Messages by Piotr Gwiazda

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When I was young and soft and I couldn’t fall asleep at night, I’d just lie there in bed, swallowing lumps of dread whose shape and taste I had no way of understanding. To stop my mind from its looping grind, I’d count as high as I could before the numbers lost their meaning, morphing into endless strings of code. Other times, I’d pick a word and repeat it over and over again until it became gibberish, a comforting slop-language. Now, as an adult, I occasionally come across words that seem so simple, so readily definable, that they lose meaning as soon as I start thinking about them. One of those words, I’ve recently discovered, is “ether.”

Say it with me now: ether. Say it again and again. What does it mean? In my mind, it conjures images of air, galaxies of stars; I see the way the sky pales to new colors as the black of outer-space pushes in, all around us.

Piotr Gwiazda’s most recent collection of poems, Messages, opens with a quote from Joe Milutis’s book, Ether: The Nothing that Connects Everything—and it’s this subtitle that hints at how we should read the following pages—which goes, in part, “…everyone should have an inalienable right to illusion, or at least a responsibility toward illusion.” It’s a fascinating way to begin a book, permission to create and to construct an understanding for the reader: a message.

The first poem of the collection, perhaps not surprisingly, is entitled “Ether.” In it, Gwiazda writes:

And it is up to the poet
to translate, i.e. to say:
“You think this is a movie,
But it isn’t a movie.”
“You think this is freedom,
but it’s a Chinese toy.”

The poet is a hacker
(is art information?),
a spoiler of the tyrant’s feast,
a disturber of the public peace,
a traveler on the red-eye,
an assassin in the boardroom.

Many of the poems in Messages concern themselves with “the poet,” his or her role in modern society, their nature. It becomes clear that Gwiazda believes poets bear responsibility to process the world around them, to reflect and refract light, and in turn, they bear the burden of expectation, the obligation to beam outward some purified newness. Take, for example, these lines from the poem “Removable Tattoos:”

Every six months you are required to change
your email password and/or sexual partner.
You fell asleep one sunny afternoon
and woke up in a driving hailstorm.

All is not lost, however, when poets—
tired of contests, fed up with manifestos—
improvise in softly toned sprechstimme
songs of dubious importance and vague beauty.

Gwiazda’s poems are political in the sense that a person is political by nature of their very being. In organizing Messages into three distinct sections, Gwiazda is giving shape to this idea. The first section explores the notion of “the poet.” Toward the end of this section, Gwiazda slips in a sly quote from Nabokov—“time is a prison”—before devoting the entire second section to a long poem entitled “Time.”

Messages of intent can be detected throughout “Time.” Some of them are self-aware: “For months I’ve been working on / a poem called ‘Time.’ / Will it stand the test of time?” Or, “This poem amounts to, at best / a conversation with myself.” Others feel instructive: “Don’t be fooled / by complexity: / What seems to you complex / may be in fact quite simple.” Or, “I never feel the same way twice. / I struggle to make my mark. / I write for myself or strangers.” If, as Nabokov says, time is a prison, than “Time” is Gwiazda struggling with the prison of his poetic ambitions.

The final section of the book is perhaps the most fully realized, the product of the ideas and concepts introduced in parts one and two. Here Gwiazda portrays his America, uncovering the very substance of life, that indefinable connection between what we understand with our senses and the way we process that information internally. Take, for example, these lines from “Island:”

So unlike our slick American cities—New York, Baltimore, Wichita—
with their haphazard rebirths, different kinds of trees,
pedestrians navigating among traffic lights and closed sidewalks
in January rush, knowing that only being the best matters
and losing is no fun, that life gives no second chance,
no refund, no exchange. Plan your future. Dress for success.

For those interested in the poetic process, the alchemy of creation, Messages is a weighty, thought-provoking read. It won’t make itself obvious after a quick read—as the best books refuse to do—but over time, like repeating words in the dark, a new and better understanding will inevitably emerge.

David Peak's most recent book is The River Through the Trees. His blog is He lives in Chicago. More from this author →