Black Square by Tadeusz Dąbrowski

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Tadeusz Dąbrowski’s a marvel of sorts. At thirty-two, he’s already written six books. In Poland, where he edits a literary bimonthly and regularly contributes to the Kultura Channel on Polish State Television, he’s been hailed as “the hope of Polish poetry” and has won significant literary awards. Black Square, a bilingual edition translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, is simply brilliant. In her impeccable work as a translator, Jones has captured Dąbrowski’s voice, showing us how fantastic and joyful his poems are. They’re also full of love, swagger, and linguistic excitement.

“Soiree,” a poem from the beginning of the book, exemplifies the talent found in the rest of the collection. Listen to how the speaker responds to a question from his lover in the first few lines:

– Do you write by day or by night? – By day and by night,
my dear lady. At daybreak, as I end my drunken ramble
searching after bodies, I notice as the night
comes pouring into me in a swirling stream

of ink. Then I sleep through the sunlight, but after
midday I start to write down the nocturnal hero’s

The imaginative extravagance here pleases because it’s fresh, youthful. Night “pouring into” the speaker as a “a swirling stream of ink” makes for striking imagery and clues us into the poet’s ideas concerning where and when writing occurs: everywhere, always—in light and darkness, in remembering and forgetting, in sleep and wakefulness.

Writing is also connected to Dąbrowski’s Catholicism and his struggle with spirit and flesh. In one poem, the speaker lists different versions of himself: “The one helping mom to carry the shopping,” “The Catholic who dreams during the Elevation / of elevating the dress of the married woman kneeling in front of him,” and the guy who “visits pornographic websites.” In the last line of another poem, after describing picking up a woman at a club and taking her home to bed, the speaker tells us he feels “at the same time both good and bad.” Yet even with this ambivalence, and without knowing who God finally is or what God means to a person living a full and passionate life, the speaker declares in a short, untitled poem that

God has not retired – as Simone Weil
would have it – a huge distance away, but He’s
right here, so close that I can feel His

caring non-presence. (Which is a word passed over
in silence, an aborted gesture, a suspended
a breath held for a moment. That

not breathing, that’s your life.)

To say the least, the speaker in the collection works hard to figure himself out in relation to philosophical, religious, and spiritual matters, and while some American readers may find such a project quaint, naïve, or retro, it holds power because the speaker, no matter his tone or particular mood, remains piercingly perceptive and unabashedly honest. In another untitled poem, one of the very best in the book, the speaker meditates on his relationship with his elderly father and creates a tender portrait that places the reader at the center of the experience:

Father is lying in the other room, reading before sleep.
He has always given me everything I needed.
It seems to me I’m good to him.

We’re lying in adjacent rooms, it’s quiet, I can hear water
murmuring in the radiators. Time passes. What more
can I do, hug him into infinity, or keep repeating:
I love you? I think not. So I lie here considering
his aged heart and the dwindling number
of beats that are its destiny. So much love,

and nothing to do with it.

Partly because of the variety of experiences rendered in other poems before we come to this one, and because of the translator’s skillful work, “Father is lying in the other room, reading before sleep” in many ways serves as the arc of the book, the place where the writer’s skill and vision powerfully come together. As the father in the poem and “God the Father” explored in other poems in the collection relate by virtue of Dąbrowski’s devotion to both, one could claim the figure of the father as one of Dąbrowski’s artistic obsessions. In this instance, the obsession is given shape with repeating present tense verbs that create the illusion of an eternal present: “Father is lying,” “We’re lying,” “I lie…”. Everything in the poem is happening now, will always happen. Forever. Such lyrical intensity represents Dąbrowski at his best.

Jim Zukowski’s poems have appeared in Nimrod, Northwest Review, Provincetown Arts, and other journals. He has recently completed work on his first manuscript, The Vanisher. More from this author →