This is the kind of idea, easily modified and Sharpied on a placard, which Polish writer Julia Fiedorczuk invigorates in Oxygen: Selected Poems, translated by Bill Johnston. In Fiedorczuk’s careful hands, elemental words—“earth,” “home,” “life”—reveal their complications and instabilities. “Only in certain places can houses be built,” she observes and cautions in the collection’s opening poem. Yet people go on building with inexplicable “faith in the permanence of these traces,” erecting new houses based on where death can be comfortably concealed: “The place / will work so long as graves can be dug.”
Fiedorczuk’s work emerges from a movement known as “ecopoetry” or “ecopoetics,” which is associated with writers such as Forrest Gander, Brenda Hillman, and Gary Snyder. In a long essay, Fiedorczuk and the Mexican writer Gerardo Beltrán posit ecopoetics as “an integrative practice leading to the production of new ways of knowing and living.” They wish to resolve the opposition between the supposed “objective knowledge” of science and the “spiritual realm of the arts.” This is one step toward reconceiving human/non-human relationships, necessary because the traditional narrative of human exceptionalism and mastery is destroying the planet. The practice of ecopoetics generates—or germinates—fresh metaphors, altering the “individual and collective imaginations” to create a narrative for the future that embraces the duties of interconnectedness. The essay is an explicit “defense of poetry” as capable of more than beauty, but it resists “poetry can save the world” truisms. The practice they describe is “not limited to . . . the writing and reading of poetry”; however, poetry, as “a source of knowledge and wisdom as well as a vital creative force” has the power to transform the imagination. Ecopoetics, as described by Fiedorczuk and Beltrán, can and must expand beyond the page. It is the practice of “home-making,” represented in the word itself: “eco” from oikos, the Greek word for “home”; “poetics” from poiesis, the word for “making.”
Before reading Oxygen, I doubted that Fiedorczuk could actualize these principles without clumsy didacticism. But her work explores the interdependence of human and non-human, and the simultaneous power and vulnerability of the natural world, with rigor and tenderness. Her focus on the interactions between what is human and what is not results in poems that admit remarkable complexity. They are permeated by a sense of crisis and yet are capable of celebrations like a dance under the sky’s “miraculous turret.” Every poet is both architect and host. Because of Fiedorczuk’s clear-eyed perception of how difficult it is to do this home-making, it’s possible to trust her visions and invitations:
I’ll lead you here. I’ll show you this rock,
This crooked tree, this costly dew. We shall sit here
Where I’m taking a picture; I’ll send you corrosive time
on glossy paper, via the heavens.
Fiedorczuk is the prize-winning author of five books of poetry and four of prose. She is also a professor at the University of Warsaw, where she teaches courses on postwar American poetry, among other subjects. While some of her poems, essays, and short stories have appeared in English, Oxygen is the first full book to be translated.
When I spoke with her a few months ago, at a café in Warsaw, she objected to being named an “ecopoet,” simply because she distrusts the constraints a label imposes. “I am simply a poet,” she said, before revising this to “I am someone who writes poems.” The emphasis on process above product is characteristic of her work, and contributes to its feeling of unity. Oxygen is divided into three sections: “Lands and Oceans,” “Autobiographia Literaria,” and “Psalms in the Making.” While the partitioning does help the reader to orient herself, it unfortunately implies that poems of nature, cosmos, and history can be separated from ones of everyday life, or poems of praise. The governing preoccupations are the same.
The poems in Oxygen are small, never more than a page and a half, but deep, and highly allusive—to Freud, to Laura Riding, to Homer, Dante, Herodotus. Fiedorczuk largely eschews the thesaurus’s Mary Poppins largesse in favour of restriction: restriction to simple words, especially simple words that mean a lot—like star, or water—in order to draw on childhood associations and to enable conversation with every poet who’s ever written about the ocean, or the sky. Surprise, one of the reader’s primary joys, emerges from the act of stripping the words down to reveal an essence beneath essence. At times she intersperses words like “subcutaneous,” “apnea,” “chitin,” and “ichthyological” with the casual confidence of someone whose everyday vocabulary also collocates with the technical and plainspoken. In a particularly impressive series of shifts, she writes, in “Orion’s Shoulder,” of “Assimilation and dissimilation. CO2, H2O, / light, light, light, / metabolic conversion, growth and maturation / within the flat disk of the rippling Galaxy.” The scientific symbols and language remind us that we cannot describe the earth in solely mystical terms—and yet we do experience the ecstasy of simple “light, light, light.”
