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Friday, 20 August 2010

Guest Review: Parmar On Studzinska

Sandeep Parmar reviews
by Agnieszka Studzinska

Readers will be surprised that Snow Calling is Agnieszka Studzinska’s debut collection. There is a maturity of voice and a depth of emotional cognition that emanates from Studzinska’s book—it moves under the palm like a whole and conscious organism; each poem contributes to a thematic balance that is at once both delicate and brutal. The book’s first and last poems are titled ‘Snow Calling’ (the first is in four parts) and, throughout this, a titular echo recurs as a reminder to the reader of the metonymic stake of ‘snow’. It begins:

Winter opens to snow
                        blinds the field,
branches splice like roots in a landscape

dead with beauty—

Snow stands for many things, including nothingness; it is silence, absence, separation; snow is the interface between the inside and the outside of things, where perception becomes possible; it is a drop in language, a secret, a caesura without discernable cause, and, most importantly, a revelation so personal that its brittleness threatens the very existence of the self. But the self here ultimately proves too lithe to be hooked, even the poems’ private histories—stories of ancestors involved in what appears to be the German invasion and occupation of Poland during World War II—blend into the whiteness of microscopic observations. No one comes out whole in the book, and no one is wholly identified, the pervasive pronouns—‘you’, ‘I’, ‘she’, ‘he’, as well as references to ‘wife’, ‘husband’, ‘daughter’, etc—add to the blurring snow-blinding of the book’s situation. However, the advantages of this fragmentary approach are enormous and pay off with incredible detail and compression of language, as in these lines from the book’s opening sequence:

I stand in the garden at midnight, you sleep upstairs
snow becoming your breath as if the invisible is made visible—

now anything feels possible—even a snow owl
in this backyard, swooping low in a choreography

of swirls, its feathers like snow preying on my voice
and somewhere             storms of

drunken villagers cut this surge

a day’s work in their mouth
years in their hands gloved with weight—

the owl’s wingspan like a cloud flying above their heads.

Studzinska’s subject is often language itself—or more accurately, how one is led into or away from experience by words. She writes in ‘Leaving’ about a moment of exile experienced in childhood:

I am there with my mother
                               waving away
the thin hour     the interruption of it

              […]

& her voice in my ear
                   pulling us—
my not knowing why—
a life lost in a new language

And again she writes in ‘Language’ about ‘the unspeakable / alphabet of someone’s escape into more light’, as if language were treacherous, willfully so, sort of like thin ice, waiting to swallow and invalidate one existence for the sake of another. Yet all the while the poet, or rather our spectral image of her, hangs images like a fine lattice so much so that one cannot help but admire the book aesthetically as well as linguistically. ‘Mouths its bleached ambivalence’ is fresh and terrifying, as is the stunning verse ‘Tonight is the dearth, a near divorce in the bootlicked air / of the ‘40s, it is all the stories you have hidden / in the peelings of all the things you have lost. Tonight is the liver-spotted hour on a plate…’ (‘Solanum Tuberosum’).

Going back to an earlier point about the interface between the outside and inside of things, real space and remembered space—the poet’s notes to the book’s final sequence ‘Haunting’ offer a small clue. This poem and the initial ‘Snow Calling’ are among the strongest in the collection. ‘Haunting’ begins:

Through the slats of a February daybreak
                                 when the world no longer sleeps the same
hearing her own spent
                               in the frost of blackened windows,
an account of one story                   broken again in its telling
opens—
            it begins with winter buying time
for those in hiding,
               the snow covering their wisteria steps.

The sequence goes on to describe children (the father in the book whom we see also in later life?) running and hiding out from what must be the invading Nazi soldiers, somewhere in Grodno, a site of substantial losses during the War. And yet, understandably, the reluctance and pain with which one returns to these memories is palpable in the compressed language and anxiety-filled line arrangements:

Night after night you drink a little, play chess
                        work out exactly how you got here
and sting yourself with forgetfulness
                        mime playing the piano
your brother listening to this blind music
            with his eyes shut
                                    arms open as if to beg forgiveness
                                                                  for being him
as if to embrace his silhouette and let it disappear—

Meanwhile three quotations are woven into this narrative of haunted spaces—two of which appropriately point to Bachelard—‘Je suis l’espace ou je suis’ (Noel Arnaud) and ‘Car nous sommes o nous sommes pas’ (Pierre-Jean Jouve). Without relishing too much in the fantasy that the poet hides in the footnotes (a fantasy with a long tradition going back of course to Eliot), it does seem altogether convenient to end on this point: that the perfect observance of the ‘thing’ in Studzinska’s poems obliterates that all too pervasive surety of inhabiting the poet’s world. The poet challenges the dialectical knowingness of her own craft by dissecting the thing she sees with precise, original and hard phrasings. Studzinska’s collection raises the bar for the poets of her generation with its skill and bravery—especially the book’s longer sequences, which allow for rumination and expansion. The end of Snow Calling is a kind of vortex—the poet only holds on to still points through language that owns what it seizes:

we stood there cowed—divided
                               snow calling                 spring
the wind bit harder, swept chairs in its gash
uncoupled each root from its body
unearthed memories of being little,
the walnut tree wide-eyed      self willed,
I am gripping tighter—
                                        snow calling

a garden spins in its own generative grammar,
we are all waiting—wet with wind
                                                            wishing
for the wind to blow another hundred wishes—
unbury the almost buried,
branches     bone-black
smouldering as the wind hushes a struggle,
                                                     wishing

for it to stop.


Dr. Parmar is an American-British poet and scholar with a special interest in Mina Loy.  She was Eyewear's featured poet last Friday.
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