Attending to the poetics of place, identity, memory, translation and betweenness, Anna Danielewicz reviews Anna Błasiak’s Café by Wren’s St James-in-the-Fields, Lunchtime (Holland House Books, 2020), a book which also includes photographs from Lisa Kalloo and translations from Marta Dziurosz, Maria Jastrzebska, Danusia Stok and Elzbieta Wojcik-Leese.
> The locus of Anna Błasiak’s Café by Wren’s St James-in-the-Fields, Lunchtime (2020) is as specific as its title and rooted in memory, the body, and spectatorship. The carefully drawn intersections of place, identity, and foreignness point to an alignment between the remembering mind and the wandering eye of a person living between languages, between homes.
> The peripatetic existence of the subject in these poems will resonate with those of us who are always on the go, and thus dependent on the things kept in the pockets as a reminder of a more stable, tangible reality. The poem that opens the collection, ‘Dog catcher’, collects this evidence of an everyday that is not just observed but directly experienced:
Luckily in my pockets I always keep shopping receipts, torn newspaper clippings, old tickets.
> Finding strangeness within the mundane seems to be one of the core concerns of Café by…. The voice within poems such as ‘You Never Know’ pores over opaque truths, only to discover that it is the unknown that really fits like a glove – ‘I peer from left to right. / Just as I suspected / everything fits perfectly’. Everything is accorded due respect, and everything connects back to the careful, discriminating mind – descriptions of blossoming vines are levelled with reminders that our existence in the world is always already tainted and still fundamentally fragile, both in the face of beauty and wilderness ‘You can’t be too careful / can you’ (***).
> As noted by novelist Lucy Ellmann in a recent interview, ‘This is modern life: we’re sponges, soaking things up all the time’ (Ellman, 2020). The things soaked up in this collection are laid out with great care, examined sequentially and according to a somewhat occult logic of remembrance. The memory within ‘Holidays at Grandma’s’ is laid out like a floorplan, its rooms named after fruit trees: the swaying, climbable bearers of juicy delights.
> The old house described in the poem makes me think of language as a dwelling – one that is either occupied or not. Writing in the language of a country one has left, a long time ago, possibly for ever, feels like entering a house that has been abandoned overnight by its inhabitants. Everything is still there under a layer of dust and you don’t know what you’ll find, but it feels important to give yourself permission to look, to touch things.
> I wonder how, if at all, such allegories can apply to translation itself. From my own experience of writing between languages, my instinct is that one of the functions of translation is to let in the light, air things out, recreate a workable flow. A translated text is thus by necessity a functional apartment. Possibly more of a crash pad than a crisp holiday let, considering the sheer number of devices needed to pick up meaning and deposit it, unscathed, into a completely different linguistic space. This seems especially pertinent with regard to poetry written from memory, where a sense of melancholy and temporal estrangement already exists. With the process of translation adding further distance, a depth of feeling can sometimes be misplaced along the way.
> Perhaps there is something uniquely tantalising about the two-pronged linguistic format of Błasiak’s book, with something inexpressible stretched taut between the original and the translation. The presumed existence of an English-language reader and readiness to accommodate them points to a power relation embedded in translation, especially from a migrant language into one that is culturally dominant. While I would love to see and read these poems in both languages, I believe that a separate English edition would give more credit to the strength of the work – while retaining the collaborative nature of the volume, co-authored with Lisa Kalloo who contributed the photographs. Whilst the authors of the collection made a different choice, I think that there is value in acknowledging the fact that the English-language reader does not and perhaps should not automatically have access to everything.
> The poems draw from cultural memory as it is coded in a mother tongue – which further compounds the inherent difficulty of translating anything at all. There is something in the subtlety of naming, the specificity of terms used to describe the world, that does not easily cross between languages. This can also apply to the question of perspective, or positionality of the subject. The poem ‘***’ encapsulates this in an interesting way:
Hidden behind the pillar I’m counting corners parts of the world.
They don’t always add up to four.
> Polish is an outrageously complicated and joyfully cumbersome language of long words, infinite declinations, and mutable rules. Whenever Błasiak cuts abruptly in the middle of a phrase, or manages to use a single word to convey so much, the effect in the Polish original is really striking. The translations will inevitably generate a different reading – because meaning itself can never reside between languages, it must be embedded in one, inhabiting all of its folds and softnesses like an old armchair (furniture is another recurring motif within the collection). That said, with Błasiak’s innate linguistic precision and observance of the sublime, as it is coded in the furnishings of the everyday, I do think that her words can find a home in translation – it might just take a little more wriggling, a little more shuffling back and forth.
> I imagine that the impasses of this endeavour may be something close to Anna Blasiak’s heart considering that, unlike me, she herself is a translator. Full disclosure on my part: I have never formally studied translation, and my feelings about it are a mixture of instinctual resistance to the many orthodoxies of the trade, and a genuine passion, possibly arising from a desire to solve problems. Because, let’s face it, translation is a problem. With language buried so deep in cultural memory, it is a wonder we understand each other at all, and any notion of literary universality might in itself be a liberal pipedream. To an extent, as poets or writers we always have to work to communicate anything meaningful, to create a space that the speaker and the listener can both inhabit. This is true from a migrant point of view also. The generosity with which this collection of work automatically presents a translation alongside it reflects the additional labour of making ourselves heard.
> Overwhelmingly, the decision to present this book in both languages strikes me as reflexive of the support structures underpinning this collection. The poems are translated by a number of individuals, presumably friends, peers, and well-wishers. The series of photographs by Lisa Kalloo echoes this polyvocality in an array of mechanisms, collages, cityscapes, organic forms. While I am uncertain about the narrative resonance of these images, I am heartened by a sense of ongoing dialogue with the poems. This assemblage of words and image gives an impression of home as something in process of being constructed –– as in the poem’ Emigration’, poignantly translated by Marta Dziurosz: ‘I escaped home. / It caught up.’ I would like to think that home is something that always catches up with you because in time, you encounter new allies, form new communities.
Text: Anna Danielewicz
Błasiak, Anna and Kalloo, Lisa. (2020) Café by Wren’s St James-in-the-Fields, Lunchtime. Translated by Marta Dziurosz, Maria Jastrzębska, Danusia Stok, Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese. Newbury: Holland House Books.
Novaković, Rastko. (2020) ‘Interview with Lucy Ellmann’, The White Review (28) Published July 2020.