In translation, fractures are inevitable. I am still a beginning student of Polish, but when I read Fiedorczuk’s poems aloud in Polish, then in English, I mourn the diminishment of their oceanic rhythms: an oscillation between strong vowels and a profusion of consonants impossible to replicate in English, which lacks the multitude of variations on sh and zh, and whose syntactic arrangements are impoverished in comparison. It’s impossible not to miss, for instance, the “tkanka, tkanina, tlen” that concludes “Photosynthesis.” The Polish words feel rich, and delightfully heavy, in the mouth: the ah repeats and “tkanka” stretches into “tkanina,” as if the line can’t help expanding, like the lungs when inhaling. This culminates in the stony “tlen,” both a peak and a fall. The poem is over, the breath released. Johnston chooses “flesh, cloth, breath” to approximate the assonance, but “tlen” can be both “breath” and “oxygen,” a resonance with the title and coincidence of sound with sense unavoidably absent in English.
On a few other occasions, Johnston’s renderings strike me as labored—avoidably so. Poems usually benefit from compression, and Fiedorczuk’s brief, restrained lyrics especially. But we get, for example, “in the place the star has pierced” rather than “in the place the star pierced” and “none / of your bones is going to be broken” rather than “none / of your bones will be broken.” But in most places, the translation delights. Johnston, who is a professor of comparative literature at Indiana University, and an experienced and award-winning translator from Polish, produces the sort of epigrammatic phrases readers extract from poems and commit to memory (“motherhood / is a life sentence”), and descriptions that elicit both pleasure and recognition (“the razor of ice that smoothes the river’s dark skin”). Despite minor flaws, and the inescapable gap between the original and the refigured, these are true poems in English, with their own real and particular beauties.
While language has often been advanced as the fundamental means of differentiating between human animals and non-human animals, in Oxygen language unifies rather than separates. The sea “is a stubborn subtext,” the body made “of tongue / and daylight.” In one poem, Fiedorczuk exposes and enacts the creation of person, world, word: “in this version I’m coming to you through a wood / across a fresh green valley” and then, a few lines later, “in this version I’m coming to you across a trash heap.” Language is the material that constructs the world’s every part.
Maps are perhaps the most brazen attempt humans make to represent nature, aspiring to recreate it as it is, then applying names to its parts. In “Drawer,” which begins definitionally—“Some collect shavings of the past”—beneath domestic detritus like fabric and yarn “someone will one day discover a map of an obsolete world— / a landscape of defunct countries.” Tucked under the commonplace are the remnants of old conceptions of the world, like parchment maps of flat earths with unknown monsters lurking near the brink. “Obsolete” and “defunct” summon the specter of human technology and its callous dismissal of anything outdated, as well as the chilly language of bureaucracy, which can, with some signatures on a treaty, and a processing fee, disembody countries. But Fiedorczuk isn’t satisfied with ending there, on a point about language and history. The drawer isn’t empty; instead, it holds
Herds of long-dead animals feeding on an extinct species of grass. Houses eroded by water and by wind, and in the houses faded photographs of those who once lived there.
The image of herds among grasses recalls the long tradition of pastoral poetry, a genre which portrays idealized nature, usually from an outside perspective extolling a simpler, purer, and more beautiful existence. Fiedorczuk adamantly rejects any such approach, telling me that to write pastoral poetry “when nature is disappearing . . . would be delusional.” For her, how to aesthetically engage with nature “is a question of sanity.”
What “Drawer” presents is a history of the future, a caution about the present. One needs only a quick scan of the news to find stories of new extinctions and climatic catastrophes. Humans, who live in houses, take photos of ordinary life, and stow objects in drawers, will not be spared. That faith in human permanence is deadly.
