Translators like to believe that writers perform best in the language to which they are born (if not, there would be no need for translators!). A corollary belief: the more difficult the language — English, for example — the less likely a non–native speaker is to write well in it (of course, notable exceptions sometimes turn up: Vladimir Nabokov, for example, or Joseph Conrad). With poetry, the bar has been set still higher: even such masters of spoken English as Joseph Brodsky and Czesław Miłosz relied largely on translators (including themselves) to bring their poems into English.
What, then, are we to make of Danuta E. Kosk–Kosicka's Oblige the Light, poems published in English by a native speaker of Polish, the collection that won the 2014 Harriss Poetry Prize? In point of fact, Kosk–Kosicka, who translates poetry from Polish into English — including work by Wisława Szymborska and her own mother, Lidia Kosk — has a fine ear for nuance in English. In these poems she slips from voice to voice and persona to persona to explore family, history, memory, and loss. She has a sharp ear for homonyms and clearly loves to play with the sounds of English. She uses adjectives sparely — and the adjectives she chooses more often than not describe color — and her verbs are often striking, unexpected.
In terms of artistic influences, Kosk–Kosicka is partial to painters such as Magritte, Chagall, and Gauguin (whose paintings ghost through these poems), and to writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez: she is equally at home writing as if she were the figure in a painting, the artist making the painting, or a viewer stepping into the painting. In his introduction to Oblige the Light, series editor and 2014 Harriss Prize judge Michael Salcman says of Kosk–Kosicka's work: "Astonishing metaphors and precise description of natural forces and historical events results [sic] in an atmospheric Magical Realism that borders on the Surrealistic."
Indeed, the contrast between strangeness and familiarity forms one of Kosk–Kosicka's main themes in Oblige the Light, a contrast highlighted in the very first poem, "The Thin Blue Line between Still and Alive." Kosk–Kosicka begins the poem in a gallery full of students wearing costumes to create living tableaus of the portraits on canvas: with an artist's eye, she picks out a blue sash, a sword, a yellow rose (the color yellow, clearly significant to this poet, appears in poem after poem in Oblige the Light). But then the poet shifts perspective:
At the strike of one they stir, casually walk away,
leaving the background and the still selves.
I come alive on the background of a jet plane
pierced with a row of doors. The farthest opens
on a sandy Mazovian plain with Chopin's weeping willow.
We are now in Poland, the poet's homeland, and we're tracing both her past and her future, imagining what "home" means to a person who inhabits two languages, two cultures: Poland and America. Indeed, the first few poems in Oblige the Light evoke some of Poland's darkest days: in "My Mother at Twelve," the speaker watches her childhood friend, Hana, being rounded up by the Nazis. In the remarkable "The Poem in My Head," a soldier returning from the Second World War is wounded in an ambush, but somehow manages to jump a freight train, from which he is eventually pulled in a stunning, cinematic twist:
When the train arrives at the junction
Military Red Cross finds him —
they carry out the soldier on a stretcher.
His trophy a fistful of straw. If he pulls out
the lucky straw, he will be my father.
Later poems explore Poland under communism, including "Sunday Like No Other," set on the December 1981 day when martial law is declared in Poland: a Polish man and woman visiting America must decide whether to fly home to Warsaw on the last plane out.
Not all the poems set in Poland are grim, of course. Kosk-Kosicka's poems of childhood often evoke Poland as a fairy tale land. "The Fabled Roosters of Kazimierz" begins:
Once I went to the town where pretzels grew
This poem clearly owes a debt to Chagall, as does "Paintings in a Gray-Walled Waiting Room," which explicitly references Chagall's Eastern Europe full of upside down houses, floating people, and goats playing the fiddle. But then Kosk–Kosicka inverts Chagall's inversions: in the second stanza of "Paintings in a Gray–Walled Waiting Room," the speaker and her son drive around a different kind of village where the houses "are shades of beige," where "[b]eige–brown deer devour colors." Herons, hawks, and planes fill the sky, and a bride and groom attend a crab feast wearing blue jeans. We have arrived in Maryland, USA, land of Coca–Cola, vinyl siding.
The contrast between "home" and "abroad" forms perhaps the central theme of Oblige the Light: one senses that the poet has not quite resolved what these concepts mean in her universe. Scents, tastes, images of Kosk–Kosicka's Polish childhood mingle with fried fish and boiled peanuts in the American beach tableau of "At the Seaside Café," a poem in which the speaker speaks wistfully of the search for "fragments of the familiar." Not that resolution is either desired or, indeed, attainable: some of the richest poems in Oblige the Light mine the territory of culture, what it means to inhabit the international landscape of art and ideas, irrespective of physical location. Although the poet never says so explicitly, one feels how grateful she must be to have outlived the strictures of the Cold War and now inhabit the age of jet travel, a time when it is indeed possible to wake up in Baltimore and go to sleep in the land of Chopin.