Poetry review – Gifts Without Wrapping: Stuart Henson is impressed by Michal Choinski‘s short collection of poems about human bodies and their interactions
Gifts Without Wrapping Michal Choinski Hedgehog Poetry Press, 2019 ISBN 978-1-9160908-6-6 16pp £5.99
You plunge your hand into the bran-tub of new poetry pamphlets and come up with… Gifts Without Wrapping. It turns out to have been a genuinely lucky dip. The poems in this short collection cohere around a theme of the body and its interactions, and Choinski has a distinctive and engaging voice. We’re invited to examine a sequence of relationships, not all entirely balanced and not all completely resolved. The title works at more than one level. The poems themselves are given, plainly and without ceremony, in the same way the body is given in love, unclothed, though not always, as we’ll see, without reservation. The cover art, by Jakub Sokólski, depicts a Rodin-like embrace, and that leads you nicely into the opening poem, ‘The Prototype’, which considers the notions of perfection that govern our response to the human form. We begin, ironically enough, with a museum guide’s view of classical statuary in which
The proportions were everything, … The body is measured by itself, six palms make up one unit, she continued, a closed circuit of beauty. The fact that the statue lacked one arm, and the nose, and the genitals, and a toe, was immaterial to her. I presume, it is the idea of him she was after.
The poet goes on to visualise our guide at home alone after work, imagining different ‘body supplements’ for the statue ‘as if she were trying on different sets of gloves’ and wishing herself a marble ‘work in progress / whose promise of perfection / does not deter others from touching / the form of the idea.’
The contrast of the real with the idealised lies at the heart of this collection which relishes the sweaty and the corporeal. In ‘Doing Business’ for instance, the protagonists enter into a kind of pre-coital negotiation ‘like two totalitarian leaders / at a political summit’ bartering gifts.
The perimeters of her body, were strategically delineated. A detailed map was sketched, demarcating all the landmarks. Like, she had this funny mark on her belly that looked like a cherry.
The odd placement of the first comma here and the double repetition of ‘mark’ are not, I think, intentional since Choinski’s free-verse is generally fluent and confidently-cadenced, and two lines later he uses the line-break with perfect judgement:
She commanded me to hate it, but I simply could not perform this act of malice on her idiosyncrasy.
If there’s a shrug of macho cruelty, a kind of detached objectivity, at times, it’s always equivocal. The joke in ‘The Climb’ is very much on the male speaker who’s out hiking with a superwoman with extraordinary endowments.
But, on the track to Banówka, as we walked, gazing at the mountain view, she said she could smell more than I could see…
The tone is casual (‘She said one sniff was enough to see / if she liked any male body, / and I began to wonder / if this was her pick-up line.’) but the point is barbed. The speaker can’t keep up, and she leaves him breathless, struggling, with the promise she’ll collect him on her way back from the top. And in ‘Fear of Lepidopterism’ the erotic is tempered with a degree of anxiety about a lover who’s equally detached and possibly capable of actual as well as imaginary metamorphosis.
When she crossed the wrists of her clenched fists on a pillow, they really looked like a butterfly.
Choinski has a forensic, almost pathological interest in the body as object. You believe him when he says he’d love to examine his own corpse in some kind of anatomical-poetical dissection: ‘to comprehend / all somatic nuances / of how I run…’ and the body/gift metaphor finds its apotheosis in ‘The Terminus’ in which, disturbingly, ‘Her body felt / like a dead body, / a sympathetic gift / from a willing soul.’
There’s the occasional touch of grand guignol. ‘Over Kasia’s bed hung the image / of Saint Catherine’s head, / dried up, covered in red rose petals’ (‘Commemoration’). It’s there too in ‘The Liturgy of the Flesh’ which takes us pointedly and movingly from November in Poland to the Resurrection, via Signorelli and Jorie Graham, and ends the pamphlet with the enigmatic lines
But my mind cannot simply mend itself, buried in the open flesh, like a snail.
So if you like your encounters salty and redolent, this collection could be for you. It found its way into print through the Hedgehog Press’s competition submission system, and on this evidence Michal Choinski deserves his break, either in Poland where he teaches and works as a music promoter, or in the U.S. where he’s published academic texts, or here in the UK.
The best way to convey its flavour is to quote the shortest of the poems in its entirety. ‘The Unwrapping’, with its synaesthesia and its sensuality and its passing reference to Blake, plays knowingly with the collection’s preoccupations, and offers them to you compacted, like a well-wrought gift:
The sweetest taste is the smell of the skin freshly bathed in the milk of the lamb; the fragrance poised to attract the prey, to lure it into a hideout where shades are opulent, but never menacing. The wildest night is with a girl whose left thigh is marked by a tattoo in the shape of a tiger, fearful and symmetrical, jumping out at you, in the midst of the act, marking your back with its claw’s quick scratch. And once you get that stigma, and wrap yourself in your clothes again, relishing the metallic, salty taste in your mouth, you are out into the open, to eat or to be eaten.