Poetry Today

Article excerpt

If you admire the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004) and especially Wislawa Szymborska (b. 1923), seek out Piotr Sommer (b. 1948). Based on Continued, the engaging versions of which have been made by Halina Janod working with co-translators (thirteen in all, including John Ashbery, Douglas Dunn, and D. J. Enright), Sommer deserves a place alongside these philosophically alert Polish poets. Let me add that he joins their company almost offhandedly. He is graced with an original kind of curiosity that scrutinizes at once the fine details of the quotidian and, at a gentle remove, its foibles. He obviously relishes common words and expressions for their own sake, all the while poking fun at poetic gravitas by wondering--in "Little Graves" notably--where he will be buried and commenting that "my thing is talking, / but in fact I like to listen, that is, to ask things"; or, inversely--in "Lighter, Darker"--that

  I ask questions
  when I should finally be giving some answers.
  I don't know who I'm directing them to
  or if I'm directing them to anyone at all.

More specifically and movingly, he avows in "Visibility" that he has not "figured out" who he is "saying" his poem "to, or even who / would care that through the leaves // you can see Halifax / and someone's life." I'll return to what observing Halifax just like this implies.

Such meta-poetic ruminations suggest that Sommer espouses the cynical contemporary view whereby the author is an arbitrary construct and interpersonal communication well nigh impossible. However, his poetics are more complex. A poet's interest can be perked in random fashion; conveying what has been perceived, imagined or intuited can assuredly run up against the ineffable (or indifference); but there is more--as Sommer shows time and again--to this age-old literary dilemma. His poems unfold unexpectedly, always developing redeeming nuances that posit, then overturn, dogmas, including those associated with the aesthetics of post-structuralism and post-modernism; in other words, that open up fresh ways of feeling, and thinking about, life as we experience it.

"Indiscretions" bluntly asks, "Where are we?" The query sums up the impetus of many poems. The poet first declares firmly that humankind is situated "in ironies / that no one will grasp, short-lived / and unmarked, in trivial points / which reduce metaphysics to absurd / detail." Yet in the final quatrain, he qualifies our predicament less trenchantly:

  And one also likes certain words and those--pardon me--
  syntaxes that pretend that something links them together.
  Between these intermeanings the whole man is contained,
  Squeezing in where he sees a little space.

Here, "pretend" sneers at the false pretensions of order and rationality, yet the word is attenuated by mankind's plucky "squeezing in," an image recalling that life is also made up of emotions, biological drives, spontaneous strategies, as well as forms of logic other than syntactic. Like the archetypal non-heroes of Central and Eastern European novels, individuals--poignantly, pathetically--may find temporary housing in an interstice, having simultaneously managed to lug into their burrow those unwieldy questions that Sommer likes to raise. Who but the far-seeing and reminiscing author of A Subsequent World and What We're Remembered By would wait until the twenty-first line of a thirty-two-line poem to wonder: "What would I write poems about? / I'd have to think, / because in fact I'm fed up with them." However, although Sommer's playful, vaguely disturbing, poems sometimes pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, they are hardly word games. They do not particularly solicit intellectual analysis or research (as do, after all, crossword puzzles), but rather something more precious: bemused yet concerned meditation on what it means to be alive and act in the world.

To wit, Sommer may point to an individual's ultimate solitude, but then, in arresting contrast, refocus on the individual among family members or friends, or even in society at large (whereby "we," not he, "live secluded under the smoke of steelworks"). …