BOOKS BOOKS and Periodicals Received
Volume XXIII, No. 3
Tryptyk rzymski: medytacje (The Roman Triptych: Meditations),
by John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla). Edited by the Rev. Józef Guzdek.
Afterword by Marek Skwarnicki. Illustrations are copies of works by
Michelangelo. Accompanied by a disk with a reading of the Tryptyk
by Krzysztof Globisz. Kraków: Wydawnictwo sw. Stanislawa BM (wydawnictwo@diecezja.Krakow.pl),
2003. 40 pages. ISBN 83-88971-43-3. Available from
The book is a poetic meditation on the fundamentals of human identity. The first reflection it engenders is that Karol Wojtyla ennobles words by simply using them. All too often language imprints itself on our memory as spoken by people who merely react to life's situations or who try to manipulate each other. In contrast, Wojtyla weighs words carefully and wisely, and his saintliness purifies the meaning of the language he uses. He brings forth the full meaning of words from under the layers of trivial and vulgar usages. Wojtyla employs an ordinary vocabulary and does not reach for refined expressions. He is not trying to be "original," but in spite of this the reader feels that the Pope's words will resonate through centuries. It takes a great mind or a great talent to restore dignity to language. Great poets like Zbigniew Herbert have done it, and so have some minor poets, such as Kazimiera Illakowiczówna, although on a smaller scale. It is this restoration of meaning that is the Triptych's principal gift to readers, quite apart from the religious and philosophical message of the poem. Wojtyla restores our confidence in language, a confidence much shattered by recent theories that deny its ultimately mysterious and spiritual origin. He rescues words from fraudulent and hasty usage. He rebuilds our belief in words: while reading him, one does not have to be on guard for equivocation or finessing. One is reminded of the Gospel admonition that yes should be yes, and no, no. Wojtyla also brings home the old truth that language is like an instrument requiring a talented player. If it is handled by musical illiterates it produces cacophonies, but under the hand of a good player it reveals its fine possibilities.
When the Pope quotes the Latin sentence inscribed on the gate of the school he attended in Wadowice, Casta placent superis; pura cum vest venite, et minibus puris sumite fontis aquam, he sums up what is most valuable in Polish culture: an ability to return to the Source, to issue a call to mind the Source, to tell the world what really matters in life.
Wojtyla writes about the Book of Genesis and about Michelangelo, and he discovers connections between the two. What was said by an anonymous Jewish writer millennia ago was recreated through shape and color by an Italian Catholic in the sixteenth century. Wojtyla insists that they both speak the same language. He then tosses in another cluster of images, this time of the Polish mountains, and makes them resonate with the Word he knows was there at the beginning, before it was made flesh.
The first part of the poem is a meditation on Creation by the Word, the Creation as verbalized in the Book of Genesis, or the Book of Beginnings, and by Saint John's Gospel. Zakopane and its environs, one of the Pope's favorite localities on earth, unfolds before our eyes. Allusions are made to the climb to Kalatówki where there is a small monastery nestled in the woods, and behind it, a hermitage. They are located in the wooded mountains crossed over by mountain streams. One imagines that the Pope recalled his visits to those places, and then wove the memories into the Book of Beginnings with its invocation of the spirit of God moving over the surface of the waters.
The second part ties the Book of Beginnings to Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel. What was once expressed in words is now expressed in shapes and colors, with the addition of the final End, i.e., the Judgment Day. The Pope meditates upon the next conclave, and he assures the reader that God will point to the right person to be selected: Omnia nuda et aperta sunt ante oculos Eius, he reminds us. Human minds are translucent before the eyes of God, and it is impossible to finesse one's way to justification. The Pope reminds us of the original purity and preciseness of language to which we will eventually return.
The third part invokes the nomadic past of humanity as it speaks of Abraham following the Voice, telling him that he would become the father of many nations, and then demanding that Abraham sacrifice his only son. The Pope invokes Abraham's fidelity to the Voice and intimates the arrival of a different Victim, the Son of another Father.
As of this writing (June 2003), only the Polish original has been published. But numerous reviewers unfamiliar with the Polish language have already proffered their summaries of the poem. What many of them seized upon is a sentence discussing the Pope's own death. "He is speaking of his death! He'll soon die!" was the tenor of these comments. In our self-oriented culture, we expect people to treat their own passing as a matter of utmost importance. Yet the Pope does not mention his own departure in that way. He brushes it aside as a minor item, for he knows that the Church will go on and that the next conclave is a matter of course.
Altogether, a fruitful read. (sb)
The Brief Sun, by Robert Ambros. No place: 1stBooks, 2002. ISBN 0-7596-9293-9. vi + 228 pages. Paper. $17.50 on Amazon.com.
The title of this excellent novel refers to the shortness of days in the Arctic where many Soviet labor camps were located and where the first-person narrator, a boy of sixteen, was sent by Stalin in 1940, along with one million other Polish citizens, mostly Catholics deemed ideologically unreliable. From the Afterword we learn that the author's mother was one of the children abandoned in the Gulag, whereas his father's fate was similar to that of the main protagonist.
The plot is brisk, the narrative sparse and clear, and the events dramatic. Many characters are truly heroic, but the author manages to show their foibles and shortcomings. Thus they emerge as human, all too human, beings of flesh and blood rather than illustrations in a history book. The novel follows the nineteenth-century convention used, among others, by Stendhal of describing historical events as seen through the eyes of rank-and-file participants. Ambros succeeds better than anyone except Varlaam Shalamov (who, however, is too monotonous in large doses) in conveying the reality of the camps and the absolute misery of those who lived there. Like Auschwitz, the camps of Siberia were meant to squeeze as much work as possible from prisoners, and then let them die of exhaustion. The protagonist remarks that no Polish person over fifty survived the camps. Ambros's brief narrative excursion into Kolyma provides the best vignette I know of this hell on earth that the Russians created. Hitler's attack on the USSR in June 1941 and his subsequent victories in Ukraine, Belarus, and western Russia prompted Stalin to release the surviving Polish political prisoners and urge them to enlist in the Polish Army to fight the Germans. The protagonist's trek from northern Siberia to recruitment camp in Buzuluk, Uzbekistan, abounds in bloodcurdling situations. His gradual discovery of what happened to his family is skillfully presented, and so is the Battle of Monte Cassino which again reminds one of Stendhal (except that Monte Cassino was bloodier than Waterloo). General Wladyslaw Anders emerges as a tragic hero, and Winston Churchill as an utmost villain. As bodies are torn asunder and entrails hang on trees, the reader begins to wish for a love story that would redeem this men-only world of war, hard labor, Soviet brutality, and violence by the Nazis. The story does materialize. It seems that the author's novelistic skills kept developing throughout the novel and came to full fruition in its last section.
The eerie echoes of the Jewish Holocaust resonate throughout the narrative: "When I got to the camp, the other prisoners told me the guards on the trains wanted the older men to die; they were under orders not to help them. The Soviets did not want to feed men who could not produce" (17). One remembers similar stories told by Jewish survivors. The side plot of the orphaned children who could not smile likewise reminds one of the survivors of Nazi concentration camps.
The novel is an easy read, and one wishes for its presence in drug stores, grocery stores, and at airport bookstores. One of the novel's strengths is the combination of speed and vividness with which the author describes battles, escapes, and travels where one misstep could lead (and often did) to loss of life. If you want to introduce an acquaintance steeped in blissful ignorance to the drama of the Second World War, you can find no better means than The Brief Sun. It is the best English-language "animation" of what really happened in the war and what historians of the victorious nations have failed to tell you. (sb)
Discordant Trumpet: Discriminations of American Historians, by Francis Casimir Kajencki. El Paso, Texas: Southwest Polonia Press (3308 Nairn Street, El Paso, TX 79925-41226), 2003. ix + 116 pages. Photographs, index. Hardcover.
