Agnieszka Kuciak is a Polish poet and translator of Italian writers. Distant Lands: An Anthology of Poets who Don’t Exist (Dalekie Kraje) is her second collection of poetry; it was first published in 2005, and is available for the first time in English (translated by Karen Kovacik) from White Pine Press. Her first collection, Retardation (Retardacja) (2001), established her as a strong voice in the Polish tradition of poetry. This second collection projects that strong voice, distills it through twenty-one imagined and archetypical poets. It establishes her as a unique, existential voice; a voice which we are lucky to now able to read in English.
The rain knocks long on everything,
asking, “You there?” and I say, “No,
not at all.” The rain is a master of Zen.
Maybe let loose from the heavens
like one sheer hand clapping?
Have a seat and listen
to this lesson on the house:
Whoever doesn’t tend his garden
will be overrun by a wild, wild god.
In vain, repeat after him
the tiny, quiet “Yes”
that will destroy you. (24)
“The rain knocks long on everything” by Nobody, the second poem in the first sequence of Distant Lands is a great example of that existential voice. It is prepares the lens that the reader begins to examine the collection— maybe even more so than the opening poem that precedes it. Nobody becomes a stand-in for how certain critics might feel about existential lyric poets who are influenced by Eastern philosophy. This archetype is the most evident of the existentialism throughout. You can see this in her biography:
NOBODY is a poet who believes she doesn’t exist, has never existed, and will not exist in the future, a fact that has driven countless literary critics to distraction. They hold the view that this author, who’s essentially good for nothing and writes poems that no one reads, and could, out of politeness at least, have the grace to exist a little. (16-17)
The project of Distant Lands itself also serves as an existential question on the nature and purpose of poets and poetry in a global internet culture.
Take N. Milosz who is described as “the bishop of poetry.” He “believes in the holy baptism of ink, the sacrament of poetry readings, the poem as penance, and the grace that comes from literary prizes. He writes, however, only about God” (17). In this description, we have a poet who might be a spiritual supervisor and medium between the holy world of poetry and the secular. He exists in this liminal space to make connections for us. He might be an archetype for his namesake Czeslaw Milosz, or could even be a combination of a poet like Gerard Manley Hopkins, Geoffrey Hill, Rumi, or any poet who might use mystic imagery and meditation as a trope. N. Milosz writes about a landscape between hills and stone-pines, “In silence, the cicadas intone some eternal verse. / From the depths of a well hallowed out / of Heaven, the long addio of a bell is wrung” and continues, “… yet everything can be found there: / fragrances and incantations and unicorns / of language. There what dwells / seems so profuse, it doesn’t have to be” (29). This poem is open to interpretation as a statement of poetics (like Yeats’ “A Coat”) or a view on life through religious rhetoric (like William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis”), but in the context of this collection as a poem written by this imagined archetype translated into English, it could also be interpreted as a meta-poetic statement on translation— perhaps akin to Hill’s “The Songbook of Sebastian Arrurruz” from King Log (1968) which contains “translations” of lines by and makes reference to a Spanish poet who doesn’t exist.
The collection could be analyzed through many lenses because Kuciak is hyper-aware of her readers. She knows that in a global age of immediacy, attention spans are shorter, tastes are eclectic, and polyvocality is en vogue. Not only that, but the density of what’s going on in the poems and the context of the book (translated or otherwise) is worthy of scholarship. This is something that doesn’t hurt the dissemination of a text. I expect Kuciak’s work to draw the attention of young scholars of literature and a wide range of poets who understand the complexities of Distant Lands, but what makes it even more remarkable is that I expect it could draw the attention of a poetry reading public who might not necessarily write poetry because the poems are mostly accessible. This is because Kuciak never takes herself too seriously. Humor is encountered in several of the poems (“Italian Lover,” “Portrait,” and “In the House of the Psyche”), and is evident in nearly all of the biographies; the sensationalism leans some of the poets toward parody. Pisces, Doctus, and Sunny are among the funniest of the biographies. Here is Sunny’s bio:
##################################################### and is married to a brunette. (The editors regret that the rest of the contributor’s note for this poet was wiped out by the “I Love You” virus.) (19)
Its wide appeal is one of the distinguishing characteristics of this collection. Kuciak writes in the foreword that “the ‘distant lands’ alluded to in the title are simply places where we don’t go;” however, I’d argue it’s where we are. These poets are ideal forms of who they’d like to be. Imitation is how poets usually begin writing poetry, but once they become “poets,” they are to develop unique voices. The voices in Distant Lands are so unique because they are so themselves— which is to say they reflect what they like about the archetypes they depict. They are also reminiscent of the first joys of writing poetry. Kuciak understands this and lets them be.
Distant Lands isn’t a book without faults. The poetry isn’t as aural as it could be; sometimes the book can be read as being too clever for its own good (like D.A., a clear reference to Dante Alighieri, who writes a series of “resurrection rhymes” which contains a meta-reference to the real Agnieszka Kuciak; and perhaps it’s greatest fault being that it’s not a collections that you particularly want to read straight through. Although, it could also be argued that these faults are not faults at all, but rhetorical devices Kuciak uses to make form follow content. While some critics could label the lyrics flat, there are indeed moments that break through and sing, such as “By Bernini” in the section “Waiting for Blondes” by Lyric Poet:
… She’s distant now, always eluding;
in marble, she transitions to a laurel evading
a god, as well as your body and gaze.
She flees ever deeper into heaven’s haze
beyond sex. Let the angel in the sculpted air
capture this marble nymph in wild prayer. (85)
While it might be a fair critique to say the collection is sometimes “too clever,” it could just as easily be said that the poet is winking at the reader through the guise of a global internet culture with its social media and web 2.5 that is all about self-mythology; she’s commenting on popular culture. This also extends to the claim of digestibility. The age of immediacy almost necessitates the quick consumption of information in smaller bits; and that is why the faux anthology form works so well.
Despite any of these criticisms, the most evident saving grace is Distant Lands’ uniqueness. Kovacik’s translation of Kuciak makes readers laugh, contemplate, and by the end, finally wonder, “Why aren’t we reading more Polish poetry?”