Wojciech Boros makes no claims about the practicality of poetry—except for its ability to both disrupt and focus. He writes in the letter that he sent to me in late February 2020: “For me, poetry above all is an invitation to a dialogue, to an intimate conversation with the Other. It doesn’t solve or explain anything, it’s not something that you can eat. Basically it could fade away. But, it’s also like when your eyes meet someone else’s by accident—and they look back. It pushes you to keep suspended in that moment. It stands out amidst the usual rhythms of the everyday. It creates in the air an invisible thread that in a second will fly off like a wisp in Indian Summer. But, it is exactly then, just in that one moment, I hope it will have some sense.”1
Boros, born in Gdańsk in 1973, has for many years been an active figure within the literary landscape on the Baltic Coast of Poland. As poet as well as literary organizer, Boros seeks to broaden not only the boundaries of poetry, but the walls of Polish culture itself. Just one example is his emceeing of a literary reading of Arab poets at the Gdańsk City Institute of Culture in Fall 2018. This might not seem like much, but in a country that has grown increasingly (or at least more overtly) xenophobic since the right-wing “Law and Justice” party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość) came to power in 2015, such gestures speak to Gdańsk’s centuries’ long legacy as a multinational and multicultural city, and Boros’ investment in this tradition’s continuation.
But within Boros’ own poetry, there can be seen a refusal of other types of “givens,” an interrogation of the accelerating commercialism of Polish society as well as a wariness to any blind allegiance cast in the direction of its past cultural certainties. One example of this can be found in Boros’ poem, “Nie chcę wyglądać jak Adam Zagajewski,” (“I don’t want to look like Adam Zagajewski”), in which the poem’s persona, with great ferocious irony, takes pains to separate himself from an entire grove of recent and distinguished Polish poets such as Adam Zagajewski, Czesław Miłosz, Wisława Szymborska, Zbigniew Herbert, etc. I don’t necessarily agree with the vision in each line of this poem, but I can understand the poet’s need to keep his own distance, to map his own departures, decisions that are characteristic of many younger Polish poets who have seen the need to depart from the rhetorical forms and thematic concerns of the past.
This is not to say Boros is without allegiance. Indeed, what struck me about the poems in the following group is how connected they are to place. But, rather than proffering any easy nostalgia, they involve an interesting combination of edginess and transformation. As in a Chagall painting, you might see roofs and houses and streets, but these roofs and houses and streets have angels flying out the windows and donkeys braying. There are claustrophobic elevators that creep like insects just emerged from cocoons, and sparkly new supermarkets that transcend into new religion, with a marked down God available “for only 4.99.” Here, the transformation indeed involves a contamination—the cheap salvations imbedded in consumerism to the point that even the Nobel Laureate Wisława Szymborska becomes a plastic-wrapped commodity.
It is not so much reverence, but scrutiny that Boros shows for the jumpy, unstable world he observes around him. But it’s still a scrutiny of anchored witness, of one imbedded in that world and the language of that world. In the poem “In waves the crooked centipedes of the streets,” we see a surrealist blow up of the high street/main promenade of the resort town of Sopot, situated between Gdansk and the major port city of Gdynia to the north. But rather than the mere fanciness of fountains, Boros notes the full bladders of the tourists, the “crooked cop” ready to prey on naïve out-of-towners and everything drowning in discarded scraps of papers, evidently advertisements or fliers, all part of a discard economy, a discarded world.
But then there’s the poem about poet Stanisław Gostkowski, the “King of the Concrete,” a title in reference to Gostkowski’s heavy drinking (towards the end of his life, and despite his growing problems with diabetes and other maladies) that took place with various comrades of the bottle “na betonach” (on top of the concrete) of a construction site for the building of the massive Morena high-rise apartment building project in the Gdańsk area. To Boros, Gostkowski may not be one from the holy pantheon of Miłosz or Herbert, but he is still an artistic ancestor, a writer from the Nowa Fala (New Wave period) with a bent for linguistic poetry, and a precursor of what has come to be known in Polish poetry as the Nowa Prywatność, the New Privacy, a vision of poetry as no longer needing to concern itself with exterior politics and cultural expectations. As Boros writes in “I don’t want to look like Adam Zagajewski”: “I’m rather lukewarm about Herbert / But each week the ghost of Gostkowski visits my city / This sad little devil with a six pack of bottles.” Here there is loyalty both to place and to those who have shared this place off to the edge of history and of society. There is also a lot here accessible to the original audience in Poland, that can be assumed between the lines, but that might be lost to other readers. Not just the reputation of Gostkowski and the mention of Srebrzysko, the main cemetery of Gdańsk, but also the Polish Day of the Dead observations involving not just visiting the cleaned and decorated graves of your loved ones, but, in Boros’ vision, also gathering later to eat and drink and remember, a morose and unsatisfying holiday, celebrated at a “stuffy table” where everyone continues to “dry out more and more.”
Indeed, with such poems, I try to do my best as a translator. There is so much in many of these poems that depends upon a shared knowledge of place as well as of person, but there is also so much there that makes that unexpected jump from one person’s eyes to another’s, from one language to another, that sudden connection that might only last for a second.
But, a second is enough.
Wooster, Ohio, May 21, 2020.
1 “Poezja – dla mnie – jest przede wszystkim zaproszeniem do dialogu, do intymnej rozmowy z Innym. Niczego nie rozwiązuje, niczego nie tłumaczy, nie można się nią najeść – właściwie mogłaby zniknąć, ale z drugiej strony jest jak przypadkowe, ale odwzajemnione spojrzenie komuś w oczy. Zmusza do tego, by się zatrzymać, wybija z rytmu codzienności, tworzy w powietrzu niewidzialną nić, która za chwilę odleci jak pasmo babiego lata, ale mam nadzieję, że właśnie wtedy, przez Chwilę, ma sens.”—Wojciech Boros
Daniel Bourne teaches at The College of Wooster in NE Ohio, where he edits Artful Dodge, a magazine of American fiction, poetry and essay with a special interest in translation. He is currently working on an anthology of Gdańsk/Baltic Coast poets, and he was awarded a fellowship from the Polish Ministry of Culture for his work on a translation of the novel The Month Between the Hammer and the Sickle by Stanisław Esden-Tempski.