In his preface, Bill Johnston notes “However profoundly she immerses herself in the longue durée of geological and astronomical time . . . the I is rarely absent for long.” Aware of the fallacy of any pretense to an objective eye/I, Fiedorczuk embeds herself in nature to expose the inevitable subjectivity of the poet, and to trace new connections between herself and others, both human and non-human. In one poem, she writes, “I awoke / and was a woman / from my feet to my hair.” Turn the page and she presents a new version of identity: “When I was a fish . . . There were no days, / No sex, no difference.” The poem is funny because it brushes against the fantastical in a matter-of-fact way. It’s also moving. At the end, the speaker, no longer a fish, now full of “unbearably / Light air,” still feels “the lure of the sea.”
The “I” sometimes joins in the collective “We.” These moments assume some of the force and universality of parables. “We the infected must constantly resume the challenge. / Otherwise we will disappear,” she writes in “The Way Out.” Infected with what? We can supply many answers, and perhaps ours are the ones that matter—the speaker addresses a “you” and the you is of course also the reader, whom she implores, “Whoever you are, pass me your body of night.” She will handle the stranger’s body with the tenderness and intimacy due a beloved: “I’ll lick the salt from your cold eyelids. // And you shall see the world.” The promise of healing emerges from the touch of one body to another “as lightly as time”; it not only repairs but also renews sight. “Whoever you are / I take you with me,” the speaker pledges. “Here is the road. // And look, there is no map.” What the poet offers is a path, a process, a practice, not an end.
Next to what Fiedorczuk calls “the deep time of earth” there is the more “corrosive time” of human history. Polish poetry is perhaps best-known internationally for its postwar generation—Zbigniew Herbert, and Nobel laureates Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska. Writing after the trauma of World War II and the Holocaust, and under the Polish Communist government, with Stalin hovering nearby, these poets are associated with historical witness. In his book The Witness of Poetry, Miłosz wrote, “The true home of the Polish poet is history.”
For more than a century, from 1772 to 1918, the Polish language persisted without a country drawn on a map, as it was overrun, divided, made defunct. During the long fight for an independent Polish state, poets were defenders and preservers of language, and Poland’s symbolic body. Karen Kovacik, in a preface to Scattering the Dark, her brilliant anthology of Polish women’s poetry, sums up the gender dynamics at play in Poland’s bardic tradition and struggle for independence: “The Polish word for Poland—Polska—is a feminine noun, and the country has traditionally been represented as a woman. This gendered figure arose when Poland ceased to exist as a nation.” While there were, and are, gifted women poets, the result of this gendered struggle was a masculine dominance over history and the creation of the national image. Fiedorczuk describes a subsidiary effect of this in her essay “Stranger in the Country of the Poet”—the exclusion of women from “highbrow literary culture.”
Beginning in the late eighties, some Polish poets reacted to the emphasis on historical trauma and advanced a new poetics: “poetry of the everyday,” influenced by the American New York School. Despite this rebellion, the romantic vision of war, sacrifice, and the sanctified Matka Polska endures. Fiedorczuk connects this tenacious image with Poland’s recent drift toward nationalism and the 2015 election of the right-wing Law and Justice Party: “Tapping into this myth, contemporary right-wingers propagate an obsolete, death-obsessed, and strictly masculine form of patriotism.”
Fiedorczuk is ever-attentive to the dangers of myths. She does not assume the mantle of witness to tragic history. But unlike some members of the avant-garde, she doesn’t credit the possibility of apolitical poetry either. “Even when you’re ostensibly focusing on aesthetics, that already means that you’re taking a certain political position,” she told me. “Whatever you do with meaning, it always has potential implications for action.” When she approaches the historical and political, she draws power not from drowning out, but from reframing. Her rejection of this “death-obsessed” heteropatriarchy manifests in poems which quietly unwrite and rewrite history by threading it into the details of a woman’s everyday life. In “I wish I had a master,” she amusingly satirizes masculine pretensions to knowledge and power: “one lost word” from the master’s lips “would be the fall of kingdoms . . . ”
Like Szymborska in “The End and the Beginning,” which starts “After every war / someone has to tidy up,” Fiedorczuk bleeds the romanticism out of war stories in “Something,” with an air of slight exhaustion:
here there was a great explosion
everything lies scattered
we can only gather the live fruits of the war
we can only gather the dead fruits of the war
and so we keep telling the same stories . . .
