Feb 26 2023
Poetry review – SMALL ODYSSEYS: Carla Scarano is drawn in by Maria Jastrzebska’s wide-ranging and boundary-breaking poetry
Richly embroidered lines embody the loose and apparently unfixed route of Maria Jastrzebska’s poetry. Her thoughts profoundly engage the reader in an exploration of language that spans Polish, English and German, breaking boundaries, expanding perspectives and letting the individual travel widely in a world that should not have religious, gender and ethnic barriers. Jastrebska is poet, editor and translator. She was born in Warsaw and moved to England as a child. Her fifth and latest collection was launched at The Coast is Queer Literature Festival in Brighton. She is co-founder of Queer Writing South and co-edited Queer in Brighton. Her narratives deconstruct stereotypes and tend to be non-linear; crossing borders to gain a wider and multifaceted view.
Her poems can often be playful, highlighting the pointlessness of our certainties; but they can also be deeply serious and sometimes dramatic, pointing out issues concerning injustices, discrimination and social inequality. Childhood memories show the difficulties of relationships but also the importance of family bonds that strengthen identities. Paying attention to details on the journey through life and bring up shocking memories of conflicts and social protests; and these memories delineate the themes of this wide-ranging collection that reflects the fragmented reality we live in:
Ola says: Oh politicians, they love a dead hero. All my life I wanted to build a shelter. See, birch bark and mud plaited through boughs of pine keep out the wind. I’d lean my shelter of debris against a dry base of spruce, save the lower twigs for tinder. Those whose bodies lie under open sky, I’d hide them. Wounded, dead, with no one beside them, in war, in peacetime. But if I ask Jula and Ola what poems should be about they say: write about this day and the next, about quarrelling then running for the bus, about dropping your ticket, write about birches if you must, but mostly write about kissing. [‘On the 70th Anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising’]
Jastrzebska reimagines the hardships of invasions, wars and consequent breakdowns. She connects to and comments on Brexit and on what she sees as the undermining of democracy in Poland. Her poetry is therefore political and exposes the incongruities of our society. She remarks in her blog that ‘what is happening around us is not being done in our name’. Therefore, governments apparently rule against the will and beliefs of the people, enforcing their points of view. So, the voice of the poet is the voice of the Crow, a well-known trickster in many traditions, who finds its way towards freedom of thought, recovering its dignity:
Parlez-vous Kra-Kra? Pity. No one speaks Crow these days. Parlez-vous Caw Caw? Ani any? Many many? No? No? If you will take the latarka, I’ll walk before you. Daj mi your hand and let’s look out on a jezioro, so blue jak lód, jak hunger. Like ice, like glód. [‘The Subsongs of Crow’, I]
The poet’s strong Polish identity comes out in most of the poems, not only in the language, which she calls ‘Ponglish’, but also in the themes and tones of her poetry, in which English and Polish cultures mix to the point that we cannot distinguish one from the other. This perspective opens the poetry up to multicultural and multifaceted realities but also exposes the vulnerable side of the individual who acknowledges a displacement that might cause loss and troubled relationships. Surreal moments alternate with harsh realism in which personal traumas become universal issues.
The three sections of the collection are introduced by indicative lines such as the reference to war in a poem by Anna Swirszczynska, to Natalie Diaz’s poem about her addicted brother and finally Federico Garcia Lorca’s love lines at the beginning of the third section. The choices are particularly poignant and guide the reader, who otherwise may be lost in the labyrinthine journey of this enthralling collection.
The final and title poem, ‘Small Odysseys’, subtly refers to William Carlos Williams’ ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, but this time the wheelbarrows are blue, they are ‘stacked in pairs’ and do not seem to bring comfort or inspire beauty. On the contrary, a sense of loss pervades the end of the poem in an unsettling atmosphere where ‘there’s no signal, / no way to reach you’. The everyday has moments of isolation and panic that recall past sufferings and may cause shifts of mood as well as reflections on the human condition. The poet struggles to make sense of what is around us in an often ‘hostile environment’ that she tries to navigate, looking for different routes and alternatives. There is a risk of being annihilated, and hence provisional answers to our anxieties might be a solution. The verses are charmingly loose, situations are turned upside down and what occurs around us seems like a joke in a reality where injustices and inequalities are deeply rooted. In the end, what really matters? Maybe the survival of the individual in a possibly fairer society. The creativity and uniqueness of each one of us might be the answer that opens us up to diverse experiences. These too might be illusions; but nonetheless, they need to be pursued relentlessly.