Monday, August 24, 2009

`Inattention is an Unforgivable Sin'

Read this cold, without knowing author or national origin:

“A wooden spoon for stirring jam,
Dripping sweet tar, while in the pan
Plum magma's bubbles blather.
For someone who can't grasp the whole
There's salvation in the remembered detail.
What, back then, did I know about that?
The real, hard as a diamond,
Was to happen in the indefinable
Future, and everything seemed
Only a sign of what was to come. How naïve.
Now I know inattention is an unforgivable sin
And each particle of time has an ultimate dimension.”

Neither a young man’s poem nor the work of a childish middle-aged or elderly poet. The voice knows loss and regret. It is seasoned – morally, spiritually -- in a manner that doesn’t feel American, hermetic or glibly sentimental. In the wrong hands (in the hands of a poet unable to write “inattention is an unforgivable sin”), the poem could have turned into New Age treacle. Instead, it’s a species of wisdom literature composed by a writer with a good ear: “Plum magma's bubbles blather.”

The poem is “About a Boy Stirring Jam” by Janusz Szuber, born in Poland in 1947, between the deaths of Hitler and Stalin. It’s included in his first book in English, They Carry a Promise: Selected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009). The translation is by Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough, who last spring published “In Zbigniew Herbert’s Garden” in The Threepenny Review. Why has so much modern Polish poetry been translated into English by women (Bogdana Carpenter, Alissa Valles)?

I hear more Milosz than Herbert in Szuber’s lines, more of a religious sensibility. “About a Boy Stirring Jam” reminds me of “Blacksmith Shop,” written by Milosz when he was 80:

“I liked the bellows operated by rope.
A hand or foot pedal – I don’t remember which.
But that blowing, and the blazing of the fire!
And a piece of iron in the fire, held there by tongs,
Red, softened for the anvil,
Beaten with a hammer, bent into a horseshoe,
Thrown into a bucket of water, sizzle, steam.

“And horses hitched to be shod,
Tossing their manes; and in the grass by the river
Plowshares, sledge runners, harrows waiting for repair
“At the entrance, my bare feet on the dirt floor,
Here, gusts of heat; at my back, white clouds.
I stare and stare. It seems I was called for this:
To glorify things just because they are.”

The speakers in each poem remember a childhood commonplace. As Szuber writes: “There's salvation in the remembered detail.” Note the religiously suggestive language, which makes Szuber an anomaly among contemporary poets: He is a mature writer writing for mature readers. Only one poem in the collection, “Cocks Crowing,” carries a dedication: “To Czeslaw Milosz”:

“Cocks crowing for a change of weather:
Under the purple cloud the purple testicles of plums
With gray coating and a sticky crack –
Sweet scabs of dirty amber.

“The tongue tries to smooth the coarseness of the pit
And years pass. But it still hurts the palate,
Promising that I’ll touch the essence – the bottom of that day
When cocks crowed for change of weather.”

Memory, detail, salvation.

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

Thank you for this complex and interesting poem. I read it less as “wisdom literature” and more as a species of that peculiarly Eastern European irony where we are urged to laugh sadly at ourselves. The speaker’s memory of making plum jam becomes laden with exotic metaphors (tar, magma), making them more real in memory than presumably they were when they actually happened. Instead of embracing his reverie, the speaker regrets missing the hard, indivisible details because at the time he only in reverie of the future. This is doubly ironic because he is equally missing the present “particle of time” by now obsessing over his past.

He’s like a Chekov character, in other words.

“Cocks Crowing” also carries forth the idea of not living in the present. That wonderful moment when we pull luscious fruit off the tree and eat it becomes bitter for him because he exaggerates it into a metaphor of regret for something personified: cocks crowing for "change in the weather," not, as one commonly supposes, the sunrise.