Daniel Bourne: On Krzysztof Kuczkowski

Daniel Bourne: On Krzysztof Kuczkowski
July 7, 2013 Plume

By way of introduction to this month’s “Featured Selection,” first a brief introductory essay on Krzysztof Kuczkowski’s work by its present translator Daniel Bourne, followed by the work itself, and some biographical material.


The Angel’s Share:  Six Poems by Polish Poet Krzysztof Kuczkowski

I start to write these words with a northern Polish downpour taking place outside the window, the water scooped up from the Baltic and then deposited on the streets and the pine trees, the farms and the pavements of newly opened shopping malls opening up everywhere around Gdansk, former proud member of the Hanseatic League and trading partner with Shakespearean London, site of the Nazi attack on the Polish Post Office and the start of World World II, location of the 1980 shipyard strikes that gave rise to Polish Solidarity and the collapse of the Cold War.

There’s a lot of history swirling around here in Gdansk, just like there is a lot that happens to make rain.  I don’t want to belabor the image, but think about it.  The only thing that evaporates up from the Baltic waters would be the sweet stuff, the pure water, the angel’s share (as whisky makers in Scotland came to call the small amount of whisky that somehow made its way out from even a tightly closed oak cask, leaching through the wood as if sipped by some invisible being).   After a while, the water might get polluted again—even before it falls— but for a part of its unending cycle it is its best self, its true essence.

This process of distillation and purification brings me to these “Angel” poems of Polish poet Krzysztof Kuczkowski from his 2003 collection Tlen (Oxygen).  Indeed, one way to look at these poems is to recognize not only the different auras that surround us, but also our ideas.  To the secular mind, this association might be called context or correspondence, but it nonetheless involves a distillation of perception, an evaporation of some things and abandonment of others.  Thus, when we look at these angels of Rilke and Kafka, of Merton and Becket, or of Oscar Wilde and Etty Hillesum (two figures who truly might have needed angels not just because of what was inside of themselves but what resided in the imperfect world around them), we see not just a representation of their lives, but of what their lives still mean to us.  And, again, it’s not that Kuczkowski has supplied the imagistic heat to “cook down” these figures into some sort of concentrated surety, but that he has gone the other way, creating the evaporation and then condensation of these literary and cultural figures into the poignant and ghostly figures that you come across here, figures that are not so much these writers’ and thinkers’ guardian angels as their familiars, joining them in their final (or lifelong) hours of great need and travail.

(And just a quick footnote.  Each poem, of course. explores an angel associated with a prominent figure from literary history.  Merton, of course, is Thomas Merton, who is an especially valued American poet within literary circles here in Poland.  Etty Hillesum (1914-1943), however, might be a bit more obscure, at least to some Americans.  One of the countless awful stories of the Holocaust, she was a Jewish writer and spiritual thinker whose diary of camp life at the Westerbork internment camp in the Netherlands was miraculously preserved and eventually published in the 1980s in both Dutch and English editions.  If not for the Holocaust, we would probably know even more about her, because she would have had the opportunity to make more of a mark herself.  But in Kuczkowski’s poem we at least get a glimpse of Etty’s determination, as seen more extensively in her diaries, to continue her spiritual and mystical development despite her internment.  But then she died in Auschwitz on November 30,1943.)

In Kuczkowski’s poetry, you can indeed see a post-Swedenborgian at work, interested in visions and dreams, but also possessive of a lyrical grounding in the world of touch and of texture—for instance, Wilde’s “garish dress coast,” or the straw mat in Etty Hillesum’s cramped bathroom, on which Etty’s angel kneels down each day to accompany if not to comfort her.  There is also irony—but one that comes from intimacy, from knowing and tolerating the small but endearing foibles of one’s own family.  Kuczkowski writes from the inside, without knowledge of where all the tangents or refractions might travel.  He is not a poet-god that looks down from above and sees the whole design.

Over the years, and especially here on the coast of Pomerania, Krzysztof Kuczkowski has emerged as one of the most important “younger” Polish poets in the generation arising after the so-called New Wave poets (Stanisław Barańczak, Adam Zagajewski, Ewa Lipska, Julian Kornhauser, etc.), all of whom grew up during the full-bore Stalinism present in Poland in the 1950s.  The group of poets in Kuczkowski’s generation, though of course still experiencing the particular brand of totalitarianism present in Eastern Europe at that time, nonetheless from the very beginning grew up not just immersed in a growing cultural and political resistance to the Communist regime, but also surrounded by the Beatles and various other pop culture revolutions in the West.  In the case of Kuczkowski, this background has resulted in a poetry that is free to find its subject anywhere, and from just about any possible angle.

