Cold water in the face is too mild a description for the effect of Grzegorz Kwiatkowski’s poems. What they present is simultaneously so human and so barbaric that nausea may be the truest response—coupled with, for me anyway, a contradictory compulsion to keep reading, a desire not to look away.
Partly that’s because looking away is what allowed these horrors in the first place. But I’m getting ahead of myself: in Crops, a twenty-eight-page dagger translated from the Polish by Peter Constantine, many of the poems are five lines or shorter. These poems are minimalist in style, not just in length. Punctuation is rare, and so is human decency. Declarative statements, hard-boiled, flat description. Simple words, local detail (“I heard something / that resembled a running tractor engine … ”) And though the voices feel as alive as yours or mine, they are the voices of people long gone. They are the voices of murderers and the voices of the murdered, Poles who participated in, or otherwise fueled, the slaughter of Jews during the second World War, and the ghosts of those Jews. These Poles, shows Kwiatkowski, were everyday people, conscripted by the Germans, sure, but often willing to comply with their own long-held prejudices.
But is there more to say, after all that’s been said, about the Holocaust? Yes, there is always more to say about the Holocaust, a sad fact even truer of late. What’s new in these poems is the unvarnished look into Polish collusion, in its own voice, or an imagination of its voice, by a native son. Like some Spoon River Anthology of Polish fascismo, there are verses like this three-liner called “Ranger Danz,” registering the way social collapse changes people by violently changing their perceptions, which changes their metaphors, which in turn further twists up their equipment for perceiving:
during the war we laid out bodies like wood
but after the war we laid out wood in the forest
like bodies freshly felled
And then a few pages later, a four-liner imagining a voice for one of those bodies, “Szymon Srebrnik”:
I didn’t believe I would return to Poland ever again
and that I would stand where they killed me
no no no
Chełmno, where that clumsy but appealing hero of Jewish folklore, Hershel, sold other Jews a Hanukkah tree. It was also the site of the first concentration camp, and the first gassing, which would annihilate the rich culture of rural Jewry that Hershel came from. The first fifty were stripped and pushed into showers there, just before Christmas 1941. News of the camp, by way of the single person to escape out of the hundred and some thousand killed there, made it to Warsaw, and from Warsaw word reached London by June 1942. What makes Kwiatkowski’s poetry effective, of course, is that he gives no setup, no commentary, no context—none is needed. What is needed, maybe, and what he gives, is to feel anew the jagged shock of the everyday casual voice that commended itself so easily to extreme violence. So clean and gorgeous an account of horror has probably never been written.
It’s striking that there’s no explicit moral judgment in these lines. That judgment is the deafening implication, the silence, all that Kwiatkowski leaves out. The weight of that silence hangs around the necks of those who participated, for all time. The poet, who fronts the punk band Trupa Trupa, uses only a few—few and deft—brushstrokes to call up the banality of evil in vivid recognizable particulars. But maybe better to say “participate,” in the present tense. Because part of the stripping down of these voices—I don’t know whether I mean the pun or not—is to make them fresh again, awful and brilliant in their freshness, to make them not history, but rather what any human community must contend with: the possibility of a social breakdown we don’t want to imagine possible, but sometimes must. This is powerful work—unforgettable work—and to call it necessary or relevant is to state the obvious.
JESSE NATHAN: Tell me a little bit about how these poems emerge. What are their sources? How do you work with the material?
GRZEGORZ KWIATKOWSKI: What’s most important for me is musicality and morality, ethics and aesthetics. There always has to be a musical aspect and a moral aspect. A situation on the edge when there are no good answers and no place for preaching and easy judgment. That’s the territory I’m interested in.
For these poems, there are many sources. Voices of victims, perpetrators, observers, even just people I hear in the bus or in a tram or people from my family with a really tragic past. When I hear or read something which is too hard for me to bear, something I want to reject looking at, or when I’ve got a problem and my mind would like to very quickly go to some other comfortable and calm territory—then I know this is the moment when I should stop and very carefully listen and start to write.
There are a couple of reasons, I think, that I’ve ended up with this kind of approach. First is a visit with my grandfather to the museum of the German concentration camp Stutthof. He and his sisters were prisoners and after the war he was a broken person and she was mentally ill. So as a child, I went with him to the museum, and it was the first time he had been there since the end of World War II. He tried to explain, to speak, but after all it was full of crying and rage and shouting and at the end silent resignation. I was there with my father. And I saw my father who couldn’t do anything about it. So I was just observing and thinking and thinking and couldn’t imagine all these horrors. But I tried. And I am trying, still, and I am thinking about these kinds of edges, these aspects of a cruel reality I both understand and don’t understand. I am thinking about the ability of human beings hating each other and murdering each other. So these moral aspects are very important for me, at a personal level.
The second thing was music school. As a child, I went to a music school and I played the saxophone and the clarinet. And I listened to music nonstop, and I still do. Mostly classical stuff, but I also love Bonnie Prince Billy and some psychedelic heroes like the Velvet Underground or the mighty Beatles. But my deepest love? Glenn Gould. And he taught me how to write not music but poems. His mathematical, minimalistic way of playing was for me a lesson on how to write about very tragic cruel situations in an anti-melodramatic way. I think that Gould is always giving a lot of space for the listener. In some way, he gives you notes, structure, bones. And you as a listener have to go further. If you want. He strips everything away except a bare necessary remainder. So this is my ideal. To give the reader some extract, some structure, and then leave that reader to deal with it. The reader is alone. And he has to decide what is right and what is wrong.
Of course, in most cases it’s impossible. And that’s why sometimes there has to be a moral uprising, a moral awakening. The moral machinery is starting to work when there are hard questions that you don’t know the answer to, but they must be faced. Another powerful influence for me is Mozart and his Magic Flute. I listen to this, as well as Gould, almost every day. And I find there a method for making comedy and tragedy in one piece of art, all in one place. A third person I want to mention is Edgar Lee Masters and his Spoon River Anthology. He gave me a matrix to deal with the past but also with reality. His epitaphs full of voices of ghosts are for me the key, the best way of narration. Of course, I also love the poetry of Czesław Miłosz.
And the last thing I’ll say is: I believe that when it’s hard it’s good for art. It’s good for the process of creating. I mean, when it’s not comfortable. So I write all my poems on my very old and broken not-connected-to-any-network Nokia 3110, which has very little space for messages. Full of dirt and dust, and so it’s super hard to press the buttons. If it’s too easy to write it’s not earned and if it’s not earned it’s a lot less meaningful.