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On the Crossroads of Asia and Europe

Reviewer: Leonard Kress

On the Crossroads of Asia and Europe
Poems of Tomasz Jastrun

Translated from the Polish and with an introduction by Daniel Bourne. Anchorage, AK: Salmon Run Press, 1999. 104 pages. IBSN 1-887573-05-4. Paper. $10.00.

It is hard to believe that the fall of communism began almost twenty years ago (at least in Poland), and that those daily news reports gloriously, gloatingly, enthusiastically delineating the unraveling of the already frayed iron curtain have disappeared from American memory. Solidarity and Lech Walesa and the Shipyard at Gdansk. The Velvet Revolution and Vaclav Havel. Gorbachev and perestroika. Lithuania, Estonia, Yugoslavia, Moldova, Romania, Hungary--almost an entire century dominated by the tragic and outrageous events in Mitteleuropa--and then in flash, almost as total as the nuclear holocaust we all feared, revolution, change, hope, democracy, toasts and cheers.

So many years later, it is surely unfortunate for us that the truly earth-shattering events surrounding these quiet revolutions and dissolutions have been forgotten. Thanks to Daniel Bourne's resonant and restrained translations, a collection of poetry and prose by Polish poet Tomasz Jastrun, On the Crossroads of Asia and Europe, brings that period to life. It recreates it with such force and intensity that this work will surely join the ranks of those witnessing to the the disastrous effects that ideas can have on society forced to adopt them. Jastrun wrote these poems in his thirties and early forties. He lacks the gnostic stretch of Czeslaw Milosz or the bloodied-earth pathos of Miklos Radnoti, but succeeds in defining the forces that ruled his society after World War II. As Daniel Bourne writes in his translator's introduction, Jastrun's poetry is not "mere documentation with linebreaks," but a poetry that "re-sees history through. . . iconic yet iconoclastic lense[s]." It is "reverential and ironic."

Tomasz Jastrun is a son of another Polish poet, Mieczyslaw Jastrun. He was born in 1950, after the Holocaust and the nearly total destruction of his homeland, right smack into a world of shifting borders, displaced persons, and the grip of the Soviet-controlled PZPR (Polish United Workers' Party). Even that background, though, was not enough to prepare him for his nearly decade-long encounter with the guilt and turpitude of the political establishment in Soviet- occupied Poland during the Solidarity era in the early 1980s. When Solidarity's breadth and power became so great that the government saw itself in danger, it declared martial law and rounded up and incarcerated many of Solidarity activists, as well as rank-and-file members. The poems in this collection begin with that fateful apocalyptic Sunday (December 13, 1981) when martial law (stan wojenny or "state of war" in Polish) was declared. In some poems, Jastrun chooses to focus on the gruesome and fairy tale-like quality of the round up--as though he were reciting something from an unexpurgated Grimm:

All night my son couldn't sleep
He lay with his eyes wide open
. . .
They will come the more menacing
Because they themselves are miserable
With stars on their foreheads
Carved out of meat and bone


Jastrun describes an eerie and mysterious presence, the mystical nature of absolute power, something all totalitarian governments know and rely on:

In the middle of the night
A girl raced in
Like a flame She swayed in the doorway
It's begun

(The First Night)

At times the mass arrests, the mass disappearances, appear to be sheer banality, at times pure ritual, and even, in spite of their horrific qualities, oddly beautiful:

I should wake up the Lord God himself
Only I found no door to pound on

But I saw he had left his window
Wide open dark
And through it the snow fell like feathers
From a pillow ripped open by a knife


There is even a certain identifiable and comforting coziness to the actions taken by the authorities. For the arresting authorities themselves, the special police and the soldiers, seem to be cognizant of their own absurdities and contradictions. There seems to be something beyond irony here--Jastrun seems to be after some new trope capacious enough to contain dualities without one side forcing the other into submission:

Four of them
In the middle of the night
One in uniform
One with a crowbar
Two with smiles
. . .
Four angels of communism
In their mouths black tidings from on high


To Jastrun, even though there is clearly a right side and a wrong side, there is no quick and easy way to divide up the cosmic play unfolding in front of his eyes--with him as an important player. Sides were chosen long before this fateful day and those who said "A" must now say "B". All one can do is wonder in awe and terror, just how the Soviet- controlled Polish troops can fire on Poles who do not wish to be Soviet-controlled, how the guilt will be sorted out.