Krzysztof Kuczkowski is also the founding editor of Topos, one of only three or four literary journals operating nationally in what is a rather bleak literary publishing landscape in Poland nowadays.  He is moreover a great guitar player, with an occasional punch to the way he handles both the frets and the strings.  In short, he constantly surprises.  Tadeusz Dziewanwoski writes in his review of Kuczkowski’s Oxygen (Tlen): “the poet not only deals with the higher spirits, but also the demons of our time, he evokes myth, and symbolism and cultural iconography, but also bends down over a ladybug still alive in February, endeavoring to save even the already deceased from the moment of their dying.”   And Kuczkowski’s not just willing to tackle the metaphysical as well as the metafiction, but to find ways in which the approach to these more cerebral pursuits turns out to be downright idiosyncratic and surprising—leading him to such projects as a group of poems based on Jim Jarmusch’s post-western Dead Man that appeared in Kuczkowski’s 2008 collection, Dajemy się  jak dzieci prowadzić nicości (Like Children We Let the Nothingness Lead Us)—or, of course, to the Angel poems appearing here in Plume. Moreover, his ongoing concern with the ineffable aspects of existence often shows up in ways that are rather down-to-earth, well-grounded in both setting and language—offhand and colloquial, yet saturated with linguistic self-consciousness and philosophical disruption.  As an example of this, I’d like to close with a quick translation of the last stanza of the title poem in the above-mentioned book, Like Children We Let the Nothingness Lead Us:

We depend

upon I don’t know.

Like children we let

the nothingness lead us.

There we meet

with other children.

We watch

how they play

and dance with each other,

and how through I don’t know

they become frightened,

how they are born

and pass from the scene

on the way to another

I don’t know.


(Zdajemy się na

nie wiem.

Dajemy się nicości

prowadzić jak dzieci.

Spotykamy tam

inne dzieci.

Patrzymy jak one tam

bawią się,

jak one się tanczą,

jak w nie wiem

straszą się

i odchodza

w inne

nie wiem.)

—Daniel Bourne, July 12, 2013, Gdansk, Poland



Rilke’s Angel


horrible the angel

led by man

down the path of temptation


dire the angel

turned away at the threshold

of the giant room of the heart


detained in the vestibule

this angel is a candle of burning lead

even the glow brings forth a great pain


bitter the angel

leaping from our thoughts

his every word like wormwood


his body delicate as the tendrils

of a water plant, horrible is that man

who cannot love or be loved



Anioł Rilkego


straszny jest anioł

wodzony przez człowieka

na pokuszenie


groźny jest anioł

odtrącony nie wpuszczony

do komnaty serca


zatrzymamy w przedsionku

anioł jest jak świeca z ołowiu

jego płomień sprawia ból


gorzki jest anioł

przychodzący z umysłu

jego słowem jest piołun


jego ciałem wodna roślina

straszny jest człowiek, który nie

miłuje i nie czuje kochania



Kafka’s Angel


righteous is the angel

taking on the suffering

of the guilty


just is the angel

who does not answer to the question

why is it me?


his silence made of smoke

of the petals of a wind-flower, words

that memory cannot hold


only the shape of the fragrance remains

the sound by itself a blankness of object

the opalescence of disappearing


and what else is there to say?

only he knows well the three pillars of judgment

of guilt and perpetrator and scapegoat


and even if he spoke words of unbounded goodness

who among us would believe

in such a naïve tale?



Anioł Kafki


prawy jest anioł

dopuszczający cierpienie

z zastępstwie winnego


sprawiedliwy jest anioł

kiedy nie odpowiada na pytanie:

dlaczego właśnie ja


jego milczenie jest jak dym

i anemon: mówi słowa których

nie zatrzymuje pamięć


pozostaje po nich kształt zapachu

właściwie brzmienie biały przedmiot

opalizujący przed zniknięciem


zresztą cóś miałby odpowiedzieć

tylko on zna trzy filary sądu

wine, winowajcę I zastępcę


czy można opowiedzieć

bezmiar dobra I kto dziś da wiarę

takiej naiwney historii



Merton’s Angel


patient the angel

awaiting the birth

of someone new


abiding as the top

of Le Plomb du Cantal

the evenings dark

as the skin of eggplant

the days like the fleece of sheep


abiding as the yellow

plains around the Hill of Gethsemane the reclining

Buddha of Polonnaruwa


this place like any place

radiant interior

that does not depend

on lamplight or sun


patient the angel

for those who were born to believe

or those who must believe to feel alive



Anioł Mertona


cierpliwy jest anioł

oczekujący narodzin

nowego człowieka


jak cierpliwe jest wzgórze

Plomb du Cantal

pod wieczór granatowe niczym

dojrzała oberżyna

w dzień miękkie jak runo owcy


podobnie cierpliwe są płowe

równiny wokół Gethsemani i leżący

Budda w Polonnaruwa


tak samo każde miejsce

i każde promienne wnętrze

któremu nie potrzeba

światła lampa ani światła słońca


cierpliwy jest anioł dla tych

którzy rodzą się po to aby wierzyć

i wierzą po to aby być



The Angel of  Oscar Wilde


dark is the angel

born from the darkness of the body


angel of womanly rhymes

and nighttime sweats


clad in a garish dress coat



Parma violets

a stigmata in his lapel


angel of the unexpected glare

as in the gaol in Reading:


