The publication of his book Mother Departs, translated into English language by Barbara Bogoczek, edited and introduced by Tony Howard served as the catalyst for the event, which exceeded all expectations. As a British, or to be more precise London-based Pole, with a variety of references, fortunes and misfortunes closely resembling those of Różewicz, I found the evening deeply moving.
A short but incisive introduction by Sophie Mayer, a writer, was followed by George Szirtes, the fellow poet and an admirer of Różewicz, who added his point of view enhancing my anticipation of things to come. Four comfortable armchairs filled one by one with performers delivering extrats form Różewicz’ work. Tom Paulin, Oxford-based Irish poet and Kathy Carr, a singer and performer of Polish extraction read in English and Jan Peszek, one of the most important theatre actors, and his daughter Maria, read in Polish.
The stage was set for the treat I shall remember probably for ever.
The view of the stage was dominated by a projection screen with a static image of a beautiful photograph used for the jacket of the book.
It shows Tadeusz Różewicz, a good looking young man in his mid-twenties, and his mother modestly at his side, half a step behind her son, her pride and joy. Her face clearly expresses the unconditional love that only mothers have in abundance. The photograph was surely taken in the month of May as the apple tree blossom bejewels the picture, freezing a moment of mutual happiness that at that time was theirs to share but by the time Różewicz wrote his book Mother departs was gone and lost for ever. It was this loss and – more to the point – this process of losing that Różewicz was trying to come to terms with.
I found myself squinting and substituting in my mind the image of the poet’s mother with the image of my own mother, a woman of near identical background whom I lost recently. Both women had similar features, hair styles and both liked wearing similar dresses made of soft printed fabric. Listening to the poems I was catapulted to the village of my childhood, near Kalisz – not so very far from where Różewicz was born. Admittedly we grew up in different times. His life has been determined by the time of war, and I have lived in an uneasy post-war peace. Many families had to come to terms with the terrible losses of loved ones who perished in the conflict and in extermination camps. Photographs of young lives abruptly extinguished remain in the hearts of many who have moved on, often suppressing the painful past as an act of self preservation, an act of looking to the better future.
But the apple blossom, which adorns the cover is not an accurate reflection of his vision. The existential questions that he examines are poignantly brought to the fore by his mother's slow death, and by the acute awareness that his war was not the last, that an era of peace did not follow the great sacrifices endured by his contemporaries.
In a bizarre coincidence we have gathered at Purcell Rom only a few days after a man was hacked to death by a fellow man on a London street. The poem In the midst of life..., written in 1955, asks a question: “what is the knife for” that lays on the table? Różewicz’s answers are simple observations which he lists starkly and dispassionately: for cutting bread, but also for cutting off heads, hands, breasts and other mutilations inflicted by one man against another, by nations against other nations and I would add a metaphoric knife designed to cut off the free and thinking mind through all-too common brain washing. Różewicz is not preaching, he is merely stating, but he implicitly sounds a warning note. He is speaking to us directly in numerous fragments of a documentary film projected onto the screen and punctuating the reading of poems adding his valedictory voice.
The war experience evidently simmers much more in the geographic area of Europe where it began, and where the noble and strenuous efforts to build a European Union free of war have been endangered by the rise of right-wing nationalists. But the work of poets such as Tadeusz Różewicz, Leopold Staff and Julian Tuwim deserves a wide audience because their experience is a lesson to us all.
The organisers of the Różewicz evening – The Southbank Centre, the Polish Cultural Institute and the publisher Stork Press deserve our grateful thanks, as do the many translators of Eastern European literature into English. Among them are George Szirtes, Barbara Bogoczek, Adam Czerniawski and George Gömöri to name but a few.