Belinda Cooke reviews Night Truck Driver by Marcin Świetlicki, translated by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese, Zephyr Press, 2020
The Kraków poet Marcin Świetlicki – a legend in Poland, with his own rock band and twelve collections under his belt – is only now having his moment abroad. His first collection in English offers sharp, edgy poetry translated with a granite expertise by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese – it’s so relentlessly dark and overtly pessimistic that, bizarrely, it’s even funny in places. His first poem introduces us immediately to Poland’s political desert, set shortly after his birth in the year of yet more rigged elections: ‘the spring of 1961, Poland. | In the garden a stupid apple tree was coming to life, | not recalling that last year it brought forth | nothing.’ (‘Preface’). Świetlicki’s seasons are reminiscent of T. S. Eliot’s ‘April is the cruellest month’ in The Waste Land, weaving a hopelessness through so many of his poems that counteracts anything being able to thrive, as in ‘Everything drips’ where the thaw is the backdrop to failed elections and relationships: ‘In one dream | drown for good and don’t show up in any other. | You mess around in my chaos.’
Świetlicki’s diction, with its choice oxymorons and odd juxtapositions, reinforces this cynical tone, such as the lovers who lie ‘skilfully’ next to you on the sofa; or the poet himself dragging on a ‘cold cigarette’. Indeed the whole collection is packed with catchy one-liners that sum up his lack of faith in politics: ‘the illiterate are writing a Constitution for me’ (‘Cold cigarette’); or intense love-hate relations, where one lover stays out of spite: ‘I hold tight to the table my pupils are white’ (‘First snow’), while another writes a bitter love note: ‘IF YOU FEEL MORTAL – PHONE’ (‘I’m back – nothing to look for’). Or take this multi-layered opener suggesting the world’s creation as a combined moment of childbirth and adult depression: ‘In the beginning is a head in my hands’ (‘The World’); or Poland’s potential post-election landscape captured as ‘a concentration garden’ (‘Before the elections’). The whole collection builds and builds with pained, highly inventive aphorisms that come at the reader pell-mell.
Paradoxically of course, the bitter voice is fooling no one, for its bleak, darkly humorous expressions of futility make more apparent the poet’s all-too-human desire to enjoy such simple, elusive things as love, family, freedom, and existence without fear. Take a poem such as ‘Shambles’, with its title that says it all:
She’s lying beside me. Pretending sleep.
Will anything good survive this destruction?
We’ve already killed everything. Bright moths
touch the window panes on both sides. Peace.
So far silence.
A hundred times she stressed she didn’t want me.
I tried, however, every single
male trick. She’s here. She is
beside me on somebody else’s bed.
She’s lost. Won. I’ve won. Lost.
She’s lying. Dressed – I sit apart.
I’m looking and smoking. Looking.
Two fallen, broken glasses with tea.
An ashtray with two long cigarette butts.
When she opens her eyes – I will open fire.
Yet if, given this sustained darkness, we cast Świetlicki as anti-poet, then he consciously embraces his own idiosyncratic muse, suggesting a particularly satanic ringing of the spheres:
It’s cold and black in my letters. Now I know:(‘Untitled’)
I’m merely a go-between.
They complain to God.
I’m standing in mighty wind, the wind
is blowing right through me.
Through my fault.
It’s worth noting also that this single volume takes us through thirty years of shifting experiences and poetic styles. He is increasingly economic in his use of language, while family life, parenthood and poems on aging reveal little moments where he has a calmer voice that is more forgiving of life: ‘Today will happen. May it be not evil. …| May this strange | city make love to me today and remain loyal.’ (’21 July’). This is not to say he is any more hopeful of contemporary politics and its endless cycles, but, while still pessimistic, he seems to have a voice that is less intense, less angry, more expressive of a resigned human vulnerability to events beyond all human control: ‘We are lonely, paralysed Gullivers’ (‘In April 2016’). What remains consistent throughout, as highlighted by his translator Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese citing from Poems (2011), is his commitment to writing poetry that is ‘against injustice. Against stupidity. Against evil people. | Poetry is risk. Poetry is courage. Poetry is dangerous.’
– Belinda Cooke
Belinda Cooke completed her PhD on Robert Lowell’s interest in Osip Mandelstam in 1993. Her poetry, translation and reviews have been published widely. Her most recent books are Forms of Exile: Selected Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva (the High Window Press, 2019); (et al) Contemporary Kazakh Poetry (Cambridge University Press, 2019) Stem (The High Window, 2020) and Days of the Shorthanded Shovelists (forthcoming, Salmon Poetry). She currently lives and teaches on the west coast of Scotland.