A Reading of Ashes: Poems (Odczytanie Popiolów)

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A READING OF ASHES: POEMS (Odczytanie popiołów)

Poems by Jerzy Ficowski, 1981

A Reading of Ashes: Poems (Odczytanie popiołów) , which was first published in London (1979) and then reprinted in Warsaw (1983), with an English translation published in 1981, is in its entirety devoted to the Holocaust experience. After many years Ficowski takes up the issue of the crime committed on the Jewish people, particularly emphasizing the need for compassion, the ethical precept of perpetuating the sufferings, the issues of faithful memories, and the protest against lies and against the deliberate concealment of the tragedy. In A Reading of Ashes the author tries to reconcile three different approaches to the problem: the authentic documents in the form of excerpts from books quoted in extenso, voices, and testimonies, the personal experience taking the form of lyrical tales, and the rich language of images, metaphors, and rhetoric figures. Very moving is the force of the facts that cannot be replaced with a poetic comment. The impression of veracity is achieved through the exposed connection between the childhood biography and the Holocaust history. On the other hand, the high quality art of poetry does not serve the purpose of presenting artistic proficiency. It precisely expresses the truth, reveals inhuman cruelty, diversifies the spectrum of psychical perceptions, and, through a number of literary and cultural references, gives universal significance to the described facts.

In Ficowski's collection the obligation of remembrance expresses a paradox, since the speaker wishes his testimony to "be on time even if late." History is a closed chapter. The Shoah cannot be reversed. The rescuing power of the word can also be doubted. And yet the moving study of emptiness, as well as of moping about the nonexistent cemeteries, has a deep moral sense. In A Reading of Ashes the motif of absence is symmetrical to the oblivion motif. The lack of traces of the murdered and the silence over their fate are combined into one through the images of a desert ("Co jest" ["What Is There"]; "List do Marc Chagalla" ["A Letter to Marc Chagall"]), wind and air ("Do Jeruszalaim" ["To Jerushalaim"]; "Opłakiwanie" ["Mourning"]; "Diagnozy" ["Diagnoses"]), and snow and ashes ("Wniebowzięcie Miriam z ulicy zima 1942" ["Assumption of Miriam of the Street Winter 1942"]; "5.VIII.1942"). Since people tend to forget too quickly, nature mourns the murdered nation: "a stone says the Kaddish" ("Zbiegowisko kamieni" ["A Gathering of Stones"]). In the discussed volume empathy is particularly significant. It is the understanding of psychical experience—of pain, fear, and humiliation—but also the penetration into the nature of physical experience of the body. In a series of suggestive images Ficowski describes the history of the people who "were allowed to be just a little" ("A Letter to Marc Chagall"). The reduction of the bodily existence means not only a live death ("Epitafium żywcem zmarłego" ["An Epitaph for the Dead Alive"]) but also an awakening to the new existence outside the horror of the ghetto ("Twoje matki obie" ["Your Both Mothers"]). The poet is particularly sensitive to the sufferings of the Holocaust children. Their behavior and words build up an unquestioned testimony of the truth and the accusation of an innocent victim reveals the crime in its utmost form. ("5.VIII.1942"; "Sześcioletnia z getta zebrząca na Smolnej 1942 roku" ["A Six-Year-Old from the Ghetto Begging in Ul. Smolna in 1942"]; "Siedem słów" ["Seven Words"]). Parallel to the stories of people the drama of spiritual and material culture develops. There is no one to read the holy words of the Scriptures, and Jehovah will no longer speak from the books that are now dead and abandoned ("Pismo umarłego cmentarza" ["The Writing of a Dead Cemetery"]; "Księga" ["A Book"]). In Ficowski's poetry the moral judgment of the desensitized conscience of the Poles and of their inglorious behaviors is extended beyond the time of the war.

In A Reading of Ashes there are a number of references to the lamentations of the Old Testament prophets as well as to religion and images of Jewish culture. In his wailing the poet resorts to the traditions of such genres as an epitaph, a threnody, and an elegy. Ficowski's subtle imagination draws inspiration from Chagall's painting, though seeing graves in the air reveals some affinities to Henryk Grynberg 's poetry. In "Opłakiwanie" ("Mourning") he conducts a dialogue with Czeslaw Milosz 's "Campo di Fiore." In the poem entitled "Diagnoses" he uses a cryptic quotation from Wislawa Szymborska's poem "Jeszcze" ("Still"). And although the author of A Reading of Ashes does not epitomize the poetic language of that Polish Nobel Prize winner, we can point to their common artistic property, which involves conceptualism, paradoxes, and the difficult-to-translate language games consisting in the transformation of set phrases.

—Wojciech Ligęza

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A Reading of Ashes: Poems (Odczytanie Popiolów)

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