Guest Review by Rufo Quintavalle: White Magic and Other Poems by Krzysztof Kamil Baczynski

Rufo Quintavalle reviews
White Magic and Other Poems
by Krzysztof Kamil Baczynski

Krzysztof Kamil Baczynski was born in 1921 and died in the Warsaw uprising in 1944 leaving behind him a substantial body of poetry, very little of which, up until now, has been translated into English. This book, a selection of his poems in a bilingual edition seeks to remedy this lack. The book is translated by Bill Johnston, Director of the Polish Studies Center at Indiana University, and is published by Green Integer.

The claims made by Johnston in his introduction that Baczynski should rank alongside Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert and Wislawa Szymborska as one of the giants of 20th Century Polish poetry do him no favours. He is not (at least in translation) on a par with these poets. Better to consider him on his own terms, if we can, or failing that, to grant him the indulgence we would any poet who died at the age of 23. Excesses of religiosity, lyricism, grandiosity and morbidity – all of which Baczynski on this showing clearly has – are forgivable faults in such a young writer. Better to openly admit these shortcomings than, as Johnston does, state without any support that Baczynski was writing “mature work” at the age of 18 or that by 1942 he was already considered a “major poet”.

Where Johnston’s claims seem more justifiable is in his defense of Baczynski’s love poetry. The poems addressed to his wife, Barbara, are among the finest in this selection

Barbara stands at the mirror
of silence, and her hands reach
to her hair; in her body of glass
she pours silver droplets of speech

This is the opening to the poem, “White Magic” and even without the music of the original this is heady stuff. The untitled love poems on pages 91 and 95 show a similarly imaginative use of imagery.

This extravagance can at times get out of control. So “The Choice” which opens near perfectly:

After a scorching day, the night was green;

its depths soughed like black leaves in which had grown

a milky pith

descends into a lush and breathy exuberance

And so a massive quiet arose like water,

dark, deep, and warm, absorbing shapes and matter.

Above earth, a quiet angel took his hand

and they rose into the cloud’s unfolding flower.

This is bad, although I would argue it is bad in the same way Keats’ Endymion often is – a kind of necessary, free-associative unleashing of lyricism which in each case allowed the young poets to achieve better things elsewhere. So we have Keats’ Odes and so we have a poem like Baczynski’s “Generation” where he successfully contains this declamatory mode within a meticulously constructed architecture.

At other times we are tempted to forgive Baczynski his excesses not so much on technical grounds but because of the context. “Was it a bullet killed you, son, or was it your heart bursting?” concludes one of his later poems. This is overly dramatic but in the mouth of a 23 year old who would be dead six months later, it passes. Does it pass too because it is in the mouth of a Pole? Are Polish writers in particular (and Eastern Europeans in general – think of the cult of Brodsky) allowed a kind of tragic, patriotic lyricism, which would get a British or American laughed out of court? Certainly it is hard to imagine any British writer of the Auden/MacNeice era or even at the time of the First World War getting away with, or even coming out with, this kind of line. Does Eastern European verse serve much the same function as farmers’ markets or urban beehives do – a way to buy into a “reality” that Anglo-American city-dwellers otherwise prefer to keep at arms length?

To return to the matter at hand, these are not, despite Johnston’s pleadings and despite some great moments, poems of the first order. Nor can I imagine that they will have any great influence on contemporary Anglophone poetic practice – they are too much of their time and place for that – but in as much as they form a part of a poetic tradition that has since blended in interesting ways with our own, it is good to have them available. I do not know Polish so am unable to comment on the translations but they read well in English and, if only for the image of thunder rolling “like an apple from the sky” in “Autumn 1941”, I am glad to have this volume on my bookshelf.

Rufo Quintavalle, 2009