(after Rainer Maria Rilke) River bank meadows have all the time in the world. Their pulse slows to a teardrop before any changes in weather. It turns to cement, turns to salt mixed with root clumps, for winter seeps through layers of sunset under glass ceiling. Our tree chopping season grows heavy with chalk, a burial site for the things we once loved that have fallen and broken in to pieces. © Maria Stadnicka, June 2021, Stroud.
I am seven, I have committed a crime and I am going to prison where my brother won’t visit for fear of being locked up as well. My mates say if I stare at the classroom walls Mister Williams can’t read my thoughts; a plaster-god weaved a shield around my body that made me invisible.
Open your Bible at ‘Exodus’ chapter ten, paragraph four, he says.
[…and Moses answered: Oh, God, I am slow of speech…]
I spent so long in the company of my laptop that I am becoming a keyboard. I jump over squares in conversation when real things are the wrong way around. They are so loud it is impossible to miss them even if I can barely see at all. Each shortcut leads to a mistake I had made, to a crime I will commit.
Press “space bar” to be born.
Press “escape” to swear in emojis.
I bear the weight of a full stop God’s tongue drops on my back. I trusted God to wake me up for school with a packed lunch. At breaktime I hear rumbling and my heartbeat. Mister Williams warned me: when you get upset your heart grows a claw which pokes at the ribcage until you pass out.
To avoid passing out, I have stolen a girl’s lunchbox. I am a thief who will go to prison and die hungry.
How do you plead? Guilty or not guilty?
It gets lighter. I eat my past in small bites and praise the Lord.
© Maria Stadnicka, April 2021
On 1st October 1972, having just left the Soviet Union, Joseph Brodsky wrote in the New York Times a five-thousand words article in which he condemned the political climate in Europe, and worldwide, evaluating its dangerous principles and hunger for domination and destruction. Brodsky expressed his scepticism in reference to all ‘political movements’ which he described as ‘structured methods used to avoid personal responsibility.’
Brodsky defended his belief in a different, and superior, system built on ‘personal movements – movements of the soul when a man who looks at himself is so ashamed that he tries to make some sort of change.’ The article, translated from Russian by Carl Proffer, appeared tangled, verbose and aimless; it sounded like so many other disoriented voices coming from dissidents and defectors of the era but those who managed to read it in full recognised its unswerving accuracy in describing a failing world system.
Seamus Heaney called it a moment of literary ‘vertical takeoff’, crucial in establishing the capacity of language to go farther and faster than expected and thereby provide an escape from the limitations and preoccupations of the self.
It was, in itself, a warning signal that politics became a psychological danger for humanity, as it engaged people in external fights with the Evil, which automatically made them begin to identify themselves with the Good. And when mankind begins to consider itself bearer of Good, it slides into self-congratulation. This is a state of complacency which Brodsky, who was stateless in 1972, saw it as the source of everything that was radically bad about people.
Brodsky carefully re-considers the role of an united writing community which is vital in opposing official points of view and which should support ‘personal movements’ by engaging the society in real exercises of reflection and learning. This engagement, however, is built on access to books, not articles about books; direct contact with ideas, not ‘pre-packed’ blurbs.
The PN Review editorial (January 2020) comments on the closure of nearly 800 British libraries over the past ten years. The Trump era defines how we conduct literature not only politics. ‘The triumph of the tweet’ reduces our engagement with books to a suite of emoticons, in which the responsibility for personal engagement with ideas is a constant forward-re-tweet and a sum of likes. Bring me someone who sits down to read War and Peace or a five-thousand words article in the New York Times. I’ll be either their friend or their follower.
© Maria Stadnicka 2021
[‘Vertical Takeoff’ was published in International Times on 25/01/2020.]
Brodsky, J. (1972) ‘A writer is a lonely traveler’. New York Times, 1st October 1972. Available here.
Brodsky, J. (1997) On Grief and Reason. Essays, London: Penguin Books.
PNR, January-February 2020, vol. 46, no.3. Available here.
We’d have peace if we meet
at a cemetery, she says,
but once there graves open,
the dead ask for headlines.
The good news is that I am
in the same place as Moses
walking around life when
sands shift. I reach my desert
retouching roots that match
the colour of parents’ home.
I forgot where they live now;
as close as my skin, as far as
a memory from when I was five.
