Oyster Boy Review 20  
  Summer 2012
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They Carry a Promise: Selected Poems

Michael Ferguson

  They Carry a Promise: Selected Poems.
Janusz Szuber.
Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough, translator.
Alfred Knopf, 2009.
89 pages, $26 (hardcover).
ISBN: 0307267539

This is a translation of poems originally written in Polish. Reviewing poetry in translation is as much a commentary on the translator and the translation as on the original author. Poems can vary greatly in the hands of different translators. Their style, aesthetic effectiveness, and even their meaning are subject to the translator's many choices. For this review I will not be evaluating the translation per se, since I do not speak Polish. I will treat the book as English verse. The jacket photo of this volume is an out of focus, poorly printed photo of a curving tree trunk in sepia. It is an accurate reflection of the book's contents: solid, concrete, visible, but not terribly clear, and a dark monochrome rather than colorful. Szuber's own lines in "To Persephone" make for an apt summary of the volume: "This November and noble browns, low light, grays, and blackness." The poems make use of concrete imagery, but are themselves rather oblique. There is intimacy, but it is not an emotional intimacy, it is, rather, cool and subdued. This is due largely to the author's style, or perhaps it is better termed a personality quality, of detached self-observation. He tends to share his reflections and observations about emotional events rather than the emotions themselves. To read him I think you should understand that he often speaks of himself in the third person, and occasionally, even in the second person. For example in "Birthday," he says "The privileged I in everyday speech yielded to the he distancing itself from him." "Greedy and Ecstatic," starts out:

Let someone try to describe his life,
Not that he was an exception—quite the contrary:
His obsession was a relentless
Search for similarities with others.

He is talking about himself. "Let someone," as opposed to "Let me try to describe his life," or even more directly: "Let me try to describe my life." With the use of "someone," he is placing even more distance into his observational stance. Later on he says "This is I, only a little differently." One poem is actually entitled "In the Third Person Singular," which is about himself "reaching for a writing pad and a pen so that what recurs and seems necessary will find confirmation in the declarative mood." "Everyman," which closes the volume is another example: "He wrote poems and a few read them," clearly autobiographical. But he also sometimes uses the second person to talk about himself—or to himself. The poem from which the title of the volume is taken "They Carry a Promise in Coils of Smoke" is written in the second person, but it is clearly reflexive. The "You" is completely ambiguous. "You" has no personality or identifying characteristics. It is simply a marker for this self-reflective poem. "The Day is Still Beautiful" makes use of a similar technique to deal with the pain of the demise of three friends, starting out in the first person and then shifting to the second.

Once you realize that the poems in the second person and the third person are every bit as self-reflective as those in the first person, then it becomes clear that the entire volume is essentially a personal reverie, an inward exploration, rather than an outward looking commentary on the world and other people.

Doing inventory, illuminating labyrinths with
the beam from a pocket flashlight. The one
who speaks, within himself and to himself . . .
To find, explain, and complete the inventory
Within himself.

("Doing Inventory")

This is what the volume is about. The defining parameters of that inventory seem to be some sort of chronic illness, disability, or physical limitation in the author. There are numerous allusions to such a circumstance throughout the volume. The most explicit is the opening to the poem "To Yusef Komunyakaa":

Before we meet
in mid-September
and they play blues
for us both born in 1947
I have to survive
this cruel summer
swallowing the fear and bitterness
as my sickness returns.

In "A Small Treatise on Analogy" we find:

In the car, before the synagogue in Lesko,
Waiting for Madame M.R.,
I watched a trapped bee trying
To force the slanted windshield,
Its efforts composing a simple
Parable about existence.

In the bee's struggle with confinement he saw his own predicament. What is the nature of his confinement? I think it has to do with the limitations or afflictions of his body.

He asked himself how to escape
Unscathed from the horrors of physiology;

("De Se Ipso")

I carried urine for analysis
and had my lungs X-rayed . . .
Summoning automobile metaphors,
I could say that for years
I have driven with a broken suspension.
An ontological invalid, from the Latin
in-validus: helpless, weak, sick.

