Sobbing Superpower by Tadeusz Różewicz

Różewicz draws attention to the defilement of language, and depicts its failure in the modern world by using the recurring image of a knife that has outlived its usefulness: we have filed it down to a dull instrument.



Tadeusz Różewicz is often characterized as a poet of simple diction who denies the existence of grand ideas. Edward Hirsch fittingly introduces him as a writer who “strips poetry down to its bare essentials: words alone on a page.” However, Różewicz’s subject matter is hardly mundane or trivial. From the Holocaust and the poet’s battle with language, to the corruption of modern society and the dissection of popular doctrines, he tackles big questions. Reading his poetry, we are reminded of standing in front of a tri-fold mirror that highlights every blemish and imperfection in an infinite number of angles. Różewicz’s latest book Sobbing Superpower, a chronological selection of his poems from the last sixty years, forces us to face an array of images that represent nothing but our own grotesque reflection.


In order to make us see clearly, abstract concepts in Różewicz’s poetry often take on human features. For example, in the poem “Double Sentence,” published two years after WWII, he sees “the comical image of grief / in worn-out slippers / over by the stove / the small crooked / figure / of a mother turned / to stone.” Różewicz’s personification speaks to the emptiness of words, such as grief, love, and anxiety, when faced with the atrocities of WWII. Emotions are assigned to a body in order to fully experience them. In one of his later poems, “Notes Toward a Contemporary Love Poem,” he uses imagery in order to create longing and a feeling of absence. Tangible objects, such as bread and sunflowers, are described through “Lack hunger / absence / of body.”  Różewicz presents the specific images of “breasts belly thighs” only to deny their existence as the poem unfolds.


An absence of punctuation and the use of staccato line breaks are common in Różewicz’s work, and they complement his unconventional imagery. “From Mouth to Mouth,” a poem written at the turn of the century, introduces imagery as a tool to reject abstract ideas. He writes, “the idea grows in the mouth / reaches the street / takes to the streets / staggers / like a drunken prostitute / from right to left.” The strategically placed verbs “grows,” “reaches,” “takes,” and “staggers” describe the life cycle of an idea.  The one word line “staggers” emphasizes the ultimate failure of ideas.


Różewicz’s imagery reaches a climax in the poem “the professor’s knife,” which acts as a bridge between present day atrocities and the Holocaust. Here, serene landscape imagery is coupled with the horrific reality of human and animal transports: “the train goes / over pillows / of silver and green / moss / through forest glades and clearings.” On the other hand, a train ride in the 21st century turns to “steam engines rust” and “trash train cars.” Różewicz draws attention to the defilement of language, and depicts its failure in the modern world by using the recurring image of a knife that has outlived its usefulness: we have filed it down to a dull instrument.


Fans of Różewicz’s poetry will appreciate his latest volume for its critical survey of history through startling imagery and for its in-depth examination of language’s purpose. According to Różewicz, “a poet is a beast / immersed in the world.” Because we are essentially animals that possess language, our responsibility lies not with highlighting our superiority, but rather with taking a good look at ourselves. We are the only animals capable of judging our actions. A line in his poem “stick on water” encapsulates this notion: “whereof one cannot speak / thereof one must speak.” In his poetry, Różewicz is putting our long history of misconduct under the linguistic microscope.

 

Sobbing Superpower, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2011. Reviewed by Monika Zobel

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