Edinburgh is a beautiful city that loves the arts, including poetry, so it is not strange that Polish poets like to come here and give readings. I am myself fond of poetry and poets, so armed with my favourite phrase, Tylko trochę mówie po polsku, I have gone to two Polish poetry readings so far. The first was by Jacek Dehnel of Warsaw and the second by Tadeusz Dąbrowski of Gdansk.
I haven't had to trot out my favourite phrase because both Dehnel and Dąbrowski gave bilingual readings. Dehnel's was in the upper floor of the Scottish Poetry Library in June and Dąbrowski's in Edinburgh's most leftist bookshop this past Tuesday.
I could not believe how leftist this bookshop was. There was a T-shirt featuring Stalin in one of the windows and under it a T-shirt reading "CCCP." The shelves were crammed with books on politics, the environment, homosexuality, feminism, radicalism and Islam. Oh, yes: Islam. About three feet away from a cheeky postcard asking "If we are made in the image of God, why aren't we invisible?" was a children's book called My Visit to a Mosque.
As it happens, this bookstore is very close to a mosque, but also to the University of Edinburgh, which may explain why it looks so rich and confident in a city that is more Alexander McCall Smith meets Trainspotting than Lenin meets Trotsky. Although I once frequented feminist bookshops in Ontario, I felt very intimidated by all the leftist stuff for sale, including the Cuban cigar box full of postcards starring Che Guevara.
However, my desire to hear Polish poetry kept me in the shop, and I soon found a seat between rows of books. At my elbow were Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great and ex-Christian Anglican ex-bishop Richard Holloway's Leaving Alexandria, and Introduction to Islam was snuggled underneath them. At the podium was the Polish poet Dąbrowski, looking tense, as well he might, there being only two people in the seats.
But all the seats filled up at the last minute, and we all, Poles and non-Poles, stared expectantly at the man in the grey jacket, blue dress shirt and black trousers. He had bags under his eyes, probably from rushing around the Edinburgh Festival late at night, and seemed nervous of his reception. His poetry is by turns pornographic and religious, he explained. "I am not sure if I should start with pornographic or religious."
He gazed at the audience as if trying to determine which would be less offensive and, correctly for artsy Edinburgh, decided to go with porn. His first poem, "Fragmenty dyskursu miłosnego", was influenced by Roland Barthes' A Lover's Discourse, which I have read. A Lover's Discourse is not pornographic, although "Fragmenty" certainly is.
Porn at poetry readings is nothing new to me, for I have been to a lot of poetry readings and Spoken Word performances in my time, and poets seem more obsessed with sex than anyone else, which is really saying something. What was novel, however, was this poet's ambivalence towards his own porn. Usually poets say the most frightful things bracketed only by cocky grins and self-satisfied chuckles. Dąbrowski, however, muttered semi-apologies for the sexual themes.
"My mother does not want after this poem to talk to me anymore," he said. And, less coherently, "Women don't want to see me anymore... I don't know... My mother...Women don't want to see me anymore."
Why this angst? I wondered silently from my place in the leftist bookshop between a Polish stranger and God is Not Great. Where is this sense of sexual modesty and prudence coming from? Skąd? Co to jest? Dlaczego? Kto to jest?
I had a clue when he read "wierzę przez całą dobę", which was explicitly theist, but when Dąbrowski got the woman translator to read the English of his "Druga część prawdy", as a nervous experiment of whether or not a Western audience could understand his work, light dawned: he is (or a big part of him is) a Catholic. (Click link to see for yourself.)
Now, I must apologize to Dąbrowski for this. I fully realize what a terrible thing it can be to identify a writer as a Catholic because "Catholic writer" can become a horrible cage, like a cage in an old-fashioned zoo, encouraging both Catholics and anti-Catholics to poke at the writer through the bars with sticks.
But it can be a very, very lonely thing in the West to be a Catholic artist of any kind. In the West the majority of church-going Catholics (who, in the West, are a minority of Catholics) seem to be at war with artists, and artists with them. As a Catholic at Spoken Word events in Canada, I heard the most frightful rubbish being spouted by ignorant non-Catholics and angry ex-Catholics about Catholics, priests, God. As a Catholic at Spoken Word events, I never met another Catholic who would admit to being one. (Women I met there who went to my famous Catholic all-girls' school would acknowledge this only in whispers, so as not to offend gay friends or whomever.) And as a Catholic reading contemporary poetry (good contemporary poetry), I never see a Catholic conscience. Never, never, never*.
Until yesterday. Because yesterday I read "Pranie brudnych pieniędzy" and became a big Tadeusz Dąbrowski fan. It hurt my Catholic conscience very much to give the leftist lady at the leftist cash register my capitalist oppressor Visa card to buy Black Square, but I am very glad I did. Now I feel less lonely as a writer trying to write with God's existence in mind and as a Catholic trying to write truthfully about the whole of lived experience.
After reading more of the poems--a slow business, as I am trying to read the Polish first--I am puzzled as to why Dąbrowski characterized his work as "pornographic." So far only the first poem is pornographic; his other poems treating on sexual themes I have read so far I would describe instead as "erotic". And some of the erotic poems are simply love poems. I opened the book at "Orfeusz i Eurydyk," and was strongly reminded of Zbigniew Herbert.
*Well, almost never. I have just remembered two acclaimed contemporary Canadian poets who are Catholics. They were born before 1965, however.
Dorothy Cummings McLean is a Canadian writer living in Scotland. She recently published a book called "The Closet's All Mine!" (Liguori, 2010). In Canada and the rest of the British Commonwealth, it's called "Seraphic Singles" (Novalis, 2010). In Poland, it's called "Anielskie Single" (Homo Dei, 2011).
She has just enrolled in Polish 2.1 at the University of Edinburgh
Cramond jest maleńkim miasteczkiem leżącym na południowym brzegu rzeki Forth, zaledwie 4 mile na wschód od centrum Edynburga. Już pod koniec XIXw miejscowość ta została dostrzeżona jako miejsce szczególnie atrakcyjne turystycznie...