Featured review

Bird-Made Language - review of Nothing More

By Krystyna Miłobędzka

Translated by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese

Arc Publications
2016 Number 2 - One Thousand Suns

Miłobędzka’s work attests to the richer, more daunting prospect when we consider the actual disjointedness, speed and flow of one’s thoughts, feelings and perceptions, especially in extreme states.

Review by Edwin Kelly

Krystyna Miłobędzka, Nothing More, translated by Elżbieta
Wójcik-Leese, Arc Publications, 2013

Depending on a reader’s knowledge of Polish poetry, the arrival of Nothing More may seem like a miracle. A new voice, full of maturity, nuance and daring seems to have arrived into the English language out of nowhere. Miłobędzka, born 1932, is one of Poland’s leading poets. Nothing More is her first full-length book in English. It samples her work from 1960 to 2008 and is more a condensation of key concerns rather than a selection of individual poems.

In the preface, Miłobędzka describes her writing as the ‘poetics of jottings’, and translator Wójcik-Leese correctly identifies Miłobędzka’s intent as ‘keeping pace with what there is’. Like Emily Dickinson, a named exemplar, she attempts to capture thought at its most quicksilver, put linear progress and narrative under pressure. Unlike Emily Dickinson’s hymn-like poems, however, the forms here are mainly open, ranging from prose poem to lists and short lyrics.

The idea of poem-as-journal fits Miłobędzka’s thematic focus: Language, the Self and the World. Metaphors of family and lineage are employed throughout: the social unit of the family, families of words, grammatical units. This specificity precludes any risk of vague generality.

Whereas the writings within one’s personal journal usually remain largely inert and of little interest linguistically, this is a book of poems, where the energy of introspection is transmuted into a style of verve and dynamism.

The reader is dropped into a swirling language from the first piece: an untitled, small block of prose, short enough to bear repeated reading but uncompromising. The landscape of the poem is disorientating. The diction is sparse: pronouns, particles, articles, all in their correct positions, still seem to swarm and so the small units of grammar that form the building blocks of syntax are freed.

How does a reader orientate herself? This how is the question at the heart of this collection and the source of its unsettling power. Wójcik-Leese quotes Miłobędzka in the preface as saying there is ‘nothing more important, more tender and mysterious than prepositions’. Interesting to observe the ‘nothing more’ here, mirroring the title of the collection. The collection as a whole can be read as one large preposition of sorts, with the reader confronted with his or her own desire for systemising and categorising.

The sensory content of these poems intrigues as it disorientates and a picture begins to form once considered long enough. Other categories of diction begin to come into focus, both noun and verb. Sign. Attempt. Swoop. Stab. Sprawled. Flutters. Utter. Sign. Feathery. By the time we reach the final word ‘nest’ we feel we are in the presence of a bird-like creature, or a real bird-made language.

This movement continues into the second and third poems in the collection. The poems have been gathered in a coherent manner and correspondences and associations begin to form over differing distances in the collection. The majority of pieces in this volume are untitled and this aids and invites the reader to travel across the pages. Fruitful associations can be made by reading this way. Recursive in theme, but restless in form and style, the disjointed and dislocated language and stitched effect result, paradoxically, in a cumulative tapestry. The many-angled approach, shifting perspectives and impressionistic touches may seem snatched and jotted when reading any one piece in isolation, but as with much poetry termed ‘difficult’, the longer the work is dwelt with, the more it begins to give up its deeper meanings and rhythms.

Rather than term it a stream of consciousness, it may be more helpful to describe it as a meditation on the space between consciousness and speech. At times there are attempts to return even further, to a pre-linguistic state, and a confidence in communication is uncovered as language is questioned. 

The fact that these poems are translations intensifies this questioning of language, self and the world. The themes are being worked out in two different musics, Polish and English. Arc Publications’ usual practice of dual translation allows another set of questions to be asked. Do the forms match, for example? After choosing an enjambed line over the prose form of the Polish in the second two poems in the collection, ‘House’ and ‘Quite Constricted...’, Wójcik-Leese maintains the formal look of the poems almost to the line in the remainder of the collection, but inserts spatial buffers and blanks from time to time. She acknowledges this in her preface as a risk that aims to convey the instability of the Polish. I do not read Polish, so cannot judge in relation to this claim, but as poems themselves the practice strikes me as successful, as unsettled movement and energy are both everywhere evident. Robert Mihinnick in his introduction is right to call them more collaborations than translations, the result of a sympathetic partnership between Miłobędzka and Wójcik-Leese. As language itself is the liminal space being examined, the osmotic barrier through which feeling becomes thought and vice versa, even the physical fact of these poems being printed in dual translation deepens the thematic concerns. It reminds us that these concerns have also been explored in another language. I say ‘have also’ rather than ‘were initially’ as Wójcik-Leese is quite present in the English versions, as the process of translation is so closely aligned itself with so many of the key concerns in the book:

          It makes two signs, vehement, ready for the uprush...

The first poem in Nothing More begins with a question: what is It? The final poem in the collection begins with the simplest but most profound of affirmative statements: I am. At heart Nothing More undertakes to articulate a precisely felt investigation into our perceived unity of self, and how we place language in service to this task to narrate our lives. Miłobędzka’s work attests to the richer, more daunting prospect when we consider the actual disjointedness, speed and flow of one’s thoughts, feelings and perceptions, especially in extreme states. This is a collection that not only attempts to track or map feeling becoming thought becoming language but also the opposite direction language>thought>feeling. This is the deeper rhythmic back-and-forth pulse at play here, and is ably and honestly translated in this edition.

Interested in sending a short review to MPT?

Pencil icon

Find out how to send a Poetry Postcard.» Read the guidelines

Browse reviews

By issue of MPT »

Contributor and student discounts

If you are a student, or if you contribute to MPT you are eligible for a great discount deal when you subscribe…» Subscribe now

Next issue…

Spring 2017

Spring 2017

No 4 / 2014

Submissions related to the open call are accepted at submissions@mptm... » Read more » Submit to MPT

Back to top
Supported by Arts Council England

Copyright © Modern Poetry in Translation and contributors
Website design ashbydesign
Developed by Code Frontiers
Powered by Storemill