In the best of all possible worlds, it would not be necessary for Colonel Kajencki to act as the custodian of the reputations of Poland's most famous gifts to America: Thadeusz Kosciuszko and Casimir Pulaski. This, alas, is not the best of all possible worlds, and the work of Kajencki is essential. Probably many of us noted the exclusion from the PBS series "Liberty" of Kosciuszko's rearguard action from Ticonderoga to Saratoga, but we did nothing about it. Colonel Kajencki makes a hard copy record of such exclusions and pointedly asks "Why?" Without Kosciuszko and his decimating harassment of Burgoyne's army, the American Revolution quite likely would have been lost. This fact was clear to General Horatio Gates, clear to Washington, not at all clear to all too many members of America's generally Polonophobic historical establishment. One has to ask, "Why is it fashionable to make Poles either invisible or fall guys?" It is not only minor historians who commit the sin. Kajencki shows that the Southern authority on the War between the States, Douglas Freeman, was an enthusiastic denigrator of Kosciuszko.
Some will argue: "Look, there are so many towns, counties, and bridges named after Kosciuszko and Pulaski. Kosciuszko's statue dominates the West Point campus. Surely the contributions of these men can never be forgotten." But as Orwell reminds us, "Who controls the present controls the past." We have already seen the names of Washington, Jefferson, Lee stricken from schools and monuments due to perceived political incorrectness. One of the books cited by Kajencki is of recent vintage and coauthored by three West Point faculty. The authors carelessly and unprofessionally disparage the character of Kosciuszko by not bothering to check their facts.
Of particular interest is Kajencki's demonstration that American historians have smeared or ignored lesser-known Polish-Americans, such as Charles Radziminski, the surveyor of the boundary line between the United States and Mexico. Then there is the interesting case of Alexander Grzelachowski, a substantial figure in the American southwest whose contributions are more than a little sullied by an historian's casual (and unsubstantiated) references to his having run a brothel as an integral part of his general store in Puerto de Luna.
On the last page of Kajencki's book we are informed that the paper used has an expected life of at least 300 years. Given the way historical revisionism proceeds so ruthlessly, this time frame may be none too long. (jrt)
Sluchaj mie, Sauromatha: Antologia poezji sarmackiej (Listen to me, Men of Sarmatia: An Anthology of Sarmatian Poetry), edited with an Introduction by Krzysztof Koehler. Kraków: Arcana (www.arcana.pl), 2002. 244 pages. Hardcover. In Polish.
Polish seventeenth-century literature, both poetry and prose, is known as "Sarmatian" literature. It is not the kind of literature that wins literary prizes. It lacks refinement, and it lacks an addiction to doubt and skepticism so common in postmodern literature. Sarmatian literature's priceless asset is its sober reflection on our humanity, unvarnished and unadorned. Absent is the sophisticated packaging of later literature. The men and women of Sarmatia look at us as people who know the essentials of human life: birth and death, duty and selfishness, vanity and self-abnegation, the pleasures of the senses. Absent in Sarmatian literature are complications of human fate or epistemological agonies.
And there is no denying that Sarmatian literature takes a view of Muscovy that the Russians would dearly love to erase. To a Sarmatian, Muscovy had little to do with European civilization. It was a "rude and barbarous kingdom" to be viewed with pity rather than awe. Sarmatian attitude contrasts sharply with the "powerful brother" image the Russians have tried to build in Slavic countries in the nineteenth century, and also in the Soviet period. The Sovietized minds of some Polish intellectuals and the "intelligentsia" will find much to be uncomfortable about in this volume.
