iscovering the themes that arise and resonate is one of the pleasures we offer readers as they make their way through these pages. We don’t assign themes at the outset of any issue of NER but allow them to develop organically as the selections come together each quarter. And while each issue contains writing by international writers, about once a year we add to that mix a concentration of writing from a specific place. Recent years have focused on writing from South Africa, China, Germany, and Russia, in sections that allow and require us to go beyond our usual means of discovery. For these, we often have the good luck of enlisting guides—writers, translators, and people in the know—who lead us deeper into the literature of another place and often another language.
This summer we’re offering “Polish Poetry in Translation: Bridging the Frontiers of Language”—a selection of work by eighteen poets born as early as 1877 and as recently as 1970, arranged in a loosely chronological progression. Our guides for this feature were Ellen Hinsey, NER’s international correspondent, and Jakob Ziguras, a bilingual, bicultural poet originally from Wrocław. As evidenced by Hinsey’s two recent books, Mastering the Past, a collection of essays about the rise of illiberalism in Europe, and The Illegal Age, her fourth collection of poetry, Ellen has a deeply rooted passion for both the poetry and politics of Central and Eastern Europe.
You won’t find Miłosz, Herbert, or Szymborska here. The poets in this selection are largely unknown in English. Their unfamiliarity in English—and belovedness in Polish—was the central organizing principle. These are poems that Poles who care deeply about poetry wanted to share beyond the boundaries of their own language. In her introduction, Ellen describes the process and intention behind this compilation, which she assembled in collaboration with five Warsaw scholars and with Jakob, who devotedly took up the challenge of translating the complexity, humor, and musicality of the originals.
This particular international feature is more of a culmination than a beginning for NER. In 2012 we published “Death in the Forest,” Ellen’s essay about the plane crash in Smolensk, Russia, that killed Polish President Lech Kaczyński, his wife, and ninety-four other public figures at the same site as the 1940 Katyń tragedy. In the fall of 2016, we published her interview with Rafał Pankowski, a wide-ranging cultural and historical conversation that is worth revisiting for its insight into Poland’s current political turmoil. We published an update to this report online in fall 2018, when the country’s Constitutional crisis reached a critical point. There is no end, of course, to critical moments, and in Poland’s case these crises are instructive beyond its own borders, as questions of illiberalism and nationalism are not limited to Europe or to the early twenty-first century. For this feature, however, the immediate political and historical questions have been set aside in favor of the realm of the imagination, where language is free to play, disrupt, challenge, revel, and surprise even itself. Written through various political and social changes, these poems retain their vitality and strangeness across place, time, and even language.
And as always seems to happen, once a particular note is struck it can be heard reverberating throughout. Erik Harper Klass’s story, “The Pilgrim of Łódź,” is one of the more obvious examples of a theme playing across an issue, but Poland comes up again and again, not only in literal ways, such as in essays by Alisa Koyrakh and Jehanne Dubrow, who describe their own explorations of eastern Europe, but in direct references to Warsaw, Szymborska, and Chopin, which bloom throughout these pages but that might in another issue go largely unnoticed. While there may be an expectation that a group of poems from a single nation will comment on that nation in ways we recognize, the Polish selections are as broad in style, form, and content as any other group of poems that just happen to share a language of origin. Just as those pieces originally written in English do, these translations respond to both the natural and the humanmade world—a fly, a lake, Notre Dame cathedral—to eternal questions about death, mercy, and beauty, and even to familiar Christian and Greek myths. In the end, Poland is no more this issue’s theme than, say, love and faith, or the drama of families. We leave the pleasure of hearing these resonances to you. To borrow a line from Kazimierz Wierzyński, “Such is the baggage. Such is the voyage . . .”