There must be a house nearby
where someone stays awake
to warm up bottles of milk.
Instead of looking for it, I hold
a telescope aimed at the sky
marching past stray pebbles.
© Maria Stadnicka, June 2020
I figure out that if you live by water and feel hungry, it takes an afternoon of chewing yesterday’s leftovers to feel mud on your tongue. And if a passer-by gives you a bad apple, you ought to be thankful, appreciate what you’ve got, watching others dying of starvation. But when you hear that the well-wisher was God, which happened to be running late for a meeting in the nearby mansion, you wish you had spat the rotting fruit back at Him. God could have done better. By then it is too late. The meeting He was rushing to would be running on and on for years. For as long as your lifetime.
© Maria Stadnicka, May 2020
Sunday lingers on scent of paint,
tobacco and spring. Our kitchen-war
sprouts from a conversation on books
about people we both know. I say
I’d met doctor Zhivago queuing
at Nero’s, heard him asking a barista
about the fate of taiga-trees
at the height of a mining season.
You think they are cut short then stop
growing. I lock my paperbacks
in a cupboard; they remind us
of all the ink twisted in verse, seeded
in layers of gravel. Our verbs reach
the pit of a quarry, and seal over.
Snow forests shoot up in tears,
we trip over extension cables in our flat.
© Maria Stadnicka, May 2020
Photography: © John Stadnicki 2020
Come to ‘Lost in Books’ for the launch of A Confusion of Marys (Shearsman Books) w/ Sarah Cave & Rupert Loydell & featuring Special Guest Poet, Maria Stadnicka. Doors open at 6.30pm.
RUPERT LOYDELL is Senior Lecturer in the School of Writing and Journalism at Falmouth University, a writer, editor and abstract artist. He has many books of poetry in print, including Dear Mary, The Return of the Man Who Has Everything, Wildlife and Ballads of the Alone, all published by Shearsman, and Talking Shadows from Red Ceilings. Shearsman also published Encouraging Signs, a book of essays, articles and interviews. He has also authored many collaborative works, several with Daniel Y. Harris; and edited Smartarse and co-edited Yesterday’s Music Today for Knives Forks & Spoons Press, From Hepworth’s Garden Out: poems about painters and St. Ives for Shearsman, and Troubles Swapped for Something Fresh: manifestos and unmanifestos for Salt.
SARAH CAVE is a writer and academic living in Cornwall. She is currently working on a practice-based PhD in Poetry at Royal Holloway. Sarah has published two pamphlets and an illustrated chapbook, like fragile clay, published by Guillemot Press. She has published two collections of poetry, An Arbitrary Line (Broken Sleep Books) and Perseverance Valley (Knives, Forks and Spoons Press). Sarah’s poetry has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including Oxford Poetry, Tears in the Fence, Shearsman and Eborakon.
Lost in Books is an independent bookshop in Cornwall, United Kingdom. You can find further information about it, here. The address is Lost in Books, Quay Street, Lostwithiel, Cornwall, PL22 0BS, UK.
© Maria Stadnicka 2020
“Somnia” by Maria Stadnicka, pub. KFS. 74pp. £10.00
Maria Stadnicka was an established poet in Romania before moving to the UK and gaining a reputation as an English-language poet. This collection is therefore resonant with European and modernist echoes; the text references Camus, Symborska and Emil Cioran, among others, and the influence of surrealism is evident throughout the collection. The poems are written in the plainest language, without much rhetorical embellishment; and yet, as in the best poetry, the meanings are hard to pin down and the poems have a depth of field which stays with the reader after the book has been put down. The poems address war and dislocation in an unnamed land which could be many places, but reminds the reader of the Balkans conflict of the 1990s. The encounter between everyday life and shock of conflict is presented in a dead-pan tone:
On both sides of the frontline,
People buy and sell goods,
occupy central squares…
Business as usual.
Gunshots, grenades, mortars.
(from “Landscape with Buses”)
Everyday scenes have a sinister air, enhanced by surreal imagery:
I went to town and took pictures
of people in queue at the shopping mall…
The sun kept in its corner and watched
the autumn busking indoors
when a beggar stopped, asking everyone
for directions to the nearest abattoir.