closing up the eyes of the world

but revealing the eyes inside the light



Anioł Oskara Wilde’a


ciemny jest anioł

z ciemnego zrodzony ciała


anioł żeńskich rymów

i nocnych dreszczy



ubierany w pupuzie fraki


z parmeńskich fiołków

stygmatem w klapie


anioł nagłych prześwitów

jak w więzieniu w Reading:


zamykający oczy świata

otwierający oczy światła



Beckett’s Angel


strange is the angel

scraped of the angelic


he doesn’t say much

all single syllables


the harmony of the world

he tries to prop up

with the aid of sentence fragments


but the tenses get tangled

between the angel and the human


the emptiness inside him

that could not fit in heaven


the more he can forget

the glow of his past


the more he can resemble

these humans


—soon he won’t even remember

how to be an angel at all



Anioł Becketta


dziwny jest anioł

odarty z anielskości


mówi niewiele

glównie pojedyncze sylaby


harmonię świata

usiłuje podtrzymywać za pomocą

równoważników zdania


plączą mu się czasy

anielski z ludzkim


nosi w sobie pustkę

która nie mieści się w niebie


w miarę jak zapomina

o świetlistej przeszłości


zaczyna przypominać



niebawem zapomni

jak być aniołem



The Angel of Etty Hillesum


silent is the angel

throwing away the stone


he descends

into the depths of the earth


each day he kneels with Etty

in the cramped bathroom

on a straw mat


in this way a great spirit

flounders–trying to apprehend

its limits


and the world

the world is increasingly smaller



to ride on tramcars or buy vegetables

to own a bicycle

or a wireless receiver

to be out on the street

after eight


to exist

or rather to be allowed to exist



between the limbo of Westerbork

and the sepulchre of Auschwitz:

this fine gold thread–


a foundation even stronger

than the pull of gravity

the entire strength of earth 

[previously published in Bitter Oleander]



Anioł Etty Hillesum
                         Jackowi Solińskiemu


milczący jest anioł

odrzucający kamień



w głąb ziemi


codziennie klęka z Etty na

kokosowej macie w ciasnej



wielka dusza

bezskutecznie usiłuje poznać

swoje granice


a świat

świat jest coraz mniejszy


nie wolno jeździć

tramwajem I kupować warzyw

nie wolno mieć roweru

ani radioodbiornika

nie wolno przebywać na ulicy

po ósmej


a być

czy wolno być



pustką Westerbork

i grobem Auschwitz:

Złota Nić


punkt oparcia moczniejszy

od siły ziemskiego




Krzysztof Kuczkowski, born in 1955 in the Polish city of Gniezno, since 1993 has edited the Polish literary journal and publishing house Topos.  The recipient of numerous awards for both his poetry and editorial work with Topos, his books of poetry include Prognoza pogody (Weather Report, 1980), Pornografia (Pornography, 1981), Cialo, cien (Body, Shadow, 1989), Trawa na dachu  (Grass Roof, 1992), Widok z dachu (View from the Roof, 1994), Stado (The Herd, 1995), Aniol i gora (The Angel and the Mountain, 1996), Niebo w grudniu (The Sky in December, 1997) and Tlen (Oxygen, 2003).  In 1998, a volume of selected works from 1978-1998 appeared under the title Wieza widowa (The Lookout Tower). Translations of his work by Daniel Bourne have appeared in English in Bitter Oleander and Artful Dodge.

Daniel Bourne’s books include The Household Gods, Where No One Spoke the Language, and On the Crossroads of Asia and Europe–translations of the poetry and essays of Polish political poet Tomasz Jastrun.  His poetry is forthcoming in Boulevard, Lake Effect, and Conduit, and has previously appeared in Plume, Field, Ploughshares, APR, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, Salmagundi, Guernica and elsewhere.  He teaches at the College of Wooster in NE Ohio, where he is founding editor of Artful Dodge.  Over the years, he has also been a frequent traveler to Poland, including on a Fulbright in 1985-87 for the translation of younger Polish poets.   In fact, he will be spending the second half of 2013 in Poland, working with Kuczkowski and other Polish poets on translation.  His translations have appeared in Penguin’s anthology of Eastern European poetry, Child of Europe and in Norton’s Against Forgetting:  Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (edited by Carolyn Forché), and have also been in Willow Springs, Northwest Review, Partisan Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Colorado Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere.