Browsing through Jan Polkowski’s Glosy/Voices is not an easy affair. Page after page is splashed with blood, strewn with bodies, and broken hearts and minds. Yet one is pulled into the hollowed bones of the dead and the living as they ruminate and reminisce of their lives before and after the tragedy of December 1970 or the “December Events.”
In December 1970, Polish citizens came out into the streets to protest against the drastic increase in prices. Things took a fatal turn when the communist army and militia opened fire against them. A few hundred people were murdered in cold blood (though the official count is 41) and their bodies buried in secret under the cover of the night, in an attempt to erase all memory of the massacre. Glosy/Voices may be read as an elegy to the dead and alive after the events of December 1970.
‘The poet of allusions and ellipses’
Born in 1953 in Bierutów, Poland, Polkowski family moved to Nowa Huta when he was two. In 1972, he enrolled at the Department of Polish Studies at the Jagiellonian University. Polkowski has been a prolific writer of prose and poetry, writing and publishing in the Polish underground press as Poland lived through communism. He debuted as a poet in 1978 with several poems in the uncensored literary journal Zapis (The Record).
In 1978, Polkowski was appointed editor of the student magazine Sygnał (Signal) and the Krakowska Oficyna Studentów (Kraków Students’ Press), which also operated clandestinely. During the “Carnival of Solidarity,” he organised a network of several hundred libraries affiliated with the workers’ committees. At around the same time, he set up an independent publishing house, ABC, which released his second volume, Oddychaj głęboko (Breathe Deeply) in 1981. His other poetry books include To nie zest poezja (This is not poetry) published by Niezalena Oficyna Wydawnicza (NOWA), an independent publishing house, Ogien Z Notatek (1982-1983, Fire: Personal Writings 1982-83) and Drezwa (Trees, 1986).
Polkowski was imprisoned when martial law was imposed on December 13, 1981. After his release in 1983, he worked as an editor for the underground social and literary magazine, Arka (The Ark). In the same year he won the prestigious Polish literary prize – the Geneva-based Koscielski Foundation award. In 1989, when communism collapsed in Poland, Polkowski became the editor of the Czas Krakowski (Krakow Times).
His first legally published volume Elegie z Tymowskich Gor (Elegies from the Tymowskie Mountains) (Znak) was published in 1990 and contained a selection of pieces that had already appeared in print, as well as previously unpublished poems. After a hiatus, he made a literary comeback in 2009 with a volume of poetry, Cantus, which won the Andrzej Kijowski Prize in 2010, followed by two more collections – Cien (Shadow) and Glosy (Voices). The latter fetched him the Orpheus Konstanty Ildefons Galczynski award for poetry.
Several volumes of poetry followed, and finally it was in 2013 that he debuted as a novelist with Slady krwi: Przypadki Henryka Harsynowicza (Blood Stains: The Trial of Henryk Harsynowicz). This story of a Polish man, observing events in his homeland from a distant Canada won the Identitas Award in 2014. A collection of his short prose pieces, Portier I inne opowiadania (The Janitor and Other Stories) was published in 2019.
The reputed Polish critic and literary scholar Jan Blonski has described Polkowski as “the poet of allusions and ellipses” pointing out that his writings “as being able to present moral problems in a way that clearly emphasises their importance and topicality.” According to Polish poet Stanisław Barańczak, Polkowski is a poet of “miniature and discretion”, with the ability to condense meanings, reluctant to give into unnecessary pathos.
In Glosy/Voices, the city is a ghost town, strewn with bodies, sprinkled with the regret of the dead and the bitter-sweet lament of the survivors. Before one realises, the reader is already walking down the lanes of a city, smeared with blood, listening to the dead speak, looking through the windows for signs of life, reading the emptiness on the faces as the mist of absence hangs over it. In Glosy/Voices, the poet becomes a medium through which the dead speak. For example:
On that day my life lasted one hour only.
At four thirty I woke up in the flat
And destiny was open till five forty.
I came to know the human villainy of desire
The bullet took a long time splitting the frost the rattle of rails
The crushed light of the morning
Mixed with oil of the muddied sun
Until it finally pierced my neck
Through the window of the Tricity tram.
Well then you must believe I lived through it all
In that one hour
For I haven’t resurrected after all
I am still always sixteen.
Though the massacre took place in 1970, Polkowski wrote Glosy only in 2012. “The memories of the events lingered in his mind, he only brought them alive in words in 2012 as till then he was trying to find an expression for them,” says Magdalena Filipczuk, one of the editors of the English edition and Head of International Translation Projects, Institute of Polish Literature, Krakow.
Translated into English in 2021 by Charles S Kraszewsky and published by Glagoslav Publications, an independent British-Dutch press specialising in Slavic literature, Glosy/Voices stuns the reader with its starkness and spartan approach. The words evoke a visual imagery that numbs and revolts the conscience at the same time. Take for example:
They took me to the graveyard they wanted to bury the body.
And from that time on each night the same ritual. He looked
as if they’d sewn him together with unmatching parts. Quick,
Quick they closed the lid. The wind dragged in the rain
From the sea and got tangled in the net of darkened ash trees
You could hear the drops battering the spades
The spades battering the ground screeching against the rocks.
Someone else walked away from the well in the Samaritan woman’s flesh.
I remained. Like water. Dumb as an empty jar.
Glosy/Voices can also be read as a book of monologues, of thoughts that flow like an underground stream of guilt, resentment, a life that could have been, under the looming power of a state, where personal expression is taboo. Where people move about to the quotidian hum of life even as a tragedy, larger than life casts a shadow on them. For example:
I didn’t tell you I was pregnant.
You are so similar both stubborn and impulsive
Both unalive you and your son.
In my thoughts: I keep repeating words: Our Father
Hail Mary and Eternal Grace rest grant unto them.
In hopes that they will one day become a prayer
In which I can wrap myself up like in Grandma Stasia’s sweater...
Dearest daddy, how sincerely I hated you
For you went away and the rest of the world stayed right where it was
For that, and probably too for the sting of poverty that followed
We were helped out by uncle parish neighbours.
When I was old enough I picked bottled rags and scrap metal.
We ate stale bread soup hasty pudding potatoes
Potatoes potatoes I hated you
Because you were somewhere else and didn’t give a fig for us.
Intertwining details into the sparse text gives the poems a sense of urgency, a presence that seeps into the reader’s conscience, almost like shadows in the twilight that confuse, bewilder and frighten at the same time. But finally, what emerges is the individual who stands like a question mark on the pages of history. The poems succeed in bringing forth the human condition, which often gets obliterated in the aftermath of such a tragedy.
While a historian may study the circumstances, a journalist the details, the poet here serves the purpose by bringing forth the human pain, bereavement, and nostalgia leading mankind to question the violence, meditate on the tragedy and introspect on human nature; all the while self-effacing, not more present than mist on a cold night.
According to the Polish academic and critic Josef Maria Ruszar, the poetic technique followed by Polkowski has no parallels in Polish or world literature, “which permits him to enter into the skin of another person and to speak from within his narrators…” Ruszar further states that the poet’s self-effacement, makes him more of a medium through which the dead speak, leading to the “annihilation of the poet.”
In a world where injustice continues unabated and where the daily flux of violent news and images numb the mind into accepting violence as a way of life, Jan Polkowski’s Glosy/Voices stirs the mind by making the wounds of the dead and living speak.
Glosy/Voices, translated from the Polish into English by Charles S Kraszewsky, Glagoslav Publications.