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Issue 67 – Mslexia

Issue 67

Poems up close: Carolyn Jess-Cooke appreciates a poem by Agnieszka Studzinska

Guest Review: Parmar On Studzinska

Sandeep Parmar reviews

Snow Calling

by Agnieszka Studzinska

 

Readers will be surprised that Snow Calling is Agnieszka Studzinska’s debut collection. There is a maturity of voice and a depth of emotional cognition that emanates from Studzinska’s book—it moves under the palm like a whole and conscious organism; each poem contributes to a thematic balance that is at once both delicate and brutal. The book’s first and last poems are titled ‘Snow Calling’ (the first is in four parts) and, throughout this, a titular echo recurs as a reminder to the reader of the metonymic stake of ‘snow’. It begins:

 

Winter opens to snow

blinds the field,

branches splice like roots in a landscape

 

dead with beauty—

 

Snow stands for many things, including nothingness; it is silence, absence, separation; snow is the interface between the inside and the outside of things, where perception becomes possible; it is a drop in language, a secret, a caesura without discernable cause, and, most importantly, a revelation so personal that its brittleness threatens the very existence of the self. But the self here ultimately proves too lithe to be hooked, even the poems’ private histories—stories of ancestors involved in what appears to be the German invasion and occupation of Poland during World War II—blend into the whiteness of microscopic observations. No one comes out whole in the book, and no one is wholly identified, the pervasive pronouns—‘you’, ‘I’, ‘she’, ‘he’, as well as references to ‘wife’, ‘husband’, ‘daughter’, etc—add to the blurring snow-blinding of the book’s situation. However, the advantages of this fragmentary approach are enormous and pay off with incredible detail and compression of language, as in these lines from the book’s opening sequence:

 

I stand in the garden at midnight, you sleep upstairs

snow becoming your breath as if the invisible is made visible—

 

now anything feels possible—even a snow owl

in this backyard, swooping low in a choreography

 

of swirls, its feathers like snow preying on my voice

and somewhere             storms of

 

drunken villagers cut this surge

 

a day’s work in their mouth

years in their hands gloved with weight—

 

the owl’s wingspan like a cloud flying above their heads.

 

Studzinska’s subject is often language itself—or more accurately, how one is led into or away from experience by words. She writes in ‘Leaving’ about a moment of exile experienced in childhood:

 

I am there with my mother

waving away

the thin hour     the interruption of it

 

[…]

 

& her voice in my ear

pulling us—

my not knowing why—

a life lost in a new language

 

And again she writes in ‘Language’ about ‘the unspeakable / alphabet of someone’s escape into more light’, as if language were treacherous, willfully so, sort of like thin ice, waiting to swallow and invalidate one existence for the sake of another. Yet all the while the poet, or rather our spectral image of her, hangs images like a fine lattice so much so that one cannot help but admire the book aesthetically as well as linguistically. ‘Mouths its bleached ambivalence’ is fresh and terrifying, as is the stunning verse ‘Tonight is the dearth, a near divorce in the bootlicked air / of the ‘40s, it is all the stories you have hidden / in the peelings of all the things you have lost. Tonight is the liver-spotted hour on a plate…’ (‘Solanum Tuberosum’).

 

Going back to an earlier point about the interface between the outside and inside of things, real space and remembered space—the poet’s notes to the book’s final sequence ‘Haunting’ offer a small clue. This poem and the initial ‘Snow Calling’ are among the strongest in the collection. ‘Haunting’ begins:

 

Through the slats of a February daybreak

when the world no longer sleeps the same

hearing her own spent

in the frost of blackened windows,

an account of one story                   broken again in its telling

opens—

it begins with winter buying time

for those in hiding,

the snow covering their wisteria steps.

 

The sequence goes on to describe children (the father in the book whom we see also in later life?) running and hiding out from what must be the invading Nazi soldiers, somewhere in Grodno, a site of substantial losses during the War. And yet, understandably, the reluctance and pain with which one returns to these memories is palpable in the compressed language and anxiety-filled line arrangements:

 

Night after night you drink a little, play chess

work out exactly how you got here

and sting yourself with forgetfulness

mime playing the piano

your brother listening to this blind music

with his eyes shut

arms open as if to beg forgiveness

for being him

as if to embrace his silhouette and let it disappear—

 