The poems are clearly ‘about’ something; the encounter between warfare and everyday, often banal scenes from normal life, and the trauma of flight and dislocation. But this is not plain reportage, and whatever political message it carries is delivered with a lightness of touch that doesn’t propagandise or browbeat the reader. On the contrary, these poems are understated and retain an air of mystery; they give us insights into lives and experiences that couldn’t be delivered in any other way except in poetry. They also encompass the guilt and powerlessness of those viewing events from a distance:
…to become responsible
for a bullet wound, though we have
no memory of ever using a gun,
in the name of each person wishing to be free.
(from “The Gift’s Legacy”)
Many contemporary poetry books have a ‘theme’ – maybe it’s something suggested in creative writing classes – and so often the theme becomes more important than the poetry, leading to predictable and programmatic writing. That’s not the case with “Somnia”. The poetry remains poetry, its light lyricism and pleasure in words defeating attempts at literal interpretation. Here’s the complete poem “Mundane Evil”:
There was a wake going on
in a floor crack. So much old wood
talked back in mother’s tongue
through the opening that I thought
to wait longer for the right moment
and then a close friend pointed out
the rupture took shape, got wider.
My womb coughed out pieces of rubble.
This is a strange poem. The last line could be seen as a metaphor for the perpetuation of violence from one generation to the next, but that’s only one interpretation, and in fact the line, and the whole poem, is elusive and mysterious and strangely compelling. The remarkable thing about this collection is that it tackles the very specific issues of violence, dislocation and trauma in language that is as elusive as that in the poem above. It is poetry rather than documentary.
Stadnicka is not a native English speaker, and it’s interesting to speculate on the properties of poetry written in a second language. In an email to the reviewer, Stadnicka had the following to say in this subject:
“I suppose … my poetry is ‘other than British.’ The metaphoric range is different, the feel might be different, even though I use the English language when I shape my poems.”
What might “other than British” mean? One thing already mentioned is the influence of European modernism and of surrealism, that latter being a movement that never really took firm hold in British culture (the poetry of David Gascoyne notwithstanding). Another feature might be the quality of the language. The flat tone and plain expression make the description of the subject matter that much more powerful and lacking in any sensationalism. There are no poeticisms, and that may be one of the benefits of coming to the language afresh, from a different linguistic basis. It’s hard to imagine someone raised in the UK having written poetry like this. In the same email, Stadnicka says:
“It is impossible to discuss my writing without considering the impact oppression and dictatorship had on me as an individual. Once you experienced life in an orphanage with children dying of AIDS, or you are woken up at midnight to take part in a practice drill for an eventual nuclear attack, once you experienced dictatorship, there is no turning back when writing.”
This is outside the experience of most UK-raised poets; it inevitably affects the poetry, and therefore adds something new to British poetry in addition to the cultural influences mentioned above.
The poems are short and have individual titles, but the collection has a broader architecture; it’s divided into four ‘movements in F minor’ and has an epilogue and a prologue. The overall book is dedicated “to Cain and Abel, and all their neighbours”. The prologue is in the form a witness testimony, and the epilogue is also addressed to “your Honour”. So the book – to put it grandly – is putting humanity on trial. The four movements have distinctive features. The first movement, allegro, introduces us to world of dislocation and conflict, in which “the bullet hits the edge of my book / then sinks into earth like a poem”. The second movement, largo, slows the pace down and shows us a more personal side to these experiences: “When I collected my father’s ashes… I thought to keep them hidden in a pencil case”. The third movement, scherzo, addresses the ways in which art confronts the experience of war; there is a poem called “Kafka”, and another, “Lieder for Two Pianos” in which “half-swallowed lullabies found you / growing hazel-eyed whispers inside my body”. The last section is called “finale” and deals with consequences:
Orphans but free, the cloth says
then keeps talking to me
about the people I once loved,
who vanished during a blast
as if they had never existed.
If the description of the four movements above makes the collection seem formulaic, this is certainly not the case. This poetry is mysterious, and individual poems can have an almost spiritual effect, like Zen koans or proverbs. In the last movement, the title poem “Somnia” gives us an executioner falling asleep “with his back against a sharp blade”. In this poem, the violence comes from sleep and dream, and therefore from the human sub-conscious. The poems throughout the collection have a dream-like quality, and despite their directness and plain-speaking – or maybe because of it – offer a sense of mystery, and psychological insight.
© Alan Baker 2020, ‘Litter Magazine’ 1st March 2020.