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Moved by the Spirit: An Anthology of Polish Religious Poetry.

For readers unfamiliar with Polish poetry and who thirst for the sacramental, this book is a huge find. A far cry from American Puritanically based poetry--The Oxford Book of American Poetry comes to mind--Czerniawski's collection offers a continuously alien (Catholic) spiritual point of view. For Poland, the "good but disordered" Catholic perspective always underscores the innate "God-carrying" value of creation, of people, of the unconscious. Even while our editor tries in some way to emphasize poems that are only nominally or secularly religious, his enterprise fails beautifully. There are no depraved sons of Adam here. Each poet struggles through his "place of passage," to lift from John Paul II, in a wonderful selection of poems that reveal each time what it means to be both Polish and Catholic.

There is one other point worth making before we dig into the poems themselves. One cannot help but note a skewed time line. After offering one sixteenth-century poet and two nineteenth-century poets, the editor then offers nine poets born between 1921 and 1936. While that may seem suspicious, upon closer scrutiny it makes great sense. All nine of those poets experienced both Hitler and Stalin; in fact, the editor, Czerniawski may be the last significant Polish poet who can say that. The idea is a good one since who has experienced the cross like these people. We see that reflected in the poetry, overtly religious or not. True, the divine person of Jesus can become a little more distant during Modernist times of intense suffering, but that is how things always are in our dark nights, whatever our personal situation.

What has lasted here is the Polish spirit; that is what Czerniawski has given us. Every orthodox American Catholic should buy this book. Simply put, it offers what our national poetry is either unable or too bigoted to provide ("the last acceptable prejudice"): authentic Catholic voices. It's no accident, for example, that the only "devoted Catholic" poet acknowledged by the above mentioned Oxford book is Fanny Howe, a poet whose voice falls more in line with traditionally agnostic and political (leftist) verse than it does with the devotedly Catholic. Thomas Merton, surely the most important American Catholic poet in the postmodern period, is not granted any space.

Moved by the Spirit begins with Jan Kochanowski's lamenting ("Tren XVII") the death of his young daughter. Ben Jonson comes to mind, but there is perhaps a deeper sense of the real here: "The Lord's hand touched me,/All joy's gone." Suffering must be borne, lived through; it is not something we can escape via faith. This is the cross, and it is, through the eyes of faith, something we all must bear in one way or another. To his credit, Kochanowski does not try to short-circuit his grief. In fact, he often blames himself, something most fathers would probably do: "Hiding our folly, we flaunt our wits/To dazzle simple souls."

Cyprian Kamil Norwid also offers a breadth of experience. He seems even more overtly religious than Kochanowski, as least given the selections here, but these choices are lovely and deliver life as it comes, not as we would wish it. In praise of the tolerant ruler in "To Emir Abd El Kader in Damascus," the poet is generous and vast. But there's more; there's something apocalyptic in these lines:

His foot is in the rainbow's stirrup,

He rides to Judgment day;

Then let your tent be broader

Than David's cedar groves;

For of the Magi you were first

To mount your horse upon the hour!

Perhaps Norwid was being prophetic: what would eventually come surely must have felt like the last days. With Tadeusz Rozewicz we move into the horrible twentieth century. We see hope fade with the Gestapo here, but it does not disappear. Consider "Chestnut," a poem that yokes childhood innocence with the going off to war:

while God almighty who mixed in

bitterness with the sweetness

hangs on the wall helpless

and badly painted

childhood is like the worn face

on a golden coin that rings


Death seems to have come to every family during the war and the occupations. Leon Zdzislaw Stroinski's "Warsaw" ends with the line, "Can you hear more distinctly the heavy rhythmical tread of God's steel-shod boots."

Jan Darowski picks this up idea up. Every Christian must know the cross and suffering; truly, he lets no one off the hook for the Holocaust:

In this conspiracy we were the oldest,

not bound by silence even,

we ate common bread, drank

from self-same rock, their hands touched us,

the blood-drained hands of biblical traitors--

Czerniawski does a great job of delivering scope here. One need not be an expert in Polish literature to feel the change. True, the greats are represented--or at least those with whom outsiders are probably more familiar, Szymborska and Herbert. However, they only serve to add to the vision; they do not dominate.

The editor includes a few of the latter's Pan Cogito poems. In his "Thoughts on Hell" we get a delightful truth: artists are not safe here either. Everyone has a life to deliver:

Beelzebub loves art.

Beelzebub supports art. His artists are guaranteed peace, good food and total isolation from infernal life.

Czerniawski ends the collection with his own work. This kind of thing is often cause for concern since some poets see all previous work as the necessary steps leading to the revelation they alone are privy to. However, our editor does not go there; rather, he includes five poems that like the previous poems, are beautifully sacramental despite their "secularity." Again, the Polish soul has its final say. This, fittingly enough, comes across with a sixth poem, "St. Sebastian." It was written to honor a sixteen-year-old, a young person who experienced "scorched flesh." Was this in a German Nazi camp or was it a gift from Stalin? It is not clear, but what is clear is that Jesus knows the journey:

While after death Lazarus

Led a quiet life.

At table he and Martha

Served the deathbound Lord.

And so we see it again, a Polish sense of the sacramental. A crucified Lord has made the whole way a holy journey. The pain, the hideousness have all been transformed, made new in its pain.

What would it take for America to deliver something like this, to feel the depths of Christ crucified? Perhaps we got some of that in Stevens after the Second World War when his family began dying off, but more than likely it will come sometime in the future, when our own peculiar brand of secular humanism ends in something more hopeful than a cloaked totalitarianism.

Edited by Adam Czerniawski. Belfast: Lapwing, 2010. ISBN 978-1-907276-51-4. 156 pages. [pounds sterling]15.00.
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Author:Craig, David
Publication:Sarmatian Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2017
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