Tomasz Różycki and the Long Life of the Past

Tomasz Różycki and the Long Life of the Past

Poetry has a very economical way of using language, good for nations that do not have a lot of peace and quiet. This may help explain the excellence of the poetic tradition in a country like Poland. The best known Polish poets—Czesław Miłosz, Wisława Szymborska, Tadeusz Różewicz, Zbigniew Herbert—lived through the devastations of the Second World War and the travails of the cold war that followed. They mastered a way of transmitting their experience of history in a personal and very condensed way. That tradition continues beyond the generations that had a direct collision with war and violence. The consequences of the Second World War are still with us.

Tomasz Różycki is one such witness to the continuity of the past. More than half a century younger than the poets I mentioned, he was born in 1970, in the Polish city of Opole, which, before 1945, was named Oppeln and belonged to Germany. His family’s roots, though, were somewhere else. He wrote about this other place in his poem “Scorched Maps”:

I took a trip to Ukraine. It was June.
I waded in the fields, all full of dust
and pollen in the air. I searched, but those
I loved had disappeared below the ground,

deeper than decades of ants. I asked
about them everywhere, but grass and leaves
have been growing, bees swarming. So I lay down,
face to the ground, and said this incantation—

you can come out, it’s over. And the ground,
and moles and earthworms in it, shifted, shook,
kingdoms of ants came crawling, bees began
to fly from everywhere. I said come out,

I spoke directly to the ground and felt
the field grow vast and wild around my head.

(translated by Mira Rosenthal)*

In a commentary on this poem at the PEN 10 website, Różycki said, “The poem ‘Scorched Maps’ came out of a trip I took to Ukraine in 2004, when I was invited to a literary festival in Lwów. I took the opportunity to visit the places associated with the history of my family, who were resettled from that area after the Second World War because of the agreement between Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt, who won the war.” The “area” meant territories that before the war constituted one-third of the Polish state. After the war, the country, in keeping with Stalin’s wishes, was “moved” to the West: the eastern part was handed over to the Soviet Union, while in the farther west a territory was taken away from Germany and settled with Polish citizens. This is how Różycki’s family came to inhabit the city of Oppeln/Opole. Thus they were dislocated twice. Born in the eastern territories that Poland lost, they wound up in the formerly German western territories that Poland acquired. “My family,” he continues, “was one of those that experienced all of the terror and mourned each of the victims….I went to Ukraine with all of this ...

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