absolute and this is, as befits the philosophy of the poet, the price of the loss of a certain form, a certain poetics, certain thoughts and feelings expressed by poets. In the volume Płaskorzeźba ["Bas-relief"] there is an untitled poem beginning with the words "Wygaśnięcie Absoluty niszczy..." ["The extinguishing of the Absolute destroys..."]:
"The extinguishing of the Absolute destroys
The sphere of its manifestation"
Religion philosophy art waste away
Natural resources of language
Certain species of butterflies and birds
As do poets
With strange and beautiful names
Miriam Staff Leśmian
Our nets are empty
Poems mined from the deep
And fall apart
In the end, we, the readers, do not experience this in this way. Maybe the same thing happens to the networks of our thinking. Because after all even we come across such poems. But maybe they are no longer poems. Różewicz's poetry indicates the disintegration of reality. But it in itself is not the disintegration.
Obviously, among the afore-mentioned "dying species of poets", the name of Staff had to be there. The teacher of a generation of poets. In some perverse way, from an impulse of the heart and from fidelity, Różewicz became a devotee and pupil of Staff's and his feelings remain the same to this day. And all this from a scoffer and an advocate of avant-garde form, also in a certain sense a pupil of Przyboś's. If we reconsider Staff's poetry, this cannot surprise us at all. He was a man prone to making complete changes to his own form, just to satisfy the so demanding poetry. He was also one of the greatest discoverers of the everyday in the poetry of the twentieth century. And it is precisely the everyday that is the "driving force" of this poetry. It is easy to talk about this today, after so many different poets of the everyday. Staff, however, came from a completely different, modernist, school of beauty. He did, however, regard development as necessary.
Staff had a problem with form, which, despite appearances, is not a characteristic of all poets. Younger poets could always learn something from him. Staff thought that he himself could learn something from his own pupil. In this case, Różewicz. It troubled him that towards the end of his life he could not totally change his rhythmic, rhyming, musical stanza. He tried to become a good pupil of Różewicz's.
At the time of the debut of the Skamandrites, each budding poet wrote his poems in his notebooks and ran with them to Staff. In the case of Kazimierz Wierzyński, this would seem to have been a whole chest of poems. Today, people do not think much about this. But Różewicz never forgets about Staff. He published in the 1960s a selection of Staff's poetry entitled Kto jest ten dziwny nieznajomy ["Who is this odd stranger"] (1964). The selection and the foreword were to be "an attempt to reach the drama of contemporary poetry, the drama of form".
In Przygotowanie do wieczoru autorskiego ["Preparation for a literary soirée"], Różewicz, describing his own difficulties with writing a poem devoted to Staff's memory just after his death, marvellously captured the difference between the two poets:
"The Old Poet accepted the world and did not reject it or struggle with it. He did not break the world apart. He joined, tied, satiated with the harmony which the world did not have in itself. In poetry, I am the antithesis of the Old Poet. In the poem which I am writing there is considerably more darkness and little harmony. There is a longing for light. Which means, for clarification. This is a poem about him and me. I write by piling up contradictions. And that is all that I can offer him."
We come across Staff in all of Różewicz's poetry. Staff is also present in the newest volume, Szara strefa ["The grey zone"]. We find out by the way that Różewicz has suddenly become aware that he is already somewhat older than the Old Poet, which is how Staff was once thought about. And he has suddenly started to regard him as his younger brother, "Poldek". In the part of the volume entitled Appendix, he calls his answers to the poems from Staff's posthumous volume, entitled Dziewięć muz ["The nine muses"], friendly banter. It seems, however, that this is something more than banter. It seems that "the grey zone" has already merged very broadly indeed with the poet's imagination. Because this banter looks rather more like a serious effort to locate in a "symmetrical" way, in place of the cheerful philosophy, something that is as black as possible and difficult to bear. Perhaps it is in this way that the existential despair of the old poet - Różewicz - has manifested itself.
There is a very interesting poem, following Staff's Dos moi pou sto, in which Staff wanted to get to heaven but Różewicz does not, where the ladder was too short for Staff to reach heaven and for Różewicz to reach Jung. A simple denial is the answer to the poem Zdarzenie ["Event"]. Różewicz does everything differently from Staff, because his life is different. Here is the ending, in which he does in fact do something like Staff - in his anger he tears the sheet of paper:
I tore in anger a clean sheet
Of paper and smiled
At Leopold Staff, who is younger than I
There is also a poem that is strange for Różewicz entitled Krzywda ["Harm"] with a completely surprising "punch-line". Staff feels sorry for his dog because it does not know that the world is a riddle. Różewicz about the dog:
It looks at me and does not know
That I will depart
Knowing that the world is a Riddle
A brain-teaser devised by Someone
Who created the dog me and himself
In Szara strefa ["The grey zone"], Różewicz arrives at a conclusion that is known from his poetry, that practically nothing can be said. It is interesting that the rose is once again connected with his main motif. You cannot after all call a rose a "rose" because there might appear someone who does not understand this name. Here is the last stanza of the poem:
A German says
Weiße rose and rote rose
For someone who does not know German
Is neither "rote" nor "weiße"
It is just a rose
But someone else has not heard the word
Rose and that which he holds in his hand
Is a flower or a pipe
We are not talking here about a square or an unidentified drawing but about a "rose", which is after all a symbolic motif in Różewicz's poetry. It is moving that even when Różewicz wants to give an example of something that has no name it has to be a rose. And the rose in Szara strefa ["The grey zone"] is specified (in German) firstly as a white rose, then a red one, only to lose its colour (its specification) after a moment and to become "just a rose". Suddenly we find out that, without the name, "a rose" can become simply a flower and in the end someone who does not know the word "rose" is ready to call it "a pipe".
