Piotr Gwiazda’s Messages includes twenty-two poems (some of which are cycles of three to seven parts) and an interview with the author. The collection opens with a quotation from Joe Milutis’s Ether: The Nothing That Connects Everything, which describes “materialist interpretations” as “poor readings of rationality.” Gwiazda’s very first poem elaborates this theme further, by expanding poetry’s cognitive domain to “anything, anything”; whereas the poet’s task is “to translate the anything”—in other words, to show things’ true significance, as this excerpt demonstrates: “You think this is freedom, / but it’s a Chinese toy.”
The collection’s topics range from recording the “signs of time” to deeply personal expressions of alienation and quest. In his interview, Gwiazda observes that a poet should “Write against. Write across”—that is, “question established moralities” and “counter passivity and indifference.” Poetry fails (he argues) if it attempts to provide the reader with a “message”; that is, with a piece of an “established morality” or “wisdom.” Instead, poets should “pay attention to the violence that shapes the current global order and acknowledge [their] own complicity with it.” Indeed, the strength of Gwiazda’s poems often lies in their evoking images devoid of any moral categorization. The poet wants the readers to see, while leaving them with the task of drawing their own conclusions, as in the poetic cycle “Three Pieces For Two Hands”:
I’m walking across a parking lot
soon to be replaced
by luxury condominiums.
To the right, a shopping cart.
To the left,
a dead squirrel.
This very brief poem captures the ever-growing encroachment of urban structures onto whatever is left of nature. It bespeaks of social hierarchies (a parking lot juxtaposed to luxury condominiums), and of helplessness or indifference of the lyrical subject who, busy with answering a phone call, ignores what he sees. Another example of such poignant simplicity is the following excerpt from the same cycle: “I’ve never stopped looking for the glove / I lost twenty years ago.”
Here, again, the subject’s sense of loss and nostalgia is expressed with impressive economy. The collection also captures its reader through many graceful metaphors, as for example in the poem “Scenic Décor”:
this tree no longer recognizes itself
in the mirror of our expectations:
now it’s a robot ablaze with intelligence,
now a bad cop, now a mullah
with a glass eye, now a collapsing star,
and now a thing unknown.
The “thing unknown” leads us to another motif reverberating in the collection, namely “people’s right to illusion.” The somewhat self-defeating term “illusion” seems to pertain here to anything beyond “materialistic interpretations” on the one hand and “established moralities” (including the “metaphysics”) on the other. Following Joe Milutis, Gwiazda suggests (in the interview) that the “illusive” should be rather perceived as the “elusive”—the “ether” that is “all over the place” while “that place is nowhere to be found” (qt. from Milutis). This opens endless possibilities at interpreting the world, while the world itself is perceived as wonder—a theme inherent, it seems, in Gwiazda’s poetic epistemology.
Another recurring theme is that of transition, pertaining to the subject’s transfer (immigration) to the U.S. The country of origin remains unnamed; it is depicted as a “colony / with busy airports, its capital burned twice.” Elsewhere, we read about Warsaw as “the city he desperately wants to revisit. / The city he has abandoned” (the poem “Clouds Moving In”). Paradoxically, the poem’s protagonist (“he”) is different than the lyrical subject, who has “never been to Warsaw.” The destination—America—is viewed either from the position of a foreigner or (gradually) by someone who is part of America’s social fabric. In the first instance, America is depicted as a dream: “Before America, there was the idea of America. / We’ve been surprised, deceived”; in the second instance, the subject becomes an insider engaged—again, gradually—in America’s problems: “Topic du jour: torture. Is it good or bad for America. / It certainly makes it tougher, more competitive. / Poetry, on the other hand, makes it softer and more humane.” Finally, the “onlooker” confronts the very essence of identity, language:
Cursed with the burden
to rename all things
to translate language—
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
You ask schoolchildren
what exactly they mean by
basketball, apple, mother.
If anything can be suggested to the readers of this rich, diverse, and very interesting collection, it seems apt to advise that they read the poems first, then the interview (which, sensibly, is placed at the end of the collection). In the interview, Gwiazda speaks as the poet but also as a literary critic. Several of his statements may need more precise definitions and/or further elaboration. Hearing the author’s critical voice enriches the book immensely but if the reading of his poetry comes next, willy-nilly, it becomes a detective’s work. Reading the poems first allows meeting Gwiazda as the “creative persona” (an idea borrowed from Katia Mitova), leaving the encounter with the “created persona” of the literary scholar/critic for dessert.