Meanwhile three quotations are woven into this narrative of haunted spaces—two of which appropriately point to Bachelard—‘Je suis l’espace ou je suis’ (Noel Arnaud) and ‘Car nous sommes o nous sommes pas’ (Pierre-Jean Jouve). Without relishing too much in the fantasy that the poet hides in the footnotes (a fantasy with a long tradition going back of course to Eliot), it does seem altogether convenient to end on this point: that the perfect observance of the ‘thing’ in Studzinska’s poems obliterates that all too pervasive surety of inhabiting the poet’s world. The poet challenges the dialectical knowingness of her own craft by dissecting the thing she sees with precise, original and hard phrasings. Studzinska’s collection raises the bar for the poets of her generation with its skill and bravery—especially the book’s longer sequences, which allow for rumination and expansion. The end of Snow Calling is a kind of vortex—the poet only holds on to still points through language that owns what it seizes:

 

we stood there cowed—divided

snow calling                 spring

the wind bit harder, swept chairs in its gash

uncoupled each root from its body

unearthed memories of being little,

the walnut tree wide-eyed      self willed,

I am gripping tighter—

snow calling

 

a garden spins in its own generative grammar,

we are all waiting—wet with wind

wishing

for the wind to blow another hundred wishes—

unbury the almost buried,

branches     bone-black

smouldering as the wind hushes a struggle,

wishing

 

for it to stop.

 

Ken Head reviews ‘Snow Calling’ by Agnieszka Studinska

by Helen Ivory on Fri 28 May 2010 09:07 AM BST  |  Permanent Link  |  Cosmos

Snow Calling by Agnieszka Studzinska
Salt Publishing 2010
ISBN:978 – 1 – 84471 – 559 – 6 Hardback:  £12.99 45pp

“I was going to say something, / and stopped”.  Polish-born Agnieszka Studzinska’s choice, for the epigraph to her interesting and intriguing first collection, of these deceptively straightforward words from Irish poet Thomas Kinsella’s poem ‘Ancestor’, provides an early indicator as to how the entire collection may best be read.  In common with Kinsella’s New Poems 1973, from which ‘Ancestor’ comes, Snow Calling also contains poems concerned with sharply focused, clear-eyed recollections of the past and, as in Holding,  Studzinska’s preoccupation with what commentators on Kinsella’s work have described as “blood and family”:  “I look at your hands / your tiny fingers gripping my thumb, / hard to imagine them touching / someone else rather than me / or holding the way I held / your father that night – ”.  The notion of being about to say something and then stopping, however, suggests rather more than simple tact or reticence about sex, a sense, perhaps, of the need to hesitate or pause and think again before committing to words, a conviction that too much clarity over-simplifies, or that words, in the final analysis, “can’t help but pull apart / the very thing in front of me / as if to punish.”  Clearly, for Studzinska, poetry is neither entertainment nor a beautiful alternative to living:

“I don’t miss home, just the mountains,
in the beginning I could see the mountains
in rows of chimneys, that was enough –
I still consider myself a visitor.”

Despite a degree of apparent clarity, then, Studzinska’s poems remain in other ways challengingly elusive and enigmatic.  They are sparse, offer little by way of context, plunge straight into seriousness without preamble, are sometimes structurally demanding for the reader in terms of the arrangement of words and lines on the page and leave much either unsaid or in the hands of imagery that ranges with great precision from the delicate “snow light at an angle saying more than we can” to the  brutally direct “people shredded like wood”.  Throughout, it is hard to avoid the sense that this is a poet for whom every word matters, who mistrusts easy revelation and struggles against it, a quality found also, it seems to me, in the writing of the fine Belgian poet Miriam Van hee, with whose work Studzinska’s may well bear comparison.  The closing line of her seven-part poem ‘Haunting’, quoted from the work of Joe Bousquet, a French writer and poet badly injured during World War 1 and left paralysed for life, serves to make the point well:  “I am my own hiding place”.  Yes indeed.  To borrow poet and critic Dennis O’Driscoll’s comment on Kinsella, reading your way towards an understanding of the complex interior of Studzinska’s poetic life as explored in Snow Calling is like letting your eyes adjust to the dark in a cinema.

That said, however, and despite W. H. Auden’s view that poetry derives from the human instinct to play, serious poems, as Studzinska’s most certainly are, do make something happen, something that matters to the reader’s (and the writer’s) heart, to their consciousness of being human.  We are, after all, the only creatures in our world possessed of self-knowledge, the capacity to meditate upon our own predicament and the courage to live with what we learn:

“A stopping at an edge –
sensing a world of minerals, mistakes, the molecules of air,

water, the width and breadth of love, a vacancy –
this singular moment in its spectrum of sadness,

where are we in this immeasurable opening?”

…..Reviewed by Ken Head

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