Mothers of soldiers grind on their hand-mills
Grating the hours and the shells of their rosaries
And when they pray they wring their hands
Over the empty bellies
That gave birth to Cain and Abel

(On the Crossroads)

There could be collusion and guilt on all levels, in all quarters. . . And for Jastrun, that almost fatally undermines the moral judgment necessary to sort out history. Even one's young children celebrating a birthday are not exempt--as the macrocosm insinuates itself into the microcosm:

I heard afterwards
That no one came
To get me

Meanwhile the birthday was a success

The children played
Internment camp and to finish
The youngest up and shot him

(A Secret Meeting)

As we read further into the collection, the focus switches from the shock and horror of the actual declaration of martial law, to the day-to-day realities of surviving under it. And this daily struggle and suffering--previously under the yoke of foreign powers like the Germans, the Russians, the Austrians, and now, under the Russians and the Soviets--is one of the great themes of the last two hundred years of Polish literature. The act of living (and writing) becomes a moral test--how to avoid collaborating with the enemy, how to keep sight of truth, how to avoid despair, how to keep the language undefiled:

The first day of spring
And life goes on almost normal
The second channel back on radio
And with Frank Sinatra crooning
Life goes on almost normal
There are fewer patrols
Even curfew has its merits
And despite the layers of dialectic
I am still almost always free. . .

Meanwhile next to a wall in Wujek coal mine
A cross has just sprouted its first buds
But nothing strange in that since it's March
A month almost free
And between the words
Almost and free
Is this chasm
If you want to jump over
Try plying out head first


For Jastrun, survival is very much tied up with the notion of avoiding collusion and collaboration. Many of the poems in this section of the book call for vigilance in the face of attempts, on the part of the authorities, to define the struggle. They not only resort to usual spin control, false reports, and outright lies, but go further in their attempt to discredit their opponents. Jastrun's poetry must be seen within this context of "Modest Proposals," absurd fudging, staged re-enactments. The authorities know full well that their audience sees through their cynical doings, but they continue nonetheless. Government press officers become their own deconstructing critics, quick to reveal the instability of language, the constant deferring of meaning, pointing out how words (even their own) ultimately refer to just words and can therefore bo used for any sort of manipulation:

Today we take a hike
Though nature

Says a warden we call Liver

A clump of weeds is what he means
And we watch in the sky above us
Christmas Eve blows away

I don't know what I'd do
If it wasn't for the special squads
This old lady testifies on TV
We laugh ourselves to tears
Even though we know
The salt will remain long after
The laughter burns off

(The Evening News)

Religion is called in as part of the communist party's attempt to confuse the people, surely an outrage in a country so heartily Roman Catholic, the homeland of the Pope, a country in which some priests had their own Solidarity. Moreover, in Poland, the church and religion have always been viewed as the opponents of foreign-imposed political authority and at the forefront of the opposition. The banner of the Virgin Mary (often referred to as "The Queen of Poland") has sometimes been raised in support of national struggle:

They say our Madonna in Zyrandów
Has joined the party
They open her I. D.
To show the photo
And the two scars on her cheek

They say Christ in Bialoleka Prison
Signed an oath of loyalty
On TV they turn the camera
On a pale white sheet
With a red smudge

They say the twelve apostles petitioned
To dissolve Solidarity
Holed up in their office
They break out the mineral water
And only one is sad


Jastrun, who was active as an editor of a cultural journal in Solidarity, did not go to jail immediately. Since he was not at home when the police came, he initially went into hiding and wasn't arrested until almost a year later. Before he was released as part of a general amnesty, he described his incarceration. As usual in his poems, the personal and the political collide:

Your father is dying
One official tells me
And I can hear how an IV feeds
The steady drip into one's last poem
You're the one killing him he adds

(Interrogation with Map)

So at last
Power is in the hands of the proletariat
Our present goal is a jail ruled by justice
We split up the bread and margarine
Each according to his needs
And during our daily walks
We take a spin on the bare tread of history


Striking, though, is Jastrun's refusal to bask in the dramatic and romantic possibilities of writing from prison. He deliberately avoids the easy celebrity and martyrdom to be found in the prison letters of, say, Nelson Mandela or Henry David Thoreau during his night in jail, or Mahatma Ghandi's writing to his daughter, or Eldridge Cleaver to his lawyer. It's almost as if Jastrun fears that the simple act of writing might constitute some important betrayal:

When they lock me up
I used to say
I'm going to write poems
Well they locked me up
But the words
Just won't lie down in a line
Everyone here just talks prose
A few simple hard-headed words
Repeated over and over again


Inside prison, Jastrun finds a world where the guffaws of Foucault drown out the girlish giggles of Rousseau:

In cell #12
The medievalist Karol Modzelewski
Has a lecture
On the origins of the Polish State
An audience of tractor mechanics
And a meteorologist
Who referees sports on the side. . .
And the present day like a rabbit
Scampers through a barren field

(The Present Day)

Reading the prison poems of Jastrun, I find it difficult not to feel overwhelmed by a sense that everything here functions to balance the equation the political equals the personal. This is especially true when it comes to dealing with his father's death, shortly after his release from prison. Though, of course, the algebra that one studies in Central Europe is much more complex, dragging in or dredging up a third associative property to include in the equation. The political = the personal = the historical:

Then I chip a hole
To the next cell
Some communists from the nineteenth century
Are still serving time
There is so much to tell
But I keep silent
They wouldn't
Believe me anyway
Their eyes fixed on the future
As their fingers slide the rosary
The hollow seed of the dialectic

(Forty-Eight Hours)

Ultimately, for Jastrun, the struggle is one that cannot be won. Even that grand and resonant phrase, the fall of communism, rings hollow and goes flat--perhaps too much struggle, too much contesting and battling, results in nothing more than another wave of emigration. A repetition of Polish history, the reason for such large and vibrant Polish communities outside of Poland--in Paris and London, in Greenpoint in Brooklyn and Hamtramck in Detroit. The reason why Milosz lives in Berkeley and Adam Zagajewski lives in Houston--the same reason why Adam Mickiewicz, the author of Pan Tadeusz, lived in Paris and died in Turkey. The price for struggle and victory, much like the price for defeat, is loss, even if that emigration turns out to be an internal journey away from the tragic heart of the struggle:

And in the end they emigrate
Into their lungs their livers their stomachs
They cultivate the taste buds on their tongues
And excite the animals in their bodies

But at some point they return
Changed beyond recognition
Here where the trees grow old
But not necessarily wise

(The Great Emigration)

And I feel the hair rise on my neck
Because always in the presence of death
The most frightening thing
Is that practically nothing has taken place


Whereas other poets might understandably "retire" from public life, back off from the poetry of witness and confrontation, Jastrun is suspicious of those who follow Voltaire's admonition to tend one's own garden. Jastrun sees through Voltaire's easy cynical solution. The pastoral realm--and to feel the full impact of Jastrun's extreme position, one must truly understand just how much Poles love their gardens, the little fenced-in plots of land with their tiny decorated sheds and neatly arranged gardening tools, their little getaway plots--is just more business as usual:

This retired barber
Is ruthless
As he tends his garden
The soil enriched by the last war
He cuts the veins on the roses
Slaughters aphids
When exhausted he props himself up
On his instruments of torture
To peer through the chain link fence
And eavesdrop
Could the time be ripe
To bring the rest of the world
Under the reach of his hoe

Behind the bars of their own fences
Stand his neighbors
The young the old
Equally greedy and watchful
Pulling out words as well as weeds

(Tending One's Garden)

On the Crossroads of Asia and Europe also contains a section of Jastrun's prose written between 1989 and 1997, or after the experiences described in the poems. The prose, mostly occasional pieces that appeared in the Polish émigré press in Paris, serve the collection well as a sort of commentary or afterward. Yet these pieces are not mere glosses on the poems; they show Jastrun at home in a much more expansive and capacious form. And they also reveal his capacity for humor--a sort of Kafka and Orwell mixed with the self- consciousness and self-absorbed self-deprecation of Woody Allen. One piece from the late eighties specifically looks back at the Solidarity era, encapsulating it in a parable worthy of Kafka:

In 1984--not the book but the year--my typewriter was taken during a search of my apartment. But it didn't happen all at once. Later I even went to retrieve it from Rakowiecki Prison, where it was impounded because the fun-loving, blue-eyed captain in charge of the operation determined that since nothing of importance was found in the search, they must punish me for my perfidious caution by confiscating the tool of my trade.

"I ran you in because you wrote a poem about me," my guardian angel at the commissariat had said cheerfully. And with these very words I started a new poem. Writing is such a terrible addiction.

