The poet devours God in “Ants and Sharks,” the twenty-sixth poem in Tomasz Róźycki’s sonnet sequence Colonies, displacing God at the top of the chad gadya* food chain:
On Paradise Beach in Goa,
a shark will eat the child, but when God sees,
he’ll catch the shark, just as he grabs a rat,
a tigress, elephant. The poet in his room
will then eat God.
The poet is “the monster” that “feeds on paper.” “If you let him in,” Róźycki warns, “he’ll steal what’s holy, chew it up.”
Throughout these poems, elegantly translated by Mira Rosenthal, there is a wariness, at times even a dread regarding poets, poetry, literature, words themselves. “[F]or nearly everything is possible // with words,” explains a not truly human speaker who “played the part of man” with these “deceptions,” with
Words like friendship,
father, woman, love, the word betrayal,
the word forgive. I could have forgotten myself,
I could have gotten lost in making words
my body, hands, and heart, little was missing.
Only the dog could tell. He bristled in his sleep.
Another sonnet ends with the expectation that “language will betray us / and kill our world, turn it into dew and ash.”
We might expect such skepticism, toward language and much else, given the freight of history borne by this Polish poet. Born in 1970, Róźycki was not drowned in the maelstrom of the twentieth century like Bruno Schulz, or shipwrecked by it like Czeslow Milosz, to mention two figures who show up in Róźycki’s poems, the latter in a dedication, the former either explicitly or through allusion in several of the sonnets. Rather, as we learn in the translator’s introduction, Róźycki’s family was among those Poles forcibly relocated from eastern Poland, which in the wake of World War Two became part of Ukraine, to Silesia, which prior to the war had belonged to Germany. His poetry therefore assumes that, beneath the seeming normalcy of his day to day existence, there is always a record of displacement and loss.
Sometimes this dimension is expressed openly and plangently, as in a poem dedicated to “K.W.” (Karol Wojtyla?) that seems to channel past victims as it begins: “Where are my friends, where is my house, my homeland? / Where are my parents, where have they been taken?” At other times, we do not have an imagination of the past but a mournful investigation of its traces in the present. The poem “Scorched Maps” begins:
I took a trip to Ukraine. It was June.
I waded in the fields, all full of dust
and pollen in the air. I searched, but those
I loved had disappeared below the ground,
deeper than decades of ants.
More often, though, the consciousness of the historical past and the ironies of the personal present seep quietly, subtly into each other.
As Rosenthal writes, Colonies, which first appeared in Polish in 2006, “explores language as a colonizing force on the body.” Meaning that Róźycki has tremendous respect for the power, falsifiying or salvific, of literature, words, the past, while also lauding in some of his most touching sonnets the life and love that open out beyond words. In the first of nine sonnets throughout the book that detail the often tragic metamorphoses of the man claimed by poetry—they all begin “When I began to write, I didn’t know…”—the poet ends with praise for his beloved who rescues him, at least momentarily, from such metamorphoses, expressing his gratitude: “that you // would make me visible again, in bed / beside you, waiting till you fall asleep.” Or consider a gorgeously nostalgic, even conventional (if dazzingly wrought) meditation on a love no longer present, a poem of farewell with references to “Coleman, Coltrane, our parting at first light, / a hurried kiss,” and which describes the subsequent, agonizing fall from that tremulous sense of plenitude. “I once stood here,” the now forlorn poet recalls,
in my own private paradise below this apple tree,
and God stretched out his hand, with all his fingers
motioned for me alone. I knew the moves by heart.
*A folk song often sung at the end of the Passover feast, telling how the fire burns the stick, which beats the dog, which bites the cat, etc., and crowned by God, who defeats the Angel of Death, who slays the butcher, who slaughters the ox, etc.