("A Balance Sheet")

Later in this same poem he envisions "A premature widow feels the tremors / of dancing in the parquet floors / through the soles of her shoes."

The theme of premature death appears several times in the volume. In "Ladybug" "She celebrated her twenty-seventh birthday / in the oncology ward. Aware / that she had no more than one week . . . That last / week consisted of four and a half days." This time the third person singular (feminine) really is about someone else. "The Day is Still Beautiful" is a lament over the untimely demise of three close companions. I believe he sees these early expirings as premonitory to himself. He seems to be struggling with an affliction of a sort that could very well number him among them.

Hobbling on two crutches,
I dragged myself over to the bench, and then
One of the patients, a sincere old lady,
Read my palm: "You'll live till you're fifty."
So much longer? I was terrified.
How could I know in my twenties
That pain can also be a gift?


In sexual matters he is much less transparent and apparently much more conflicted. From "Cocks Crowing": "Under the purple cloud the purple testicles of plums / with gray coating and a sticky crack . . . The tongue tries to smooth the coarseness of the pit." From "Dybbuk": "Ich und Du / Your unconfessed sins / and mine. / Her body, his body, / similar, yet different, / offering a chance / at salvation." "Entelechy" might refer to a same sex encounter with a young boy: "I'd like to see myself today / through your young boy's eyes. Our shared shame / Under the duckweed of still ponds." "Shared shame" could refer to a same sex encounter between a boy and a man, or perhaps between two boys. It seems that this hearkens back to an incident or a relationship that occurred some time in the past. Perhaps they were of contemporary age, or perhaps the author was older. He is not very clear, but it is in keeping with his style of self-observation from projected points of view. Here he is observing himself from the point of view of his companion imagined as a boy—a rather convoluted mode of self-reflection. But Szuber likes to examine himself from many different points of view. Perhaps it comes from having undergone so many medical examinations and having heard so many different evaluations of his physical condition. Perhaps he developed this defensive mode of self-observation in response to the often foreboding prospects for his own body. Over time he came to see himself psychologically, internally, in the same way.

"Ashamed," is another very opaque poem that seems to me to deal with same sex inclinations very indirectly and heavily laden with imagery. The theme is stated in the first line: "the contradictions within himself"—again, speaking of himself in the third person, distancing himself as he looks at himself. "[T]he rumbling hoarse overture of the rutting area, / the dry clatter of antlers, the deep / sighs and the patter of hooves" suggests that these contradictions have to do with sexual issues of a masculine sort. "[H]e, I, corporeal / ashamed of the pain." This line could be doing several things simultaneously. "[H]e, I, corporeal" can be seen as effecting an identity between the first and the third persons, it could also refer to a same sex other who shares in the shame of this physicality. The pain could also refer literally to some chronic physical affliction. "[E]ach pain / is mine, no theodicy will justify / its excess, this shame, only it / has remained unchanged in me for years" (emphasis original). Whatever it is has been a life long struggle, which suggests a sexual preoccupation or a chronic physical affliction. But the clincher for a sexual interpretation is the last three lines: "That's how in places that seemed the least / suitable he searched for the formula / of his ergo sum." It is a recognition that these same sex encounters, which often occur in unsuitable and unlikely places, is an essential part of his being, but one over which he feels great shame and internal conflict. However, he has learned to accept both the need and the shame as essential to his nature. In the original Polish there might be connotations to some of the word choices that would make for a more decisive interpretation, however, I do not have access to Polish.

"The Sun in its Milky Lampshade" is a beautiful imagistic poem that seems free of the metaphorical overtones that characterize every other poem in the book. I point it out simply as a striking and pleasing exception to the rule. His language is not especially beautiful or imaginative—this could be an artifact of the translation—but it is clean, crisp, and spare. These poems are a challenge, but they are full of substance, often shrouded in a thick fog. With attentive reading and a bit of thought you can get a sense of Szuber's character and the major issues in his life.

. . .