As a widely published translator and writer of essays and poems, Piotr Florczyk, a native of Kraków, Poland, persistently mediates between languages and countries. At the heart of his first full-length collection of poems East & West lies the disparity between a home country that is at once elegized, revisited, and left behind and the new country, in which “questions get answered with questions” and guest bedrooms represent “the emptiness of people / departing each year.” The space that opens up in the midst of these seemingly dissimilar worlds is to our surprise filled with much more than nostalgia for a lost home but inhabited by a forceful and precise lyrical voice of conscience. By not romanticizing the notion of leaving and instead suggesting a view of the Western landscape through the lens of a newcomer, Florczyk only reminds us that when “hoping / to open that door and enter the world,” we might just “find it the same / as the last time we left it once and for all.”
Florczyk aptly introduces readers to the East with the poem “Nineteen Eighty-Nine,” in which a mother welcomes back her dissident and escaped daughter. The poem sets the mood for the rest of the collection by meditating on changes—
in the person who has left as well as in the home that was left behind.
Florczyk writes, “We couldn’t wait to finally sieve, sort, and disembody the impurities in our garb” and cleverly evokes change in the shape of a Maytag washing machine, a symbol of the wealthy West and perhaps of a squeaky-clean new life.
And yet, change is more complex and more profound in the individuals who adjust to new lives. The line “Still, you stayed up late, calculating how far a heart travels from home with each beat” speaks to the idea that homes are perhaps never entirely left behind and that parts are always taken along on the journey.
In the same vein, water—the ocean and rivers—becomes a fierce accomplice, a reminder and a metaphor for leaving and wandering in Florczyk’s collection. In
“Downriver,” the ones that stayed behind become “the rust / racing down the tongue of the slide, / the seesaw weighing the air,” “making baby sounds / with [their] lips / pressed against the fishbowl”; while in the poem “Pastoral,” the speaker, who in a past life “rubbed shoulders with buildings, blue / trams and pigeons,” reminisces on the idea of leaving as an act that resembles “catch-and-releasing” by a brook or a miniscule “breadcrumb,” only to be faced with “silence, something / like a furrow or a dagger” in this version of a pastoral.
In contrast to this, Florczyk invites us to share experiences of returning home that are resonant with feelings of nostalgia, uncertainty, and speechlessness. In the poem “Tetris,” the speaker climbs a staircase in a building he once used to inhabit, which skillfully becomes a metaphor for delving further into one’s memories.
“The air was thick with flies,
the smell of fresh tar sizzling on the roof, where,
years ago, we’d go to spit on people’s heads and tweak
the antennas to catch somebody else’s dreams.
Life was beautiful, I thought, leaving the first floor.
I found my misspelled nickname carved into the wall.”
In the long poem “Kinderszenen,”—the title calls to mind Robert Schumann’s piano piece of the same title—this memory is intimately revisited through a series of places, ranging from Southern California and Cape Cod to Europe, the Tropics, and the speaker’s new and old home. Here too, water plays a significant role, namely that of a border to cross:
“My ship, the one I’ll take home,
is a walnut shell—its figurehead
a boy gasping for breath.”
The metaphor of the boy struggling to stay afloat is continued in the last scene, fittingly titled “Homecoming”:
“someone you love throws their arms
around your sweaty neck,
so that you can let go of the splintering oars
and wear your body like air.”
To “wear your body like air” gracefully recounts the otherwise difficult to describe sensation of returning to a childhood home after many years. The walnut shell boat and the splintering oars suggest the fragility of such a journey, the complications that might arise when we return to our homes.
The desire to look out over the water, to gaze beyond physical borders, and to have the world at our fingertips is not only addressed through the personal narrative of a speaker who has left home to find a different life, but also by means of a perceptive criticism of a society that is constantly on the lookout for new discoveries and ways to conquer the world.
In the longer poem “From the Life of Postage Stamps,” Florczyk employs witty metaphors to hold up a mirror to our antics of taking on the world by planes, by climbing towers, or by using computers, just to name a few. A weightlifter suddenly “has a future in Sudan, / carrying pails of water, / should anything here go awry” and “ghosts hook up inside / the royal chamber” while “the guests are reminded / America wasn’t built in an hour.” Florczyk’s facetious and assertive tone when writing “The planets are next” and “If you agree the future looks bleak, / don’t click here” remind us that our actions have consequences.
Reading Florczyk’s riveting collection, we find ourselves on a journey from the East to the West and vice versa, all the while being accompanied by Florczyk’s hauntingly beautiful lines that speak of the psychology of borders and exploration, as well as the reconciliation of old homes and new homes. In addition to sharing intimate narratives of moving and settling down, East & West presents us with the dilemma of the 21st century, where the “story of the sun / climbing a fire escape in the rain” is no longer worth telling, but instead quick discoveries are to be made since “Hitting the road—the desert / or the sea—has never / been easier, and that’s a fact.” As a translator of several books of Polish poetry, Florczyk pays attention to the smallest details and has perfected bringing down linguistic borders while also preserving cultural peculiarities. In East & West he allows his readers to step over the crumbling remnants of these borders, to gaze out over the landscape to both sides, and to our astonishment realize that there are no places left to hide.
Reviewed by Monika Zobel
Available from Lost Horse Press