Apr/May 2014  •   Reviews & Interviews

Copenhagen's Polish Poet

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Grzegorz Wroblewski.
Zephyr Press. 2013. 192 pp.
ISBN 978-1-938890-00-0.

An earlier version of wily, naďf ex-patriot poet Grzregorz Wroblewski's collection of prose poems, Kopenhaga, was published by the Polish press Kartki, in Bíalystok, in 2000. It contained, apparently, about half the present text without translation. By the time of its publication in his native country, he had already resided in the title-city for some 15 years. He has lived there continuously since 1985, still, it seems, inhabiting inexpensive flats in largely immigrant sections.

Wroblewski has since come up in the world. While coming up in the poetry world is still a decidedly humble "up," he has found translators, and his work been widely published in English. He is regularly included among the lists of the better Polish poets. He has just completed a reading tour in London and is about to begin another in New York and Massachusetts.

The new edition of Kopenhaga by Zephyr Press—a publishing house specializing in translation from less common foreign languages, based in Brookline, Massachusetts—is not only longer and bi-lingual, but comparable to the simple elegance of the better small literary publishers. The book blurbs speak to the press's and author's solid stature in the eyes of the doyens of contemporary American lit.

Wroblewski has gained a good deal by his move to Denmark. The immigrant writer's discomposed life, in a city tolerant of foreigners and artists, is a strong context for his poems. Kopenhaga often brings a smile when it describes the voyage over and (often somewhat cryptically) the slightly crazy experience of living in a foreign quarter. He arrived on the ship Norrona, thenceforward a name to evoke romance with him.

A thousand crazy, restless people from practically everywhere! Muslims, Christians, extremists, housewives... Owners of ice cream stands (eastern Poland), Palestinian kamikazes, Tamil Tigers, thieves, hookers, smugglers… Among them Grzegorz Wroblewski and his wife Beata.

While his state allotment for television service seems to cover only about half the expense of cable, he has somehow managed to afford the service. He is watching the world beyond Copenhagen, as well, with amusement and a generally playful sense of the ironies it reveals to him.

With his television service came Internet, at some point, and he is inquisitive. A poem is dedicated to the experience surrounding jennicam.org, a once popular reality-stream site:

Twenty-three-year-old Jennifer Ringley, twenty-four hours a day! Jenni reading books, Jenni eating meals, Jenni taking a bath and making out with her lovers... Jenni's latest dreams, Jenni's exercise routine...

Presumably, he caught the news of the Heaven's Gate cult departing for the Hale-Bopp comet, just before the Polish version of his book went to press, via the television.

While Wroblewski is determined in Kopenhaga, as in all his poetry, not to be literary, references peek out everywhere from an irregular but wide reading. Karen Blixen, Kerouac, a modern English-language Zen classic, in his opening poems. In the only titled poem in the volume, "Seventeen Days," his reading list features Vonnegut, Tolkien, Lorca, a trendy popular science book on The Uniform Theory of Spacetime, and a good many other titles English, French and Polish, listed, in the original text, by the titles of their Polish translations.

His friend Jerry reads only the classics. He drinks as he does so, and the combination is not a good one, Wroblewski informs us, tongue-in-cheek.

We are monitoring Jerry carefully. We are urging him to read Jacques the Fatalist, so far without success. After all, Jerry has been living in King Priam's palace. You don't forget such "sights" easily.

The details of the poem belie at least some small familiarity with Homer. This, and a brave reference to Kasper Hauser, is as close to a literary reference as the reader will find in the poetry of Grzegorz Wroblewski. His reading lists remain just that: lists.

He clearly reads quite a lot, though, and the reading list (apart from Danish tabloids) is two generations old. This is all for the better, especially as so much of the list remains popular and the finest grist for the mill. A somewhat outdated habit, on the other hand, of dropping the names of African-American jazz greats comes across as an affectation (no matter how honestly come by). His reference to Joseph Mengele "whistling Cavaradossi's aria from Tosca,E lucevan le stele'," as he selected his concentration-camp victims, on the other hand, is brilliantly chosen, chilling.

While Grzegorz Wroblewski's recent A Marizipan Factory is the better book, Kopenhaga is an exceptional piece of work in its own right. The brief and insightful introduction, by the translator, Piotr Gwiazda, suggests that he has done his work as well as it might appear to a non-Polish reader. The fact that he mentions Schleiermacher in a 21st century book of popular poetry for an American audience makes that introduction something of a classic in its own right.


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