("Instruments of Crime")

There is also an endearing and self-effacing quality to Jastrun's profound witness. He knows that his own suffering is perhaps insignificant when compared to that of others. This is an extension of the anti-Romantic stance of his poems. He is unwilling to make political or personal hay out of his experiences, even though it would be so easy, especially in the West. He'd rather see it as part of a whole struggle, one with true heroes and martyrs, perhaps (and perhaps not), but not him:

But suddenly I feel shame, that the bits and pieces I mention here, my own paltry "martyrology," could be considered as boasting. I think of the doleful struggles that others have had (especially given the situation with today's increasingly decomposing "spirit of compromise"), or the fates of those who have to do truly serious jail time. My scrapes with the secret police were not some overwhelming torture. Nevertheless, revulsion remains: my life or an entire year to be spent outside of my own home,and a life spent even longer afterwards living in a house with no real doors, the feelings of weakness and shattered nerves.


Jastrun is also a keen observer of the staying power of the old ways--in spite of debacle of martial law and the junking of the communist system. Even as late as 1991, a decade after the declaration of martial law--and well into the era of the new capitalist Poland with hints of NATO membership and eventual membership in the European Union. He finds that the old "Central European man" continues to exist and debate. Jastrun describes a conference that could have taken place in pre-war Poland or in Soviet-occupied Poland. The Central European nexus of historical bluster and suffering in some peculiar Darwinian survival is what remains, what will always remain:

A meeting of a group of intellectuals from Eastern Europe. Serb, Hungarian, Slovenian, Estonian, Romanian, Russian. Our eastern arithmetic of freedom--helplessness and despair--added, multiplied, divided. In the best shape are the Russians. They get drunk and of course start singing, puffing themselves up like overstuffed balloons, revealing an infrastructure of gold and silver teeth. But there in their baritones no longer appears the might of empire--just dancing hippos in a circus. I don't know what to think. I mix compassion and liking with scorn, at which this drink we're drinking goes down particularly hard. I clink shot glasses with the Slovenians.


It is not surprising, then, that Jastrun is so willing to mock the new icons--those new Mickiewiczes and Slowackis and Norwids, the Romantic giants who succored generations of Poles, while at the same time ensuring their addiction to that suffering. But the new ones--are they any different, the new Nobel laureates--Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szyborska?

The Laureates appeared with an entourage. . . . A woman's choir dressed in green Robes intoned a song in Latin. Meanwhile, the Laureates were po sitioned opposite two chairs and then offered as prey to the photographers. In the midst of the countless flashes, in the angelic singing, the two appeared to be heaven's elect. Szymborska was suffering, wish ing she could dematerialize on the spot, while Milosz scowled with dignity. The scene lasted so frightfully long as to tax even the strongest consti tution, but the Laureates survived this trial of the flash and once more elevated on the wings of the choir, they neared the antique table warming with microphones. . . like the heads of snakes.

Here we have it all, the primal scene, the press lording about ready to report judgment, temptation, an angelic choir. The scene degenerates further as the press conference begins, with the two old poets moving around in a state of confusion, trying to decide where each one was supposed to sit, finally tripping over each other. Milosz's cane comes crashing down.

Jastrun never loses his grip, though, in the midst of this grand bungling. Just as the reception is about to end, and a waiter hauls in a huge sofa-sized cake, he is struck with a "horrible thought," but the only thought truly possible given the exigencies that he and his fellow countrymen have lived through--and almost survived:

What if the waiter with the big knife would suddenly tear into our Nobel Laureates and deprive them of life? He would enter literary history, whereas none of the hundreds of uncommonly worthy guests at this most exclusive debate would ever make it there.

So much for Hegel, dialectical materialism, grand historical schemes, even historical memory. Perhaps we would all be better off if we believed in the accidental, the coincidental, the synchronicity of events, the macrocosm reflecting the microcosm, the personal, the intensely personal. I would be remiss if I did not pay homage to the indispensable role of the translator, Daniel Bourne, in bringing this collection to life. Sometimes a translator is called upon to transform (and even energize and infuse) what would otherwise end up as lank and lifeless writing into poetry capable of capturing the English reader's attention. And sometimes a translator achieves greater success by stepping aside to let the basic words and their placement on the page have their simple and straightforward say. Bourne strikes a careful middle ground between the rewrite and negative capability. And I think that is because he is no armchair translator, but a poet himself, who lived through world described in Jastrun's poems. He was living in Warsaw during martial law, sneaking about to meet with various poets and writers and visual artists. And he returned time and again, even spending two years in Warsaw (under a Fulbright Grant) in the mid-eighties to see how the writers and the country were progressing and surviving. So when I say that he, as translator, knows just when to step in and when to hold back, it is because he is painfully aware of the antagonisms, dialectics, batterings between words and in the "silent" interstices between lines. He is able to distinguish between what is left unsaid and the hushed mutterings of the historical and mythological ghosts lurking behind and beyond Jastrun's often deceptively simple language.

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