The poem Szara strefa ["The grey zone"] is a consideration about the presence of whiteness, blackness, greyness and colours in poetry, painting, drawing. In his considerations, the poet supports himself with the avant-garde philosophy of language. Here is the motto of the poem:
"What makes the colour grey a neutral colour?
Is this something physiological or logical?"
"Greyness finds itself between two extremes (blackness and whiteness)."
Although colours from outside are pressing, grey still exists. It is also the colour of depression, apart from it only total darkness. That is from Kępiński and it is quoted in the poem. The grey zone pours into the life of the poet. This is no longer the aggressive "nothing" from Nic w płaszczu Prospera ["Nothing in Prospero's coat"]. In the poem Get [Stankiewicz], the painter, also appears. He does not see colours but exclusively various shades of greyness, for reasons other than depression. He claims that maybe in this way it is easier to recognise the form for which every artist is striving. He thinks that maybe this form is the counterpart of a drawing "filled with pure emptiness". And for the poet it is precisely this which seems more ideal than colours.
To juxtapose whiteness and blackness, to combine them in greyness, this is virtually a daily activity. Except that Różewicz is constantly changing the perspective, leading from association to association, in order to abandon us suddenly at the end of the poem at the least expected moment. Greyness, whiteness and blackness in poetry can be only a metaphor. After impressions from life, from the experiences of a person in depression, we return to the world of art. Because the poetry of Norwid has been evoked, with its black and white flowers, because this is a reminder of the titles of series (and not of poetry). After the black-and-white Norwid, Różewicz names Mickiewicz and Słowacki as colourists. He himself does not admit to the world of colours. He comes from greyness. He has only been thrown in here, "rudely awakened". As someone who has woken, he sees how a ginger cat is hunting for a grey mouse in the green grass. And in the meantime the painter Get always sees a grey cat and a grey mouse. Because the story with the cat happens to Różewicz metaphorically, we do not know whether this is a return to common reality or a continuation of the metaphor. In the laboratory of form, Różewicz is still contemplating his own.
And all of this is taking place in the presence, or more precisely in the absence, of the rose, which on one occasion is a real rose and on another a woman. Her reflection in the mirror can become a word, as in the poem Świt, dzień i noc z czerwoną różą ["Dawn, day and night with a red rose"] from the volume Nożyk profesora ["The professor's knife"] (2001). The rose in the world of Różewicz's poetry can even be a kind of competitor for poetry:
I noticed that poetry
Is jealous of the rose
The rose is jealous of poetry
Leopold Staff wonderfully expresses the first half of the twentieth century in his poetry, himself coming from the nineteenth century. Różewicz is, however, totally a citizen of the twentieth century and his work talks about all the deficiencies of this century. The inability for human beings to attain understanding, mass slaughters, homelessness, rising mountains of rubbish. In effect this means the great and ever increasing loneliness of the human being in the crowd, among the insufficient fortifications of culture, which can do nothing in the face of ubiquitous evil, among the toxic effects of the acceleration of civilisation, whose aim is not the protection of people from evil.
To Różewicz, ugliness and the rubbish-bin do not seem to belong to aesthetic categories but to ethical ones. The fundamental landscape of life in the twentieth century is evil. It looks as if humanity at our stage of development is not able to distinguish evil from good. And what about beauty and truth? Różewicz would prefer Keats not to have formulated his famous thought. The poem Coś takiego ["Something like that"] from the volume Płaskorzeźba ["Bas-relief"]:
You have to have courage
To write something like that
Beauty is truth
Truth is beauty
Reading the history of humanity as a rubbish-bin, as is done today both in journalism and in modern anthropology, may or rather must be shocking. And then there is the poem Recycling from the volume Zawsze fragment. Recycling ["Always a fragment. Recycling"] (1998), in which the poet looks for words suiting the action of seeking humanity in a rubbish-bin and appropriate to the finds. The poem consists of three parts: "Moda (1944)", "Złoto" and "Mięso" ["Fashion (1944), "Gold" and "Meat"]; in the PS the poet writes:
"Where 'Gold' still has the structure of a long 'poem', then 'Fashion' and 'Meat' are from the genre of 'virtual' poetry. Part III, 'Meat', has the form of a rubbish-bin (an informational rubbish-bin), in which there is no centre, there is no middle. Planned barrenness and inescapability became the main element of this multi-component work..."
