REVIEW by Steven LovattNWR Issue 101
by Tadeusz Różewicz, trans Barbara BogoczekMother Departs
is a collection of poems, diary entries, photographs and prose fragments loosely organised by Tadeusz Różewicz around the life of his mother, Stefania (1896-1957). It is translated from the Polish by Barbara Bogoczek. A little over half of the book was written by Różewicz; the remainder comprises the recollections of his two brothers, Janusz and Stanisław, and of Stefania herself. Janusz was killed by the Gestapo in 1944; Stanisław died in 2008; Tadeusz was seventy-eight years old when this book first appeared in Polish and will be ninety-two this autumn: an old man who has spent his adult life attempting to free himself and his civilisation from self-deceit.
Unbidden, the doors of memory swing open:
In a dark room
on a table there’s
a glass of red wine
through an open door
I see the landscape of childhood
a kitchen with a blue kettle
the heart of Jesus in a crown of thorns
mother’s translucent shadow
in the round silence
a cock crows
Almost all of the individual fragments in Mother Departs
are recollections of sorts, and though each member of the Różewicz family has their distinctive style, they share with one another an intense curiosity about the world and a desire to capture their fleeting perceptions as exactly as possible. The writing of Janusz, in particular, exhibits an almost obsessive desire to fix those transient and transcendental perceptions that Virginia Woolf called ‘moments of being’:
the green surface of the desk at which I’m sitting – bright shining saturated with sunlight – there are sixteen desks like it in the classroom, the desks in the corners – darker – because in the shade – all of this is terribly simple…through the window it’s also green – but different – the green of this table and the green of the branches are two quite different colours although they share the one name – green….
is a book about which critics will love to write that it ‘defies categorisation’, but in fact it fits pretty neatly into the category of scrapbook. Beyond its convenience as a way of bringing together materials of disparate origin and authorship, it is possible to infer other reasons why this form may have seemed appropriate to Różewicz.
Even the most discreet scrapbook cannot help but whisper the connections between personal life and the terrible abstraction ‘history’, and every page of Mother Departs
is shadowed by this tension. Stanisław remembers 1943:
Here in the little garden in the Parkitka district, mum plants beans, vegetables, the cherry trees and the sweet cherry trees blossom in the spring […] The little garden makes mum so happy, as though providing protection and a barrier from the main square and the streets where the Germans are rounding up and killing people.
This book is, among other things, a document of life in twentieth-century Poland, which is to say that it is a document of catastrophe. And while the fragmentary nature of any scrapbook may serve as an analogy for the friability of memory, this ordinary pathos is amplified and warped when seen against the backdrop of a society whose material and moral fabric was reduced to scraps and shards.
In such a context, Mother Departs
may be regarded in more ways than one as an act of recovery. Not only are Różewicz’s mother and brothers redeemed from ‘the river/of forgetting’ but the revelation to a general public of such compassionate and inquisitive people, in a book itself so full of tenderness and wit, restores to an uncertain age a sense of the undiminished value of human ordinariness. This value is so indispensable as to be sacred, and one of the fascinating tensions of Mother Departs
lies in the atheist Różewicz’s persistent resort to religious language. This is most evident when he writes about what –for all that the book is a whirlpool of impressions – might be described as its two fixed centres. The ‘translucent’ presence of Stefania Różewicz is referred to in almost Marian terms, while Tadeusz’s devotion to his art – ‘I entered the world of poetry as if into the light’ – suggests nothing more than a religious sense of vocation.
It is difficult to imagine a Western poet describing their relationship to writing in such terms, but the nature and scale of the suffering experienced by Polish society has had the perverse benefit of inoculating its writers against emotional and linguistic affectation. Różewicz, like his compatriots Staff, Milosz and Singer is serious without pomposity and light-hearted without archness, and if Mother Departs
is ultimately pessimistic, then one could do no better than quote Singer’s statement, in his Nobel address, that ‘the pessimism of the creative person is not decadence but a mighty passion for the redemption of man.’
deals with loss and memory and what it means to be a poet, but above all it records the love between members of a family, and its greatest gift may lie in the repeated opportunities that it creates for its readers to recognise themselves in the thoughts and actions of people who are not and never could be entirely strange.
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