The book is organized by category rather than by author. The opening section consists of poems praising Poland and Slavdom (mercifully briefly). Part 2 contains a mix of religious and knightly poetry. Part 3 deals with coats of arms (we could have been spared). Part 4 glorifies the value system of Polish knighthood: God, honor, homeland. Part 5 returns to religious themes and their omnipresence in the life of Old Poland: here the religious calendar, and morning and night prayers, loom large. Part 6 enjoins the reader to practice the virtue of justice, and it contains meditations on the triviality of earthly life. Here the notorious Father Baka (rehabilitated by another poet priest, Jan Twardowski) makes his appearance. One suspects that most Poles know Baka from devastating critiques of his poetry rather than from poetry itself: a chance to dip one's fingers into it is given here. Parts 7 and 8 are eclectic and contain a miscellany of poems on political, social, and personal issues. It is to the credit of the compiler that he annotated the poems carefully and explained the meanings of words that disappeared from modern Polish.
Krzysztof Koehler's introduction summarizes the pluses of the Sarmatian legacy. In Koehler's words, Sarmatian poetry offers unforgettable existential experiences and a chance to visit a world that is the opposite of the pragmatic and result-oriented world of today; a world in which human obligations to God were taken seriously, although all too often they were more honored in the breach than in performance.
Sarmatian legacy is not all roses. Sarmatism left a legacy of anti-intellectualism which so mars the attitudes of the "traditionalist" part of Polish society today. The provincialism of some Polish "conservatives" means that they have largely written themselves out of history. One observes in Sarmatism a total blindness to the emerging Ukrainian nation, ignorance of German and Jewish history, and a general inability to function outside the Polish milieu. This unconcerned attitude toward anything but Polishness bore poisoned fruit in years following the flowering of Sarmatism in the seventeenth century. Taking the American example, in the United States Poles are the largest Slavic ethnic group, yet they have produced a rather meager crop of intellectual publications. There are a few quarterlies initiated and managed by Americans of Polish background or by Polish émigrés, but their circulation is limited. There are numerous ephemeral periodicals, in English and Polish, but they fail to qualify as representative publications. There are some reasonably good works in Polish, but they remain ghetto-oriented. Poles have produced no representation in the general press. Perhaps a realization that an indifferent attitude toward one's intellectual heritage goes back to the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century heedless view of the world could help present-day Americans of Polish background to realize that support for Polish intellectual enterprises is a sine qua non of a healthy ethnic community, and that song and dance cannot replace intellectual life. In that connection, Sarmatism also left a legacy of vanity which makes the Polish intelligentsia in Poland into an army of chiefs with no Indians.
Going back to the Sauromatha volume, the publishing house's lack of editorial work is all too visible. This too has its roots in the heedless ignorance of the necessity for public representation that originated in Sarmatism. In a way reminiscent of unlettered samizdat tomes in the United States, the Anthology has no index and there are no dates identifying individual poets, let alone the poems themselves. There is no attempt to place Sarmatian poetry in a European context. With a few exceptions, such problems are standard in Polish publishing. The publishers routinely put out volumes that look dilettantish by American standards. A competent copyeditor raises the cost of publishing, but many shortcomings could be eliminated by the publisher's insistence that authors provide their own indices and relevant data. (sb)
Ostatnia twarz portretu, by Jerzy Narbutt. A novel preceded by a poem by Krzysztof Baczynski. Katowice: Wydawnictwo Unia Jerzy Skwara (firstname.lastname@example.org), 2002. 2d ed. 168 pages. ISBN 83-86250-29-1. Paper. In Polish.
So many books need not have been published. This is not one of them. Narbutt's writings are always nourishing. Amidst the dozens of books that are mailed to Sarmatian Review every year (alas, we cannot review them all), Narbutt's volumes are always welcome. The endorsement by the Rev. J. S. Pasierb states that "the book renders justice to the times that have been so horribly falsified by official historiography. Narbutt speaks in a personal tone of someone who lived and experienced these events, and this accounts for the book's piercing lyricism."
We regret that this volume was carelessly edited. There is no table of contents and no preface providing rudimentary information about the first edition of this short novel that appeared illegally in 1981 when Soviet-occupied Poland was under martial law.
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