Różewicz's response to the accumulated evil is exclusively that it originates from human beings, it is the essence of a human being, because there are no animals which would use language, words, to commit a crime.
A human being is an accident
In the work
And because there is no way out towards transcendence, we remain in the error of our crimes. In this poem, the end of the twentieth century examines itself in its own obsessions and sensations and everything is just a turning over of the old rubbish of awareness and crimes with the addition of new diseases, like mad-cow disease, and discoveries such as cloning.
The part entitled "Gold" is exceptionally shocking, with its description of the strange discovery after many years, so "shocking for the innocent and uncommitted" Europe: where all the gold that ended up in Swiss banks, and not only Swiss ones came from. Bars of gold indistinguishable from others. It turns out that a rubbish-bin accumulating evil can also be a bank. Gold, so impartial in itself, quietly lying there, characterised by marks impressed on it during the war, "began to speak" and from moment to moment became the symbol of evil. "Suddenly" it turned out that this gold came from the victims of the Holocaust, and it was gold that had never been returned to the heirs of its owners, if such even still existed, gold which neither at the time nor after the war had filled anyone with terror. After half a century, the gold in these honourable banks began to cry tears of blood.
In the face of all these crimes, lies and little fibs hidden in words, in generally accepted stereotypes, is it possible to attain any kind of basic truth whatsoever? A certain poem by Różewicz appeared as the result of an internal battle with himself and as a result of his never-ending deliberations. So it was Tadeusz Różewicz, poet-soldier, brother of a soldier-hero, an eternal mourner, who wrote the poem Dezerterzy ["Deserters"]. In Historia pięciu wierszy ["The history of five poems"] (1963) (luxury print), he wrote about it thus:
"I know that I will never finish work on this poem - a memorial to deserters - those hero-cowards. I would like to pass on my vain efforts, I would like to pass on to young people these fragments of my poem, condemned from conception to a barren defeat. Will we ever become mature enough to understand the Whole Person? Hero coward deserter..."
There is no tradition of understanding deserters and of forgiving them. Różewicz says that "it is the leaders, generals, butchers, perpetrators of genocide who establish war and peace" and also "the right to life" and "the right to death". People immeasurably easily repeat the commandment "thou shalt not kill", at the same time as being engaged in the military industry and war itself. But this poet says that, despite the protests of the CDU, in Göttingen there arose the first monument in history praising deserters, thirty-five deserters from the Wehrmacht during the Second World War. In the face of this event, what should we think about the others, for example the Americans in Vietnam or about the Soviets in Afghanistan? For many years the poet has tried to resolve this problem within himself but it seems to him to be "un-solvable". Here is a quotation from the poem Dezerterzy ["Deserters"] from the volume entitled Słowo po słowie. Nowy wybór wierszy ["Word after word. A new selection of poems"] (1994):
I am a man of good will
And little faith
I wait for the monument
Of the unknown soldier deserter
From all the armies
From all the wars
A monument raised
Furtively to the sky
Under the ground
A monument raised by the eyes
Of mothers wives sisters lovers
At the beginning of the 1960s, Różewicz published in the volume Głos anonima ["The voice of the anonym"] the famous poem Et in arcadia ego, the title of which comes from the Latin sentence, "I, death, am even in Arcadia", although it came to be the title of Różewicz's volume by a more indirect route. This entire poem is an attempt to "return to Paradise", to the Arcadian space of the Mediterranean tradition of culture.
When we think, however, about the poem Dezerterzy ["Deserters"] and about the monument to the unknown deserter itself, we have to think that we have found ourselves in some place that is completely new for European culture. Here we cannot be talking about paradise in any possible way. Some would like to retain some fundamental human decency. But do they know how?
The issues in Et in Arcadia ego, which at the time moved all readers, and in particular artist readers, to consideration, seem to be becoming distant. The poem Recycling finds itself very far indeed from those issues. In the poem Et in Arcadia ego, the poet, like old poets and painters, undertakes a journey to Italy. Finally, he even admits to being stunned by the beauty. All the time he feels the continuity of the European tradition, which is both a vision of the past as paradise and a vision of paradise polluted by death. But can this continuity still be salvaged? In the 1960s, this was some kind of significant question for European culture. Today, writing Recycling, Różewicz seems to be thinking about completely different matters. He is rather saying that now we have to consider whether it is possible to maintain the continuity of one's own personality.
But at the same time Różewicz remains a poet of culture. In his poems there are always artists and writers present. Philosophers stroll through the poems. Friends live here. Conversations are held. The poet speaks with the living and the dead. Maybe we could even find some kind of Arcadia in his works. And undoubtedly it would be an Arcadia of friendship with poets, painters, professors of the history of art. Despite all of its pessimism, Różewicz's work proves that art is nevertheless alive. In any case it is art that represents here the thread of continuity. For the poet it has become the thread of Ariadne in the labyrinth of life. Maybe it is some strange remnant of our disintegrating civilisation. Art rolls on every day among people. It is connected with conversations, with friendship, with the memory of the living and the dead.
Author: Małgorzata Baranowska, June 2004; English translation © Tadeusz Z. Wolański