The Continued Exile: Tomasz Różycki’s The Colonies

The ColoniesTomasz Różycki’s collection of poems, The Colonies, addresses issues of dislocation, abandonment, and borders shifting beyond tongue and national identity. When Poland’s borders shifted west after World War II, Różycki’s family was forced to move from Lwów, Poland (now Lviv, Ukraine) to Opole, where he was born in 1970. Translator Mira Rosenthal notes in her introduction that Różycki’s narrative of homeland abandonment haunts his current surroundings and reminds him that the present is a form of continued exile. Each of the poems in Colonies is a sonnet, giving form to poems whose content lacks the demarcation of borders and the definition of the self; these poems interrogate the understanding of the self in a post-Cold War landscape, where authenticity and individuality erode under the reconfiguration of landscape and cultural identity. This repetition of form gives cohesion not only to the book, but to the journey of the self through a chaotic, shifting landscape.

 

Różycki wrote many of the poems in Colonies while walking to Opole University, where he teaches. The act of walking gathers the cityscape into the poet’s mind where sensory comprehension becomes burdened by the “chimney of dreams above.” His poems gather the duality of Central Europe: the beauty of “bright street[s] … and cafes with warmth inside” and the grimness of “those great gray fields of … barking dogs.” Różycki hovers in the space between the exalted and the low, creating a tension that batters not only at history, but the poet’s personal urban journey. While many of his contemporaries have cultivated a sense of irony in response to the walking-talking, discursive lyric narratives of Frank O’Hara and other New York School poets, Różycki has maintained an allegiance to the historicism that influenced his Polish predecessors. In his poems, “Electric Eels” and “Totems and Beads,” the reader sees impressions of history rather than impressions of urban irony. His poems act like archaeological digs: each line or stanza removes layers of history, revealing strata as the poems progress down the page.

 

Old Opole

 

In “Electric Eels,” the speaker immediately states, “These are our colonies! Kuba has staked / … borders / … spread across the summer.” By referencing the pre-colonial African kingdom of Kuba, Różycki evokes the exotic untouched by Western colonization. This concept can be reconfigured to represent the German and Russian domination over the Polish people, and in turn, their mass exodus from locations like Lwów which gives the populace its cultural and locational identity. By titling the poem after an exotic creature that emits electricity, the animal symbolizes border fences and electrified barbed wire which prevent the movement of those forced to new locales. Further, the speaker finds the refuse of those who populated the land before him, uncovering their strata until he finds their “hair inside the earth.” This digging and discovering of the people who lived there prior reveals the alienation of the individual on a new land that does not belong to him. Interestingly, even though the land is now the speaker’s, he knows history is bound to repeat itself, and the land will only belong to him and his people until “… the time when others come.”

 

Likewise, the act of colonization is further examined in “Totems and Beads,” where everything is post-German, including the speaker’s “post-German town / … post-German woods, post-German graves,” and so on. In this case, the speaker reflects on an alien location, that of the conqueror whose cultural artifacts infect place; it is a reversal of colonization where the colonized are forced from their homes to another. It is in this place where the speaker lives. He states, “on this rubbish heap I’ve built / my life, right here on refuse where I’ll reign, / consuming and digesting everything.” What happens is a forced appropriation of cultural artifacts that do not belong to the speaker, but from which he must “build a homeland” and his own cultural identity. From this, the speaker loses all sense of identity, becoming inverted like the blank white form of a person in a photographic negative, occupying “attics, pantries, suburbs, wastelands.” In this space, the speaker loses touch with his past and forms his understanding of identity on a foreign place, or what Rosenthal describes as a “sense of dislocation and the dilemma of how to create an authentic self out of discontinuity.”

 

The Colonies is comprised of seventy-seven sonnets, and the form creates a consistency in an otherwise inconsistent landscape. The poems open us to a “soot-soaked” and decaying world. In this space, Różycki is able to interrogate and question cultural identity through the Polish language in a German place. His images are reminders of the historical and contemporary problems of dislocation and its cause and effects on identity. While young Polish poets continue to be influenced by the American avant-garde, Tomasz Różycki stands at the crossroads of historicism and new aesthetics. It is important that poets like Różycki are translated into English to continue the cross-pollination of influence in global literatures, preventing our language and perspectives from stagnating. In this case, Różycki, through Rosenthal’s clean and stunning translations, succeeds at giving an American audience a new perspective in a constantly changing world.

 

Tomasz Różycki

Tomasz Różycki

More Tomasz Różycki:

Buy The Colonies from Powell’s.

Różycki on Wikipedia.

Różycki at the Vermont Studio Center.

Różycki at PEN America.

Visit Mira Rosenthal’s site.

More from Zephyr Press.


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