Fiedorczuk reckons with these same stories in various and subtle ways. For example, “Madame Midas,” a poem which Kovacik translates in Scattering the Dark and which does not appear in Oxygen, reinvents Zbigniew Herbert’s “Mr. Cogito” figure, a “everyman” persona, grappling with art, history, and the nonsensical brutality of politics—and political language—in Communist Poland. Madame Midas, like poet Izabela Morska’s Madame Intuita, poses a feminine alternative, an everywoman who expands the possibilities of discourse. Unlike the mythical Midas, with his capitalist destruction, Madame “changes the world into words: / icy white, elegant black.” She’s a non-violent revolutionary.
Oxygen is a radical text. Unshowy in style, it is experimental in thought, as, again and again, Fiedorczuk lays bare the process of following new paths in language to lead the reader into new visions. In the title poem, she reconfigures the familiar Cartesian formula, concluding, “I breathe, I breathe therefore I am.” “Oxygen” is for organisms, “breath” for bodies. Fiedorczuk makes space for both.
The book’s magnificent closing poem, one of Fiedorczuk’s “psalms in the making,” occurs as “October / was turning into November,” a turn that happens on All Souls’ Day, when Poles traditionally make pilgrimages to cemeteries and lay flowers and candles on the graves. As the speaker reflects on “the cemeteries / where our fathers wrote no memoirs, / where they would not recognize our children, our / poems,” through the window she sees “a chickadee . . . like a message / generated by the mist.” Within the room, through a different pane of glass, “The television was showing Poland / that had perished, and then had not perished, and then / again had perished, and then not . . . ” History clashes with and infuses the domestic and the natural; the speaker bears the perceptions of now and the weight of memory, repeated again and again by the television, mouthpiece of myth. What happens is not a conclusion, but an experience that surprises anyone looking for a conclusion about the proper relation to history, and myth: “all at once / the chickadee was absorbed by sky before I could say / remember, remember me—”
These psalms compose the third and final section of the book and are the most recent work included. Psalms are traditionally sacred poems—the most famous, of course, being the Biblical Psalms—associated with praise and celebration. Like David’s psalms, Fiedorczuk’s are not simple paeans to the divine. They contain darkness. In “Psalm I,” the speaker acknowledges that “some poems cannot be written any longer” while “some could not be written until now.” She feels a “nighttime despair because of the children / drowned children, hanged children, burned / children . . . ” The Bible’s “Psalm 23” has always seemed less like a belief than a plea to believe that “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Death, I shall fear no evil.” An example of performative language: as I speak, I make real. Like David, this psalmist turns to language to make the wished-for the real, and quotes those older Psalms as she does:
“you shall want for nothing,” let’s say,
“a tree will be planted by the flowing waters”—
But what comes of this speech act? All of the psalms in Oxygen end in a dash, to simultaneously conclude and continue—a choice that reflects their brokenness, and their possibilities. The Australian poet Les Murray writes, “Unlike poetries of formula and definition, the celebratory doesn’t presume to understand the world . . . and so leaves it open and expansive, with unforeclosed potentials.” Intrinsic to a radically transformed relationship with the world is the desire to understand without the presumption of understanding. As Fiedorczuk said to me, “Poetry is the antithesis of certainty.” In her psalms, Fiedorczuk models a poetic world in which the represented world is not binary: good, or bad; ruined, or saved; terrible, or great. It is possible to make a life of celebration as well as of mourning—without closing our eyes to evils. The psalmic evades the linguistic contortions of politics, where the only questions are rhetorical and the only relationships binary oppositions. It also rejects the tempting comfort of hysterical despair. We may love the world, and hate it. We may echo Fiedorczuk in “Psalm V” when she writes:
Beauty exists, la ermozura egziste and paradises
are not artificial, yet how can one have fans
of gingko, green right next to yellow, and human
faces in the sunshine, pearls of architecture and thoughts
on the dust that we become?
In a time when crisis seems both acute and chronic, these psalms show the reader something radical: a deliberate embrace of the ongoing question, the dirty complexity of the beloved, dying world. This is one of what Fiedorczuk calls poetry’s “intimate revolutions.” At its best a poem makes, even if only briefly, a “home amid the hills encircled / by a wedding party” where we “seek and find, seek / and do not find, seek and disappear and—”