reviews Zero Visibility
by Grzegorz Wroblewski
(Phoneme Media, 2017)
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I encountered the poetry of Grzegorz Wroblewski when he read with the translator Piotr Gwiazda at the Cambridge Public Library in Massachusetts. It became quickly apparent that these poems were not your Polish grandfather’s poems, even if, like me, your grandfather was never Polish. And I couldn’t help wondering what a member of the older guard like Czeslaw Milosz would have thought about Wroblewski’s poems.
In his latest book Zero Visiblity, Wroblewski continues to navigate his poetry boat through the world, trying to find some sense where so often ‘Nothing makes sense.’ Most of the poems are short, quite short, and have a parable-like quality coated with a modern, cosmopolitan sensibility.
Yes, the poems are sometimes wacky, strange, but as I write this I’m reminded that a Donald J. Trump is President of the United States. Surely, this didn’t happen, but it did. Strangeness is all around us, more than we’ll ever know, so it turns out not to be so strange in one of Wroblewski’s poems that the CIA’s ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ coincide normally with Tom Cruise (at 39 years old) deciding ‘to straighten and / even out his teeth!’
There are three aspects of Wroblewski’s poetry that really engage me. First, his humor is always on display, despite the bleakness that is right along side. It’s often black humor (I like Sharon Mesmer calling it ‘melancholic hilarity’) but it’s also often wonderful. Here’s a prime example:
The Juice Probe
on Jupiter’s moons. Ganymede is
of particular interest. Water and organic
compounds! My teeth are slowly falling out…
The answer will arrive in 2033.
Extraterrestrial life! By then
I will know everything.
Ah, the teeth again. We do have something in common with Tom Cruise. And the reader has to smile a little at the invoking of 2033 — some of us might live long enough to see it and then we’ll know everything too!
Aspect number two has to do with Wroblewski’s mature, stark style which, like his humor, he can employ whether commenting on the world at large or the interior of his own life. Being honest in all its forms is important and the way he can tie it to his imaginative leaps is truly remarkable. Here’s one of the best ‘Love done me wrong’ poems I’ve read in recent years. No punches pulled here:
Old ska music.
A memory of something velvety remains.
Your absence terrifies me.
I’m just a piece of old, unnecessary meat.
Music, street, beaches — I see you everywhere.
A frightening new strain of tuberculosis.
Ska music. You fuck others now.
The third aspect is Wroblewski’s cosmopolitan bent that I mentioned earlier — he resides currently in Copenhagen and he would be almost right at home in a New York or Paris as well. I say almost because anyone who’s moved to a new country can feel at times like a bit of an outsider, no matter how well one has assimilated and likes the new land. And in our current situation where immigration is often hotly debated, Wroblewski’s take is worth noting:
near Oxford Street in London.
So is this your only discovery?
you ask with surprise.
Yes, because for a moment I thought
it was different in England.
Yes, indeed, the way we thought Sweden, Turkey, Poland, even the United States… might be different. A telling cosmic condition he renders so well.
In Zero Visibility Wroblewski keeps on giving us poems of intelligence, keen observation, imagination and a sober joy that earns its moments of levity all while he’s dancing around the abyss. I’d like to think the grandfathers and Milosz might be saluting him a little. And I’ve changed my mind: ‘To be reincarnated as a crab’ isn’t a bad thing. I’m glad to give Wroblewski the last words:
a dead crab. The sun sets
behind rock-like clouds.
I’m still alive. I look for you