Tadeusz Różewicz was born in 1921 in Radomsko. During WWII he was in the resistance, like his brother who was murdered by the Gestapo in 1944. He is undoubtedly the most significant living Polish author. – poet, playwright, prose writer – and according to Tom Paulin “a great anti-poet who succeeded in writing poetry after Auschwitz”. Różewicz’s works have been translated into over forty languages. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 2000 he was awarded the Nike Prize, the Polish equivalent of the Booker. In 2007 he received the European Prize for Literature. Critics and authors abroad consider him ”one of the great European poets of the twentieth” (Seamus Heaney). ”The last living truly great Polish poet” – wrote James Hopkin in the Guardian.
An encounter with the work as well as the person of Tadeusz Różewicz brings back memories. My first encounter – at school – was connected with the syllabus, when amongst the set texts we discussed a play with the intriguing title The Old Woman Broods. At first it caused surprise, soon replaced by reflection. The work dealt with the disasters of the war, its dramatic consequences, the rubbish heap of today’s civilisation, as well as... an old woman. A woman often interpreted as Mother Earth, Mother Nature, Mother Death, who becomes the only permanent point of reference – hope – in a devastated and disturbed world.
The poet introduces formal experiments; there’s the visible influence of the French avantgarde. But Różewicz’s drama differs from the Theatre of the Absurd of Eugene Ionesco or Samuel Becket; what’s noticeable is Polish emotiveness and the author’s personal voice. As a result – the Open Theatre is born, where the drama has no beginning or end and the work is made out of arbitrary narrative fragments like a visual arts collage. The dominant form is the grotesque, expressing the futility of individual existence; there are contrasting aesthetic constructions which startle us with their changing moods – from pathos to triviality. The simple, laconic form of Różewicz’s works – which maintain a tone of calm while at the same time presenting an apocalypse, the fall of culture, civilisation and values – is overwhelming.
Many years later, in 2001, I had an opportunity to talk to the poet personally in London during the festival celebrating his work. At the White Bear Theatre, the Brit-Pol theatre company presented The Card Index. The inaugurating event was the launch of Różewicz’s book recycling, published by ARC Publications. The poem tells the tale of a contemporary civilisation where ideas, fallen politicians and perverse bankers are all intertwined. There are English motifs too – Tony Blair and Prince Charles, Dolly the sheep and Mad Cow Disease. It is hard-hitting poetic journalism that does not shy away from savaging the weakest points of our social systems.
In the Guardian James Hopkin quoted Tadeusz Różewicz as saying: ”(...) one of the German publishers refused to publish it, saying poetry about beef is not interesting. I told my translator not to send it to any publishers but to politicians, farmers, and even to the cows themselves”.
Quietly, with a sense of humour and irony, the poet in a modest grey suit recalled memories from various international literary festivals in remote parts of the world that he had the honour to take part in. He named a galaxy of poets, including Pablo Neruda, Allen Ginsberg… He remembered places and people, emphasising: ”a cortege of deceased colleagues keep me company all the time (…). The cortege of departing Polish authors is also growing (…). I’m not talking about funerals but a generational changeover (…”. The frame round the conversation was the poet’s memory of his first visit to London scores of years ago. It was during a festival that – as Różewicz put it – took place in a building made of concrete. He must have meant the Royal Festival Hall. He added that a London reviewer focused on describing his oversized shoes and trousers that were too wide… However, he remembered with nostalgia and approval a literary festival in Macedonia which was accompanied by Homeric settings and poets reading verses on bridges and in monasteries.
Now years later London is offering another encounter with Różewicz’s work. His book Mother Departs (Matka odchodzi, 1999) has just come out in the UK. The English edition, translated by Barbara Bogoczek, has been published by Stork Press and it was launched at Purcell Room on 25 May 2013. Barbara Bogoczek (aka Basia Howard) is a translator and interpreter based in London. She began translating when she was a student in Wrocław in the 1980s, with the cult New Orleans novel A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (published by Wydawnictwo Dolnośląskie, and later reissued by Świat Książki). Since moving to the UK she has worked closely with the poet Ewa Lipska, translating three collections of poetry and – most recently – Lipska’s extraordinary novel Sefer (AU Press, 2012). She has also had a strong working relationship with Tadeusz Różewicz, publishing his poetry and drama. These translations were collaborations with Tony Howard, with whom Barbara has also translated the work of Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska (Wydawnictwo Literackie) and other Polish poets. She often works in theatre, e.g. co-adapting Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita (Menier Chocolate Factory), and with the Polish Cultural Institute.
Mother Departs describes the life of the poet and his mother, Stefania, and is perhaps his most personal work. Mother – a symbol of continuity, family closeness, tradition, the place of origin, the mother tongue. This book is an exceptional combination of poetry and prose. It talks about the joy of life and the agony of departure; creates rich and complex portraits of a mother and a son and demonstrates their dynamic, crucial relationships. Różewicz creates a portrait of life and relationships which can be brutal but also subversive, provocative in its apparent naivety. The work is interwoven with fragments of diaries, stories and notes.
For a long time in post-war Poland – despite strong family bonds – the word ”mother” constituted an area of neglect and absence in the social consciousness. Years later, the poet regrets and openly wonders why he never fufilled the simplest – it would seem – promises, such as a visit to Kraków, an outing together to a cafe. He failed to make the small gestures life is made of. He asks the question: why did they elude him? Tadeusz Różewicz’s generation could not talk about feelings. Battered by the war they stepped into a new, unknown era of ”rebuilding and building the new”. The ”new” required them to reject the values observed by the previous generations; it demanded they look to the future. While the past was often too traumatic to return to it. The European existential movements attracted Polish artists too, offered similar values. Perhaps the world without tradition seemed easier to accept, it attracted them – stereotypes, patterns, set modes of behaviour were dropped. Perhaps that’s why the poet’s confession – his farewell to his mother – becomes symbolically also a generational settlement with an era. Subconsciously, in spite of innovation and the avantgarde, he consistently returns to and describes the simplest feelings. The noticeable dualism of these pieces constitutes their strength. The poet has de-mythologised and restored the meaning of the word ”mother”. Gave it a simple, emotional dimension.
Translated by Basia Howard