October 2008

Andrew Wessels


I Wrote Stone by Ryszard Kapuściński, translated by Diana Kuprel and Marek Kusiba

As Ryszard Kapuściński’s latest journalistic work, the posthumous book The Other, hits bookstores, it is perhaps time to glance again at a small book that came out just a few months ago to slightly less fanfare. It should be unsurprising to devotees of Kapuściński that such a poetic journalist also pursued a secondary career in poetry. His very first publication, in fact, in 1968, was a poem in a Polish literary journal. But until recently, his poems were virtually entirely unknown in the English-speaking world.

However, now there is a selection of poems, translated by Diana Kuprel and Marek Kusiba, drawing from Kapuściński’s two books published in Poland, Notes from 1986 and Prawa natury from 2006, as well as the poems written in the final months of his life as he succumbed to cancer in 2007. So now Kapuściński can finally join the rest of his brethren in what seems to be the natural place for Polish writers of the 20th century as poets.

It is only natural to begin reading his poems as a companion to his other works, a space beneath his journalistic texts where he is allowed to meditate and enter into a different dialogue with the questions of meaning and death. Beyond merely documenting, Kapuściński connects with the question of destiny, and beyond that with knowledge:

On a plane to Luanda
a young soldier
lies on a stretcher

that morning a bullet shattered his skull

an IV hangs from a hook
the man tosses
he’s delirious

perhaps he’s relating what happened

we never found out
where he flew to

in the end

One senses the almost welling up of frustration in the middle of this poem, perhaps the soldier is trying to pass his story on, but that almost-frustration passes quickly as the plane leaves the poet’s sight, his death inevitable anyway, his story unable to change what had already happened or even, perhaps, what will happen.

For all the weight of the poems, Kapuściński resists moving into a confessional realm or into an easy, pandering rebuttal of what he realizes are more complicated issues. Although he is closer here to his subject than in his journalistic works, he still retains the distance taught in his primary discipline, creating an unbiased voice that in its level-headedness is able to burrow deep into the subject matter and into the mind of the reader. Where in a piece of journalism the soldier above would merely be a passing moment to personalize and compartmentalize the greater conflict, in this poem instead the greater conflict becomes secondary to the moment of the personal.

In the second section, The Laws of Nature, the poems introduces an exploration of chanting and litanies as it searches for a medium that can be effectively penetrate into the depths of the rules of the game of the world:

I wrote stone
I wrote house
I wrote town

I shattered the stone
I demolished the house
I obliterated the town

the page traces the struggles
between creation
and annihilation

In this poem, which provides the book’s title, there is a convergence of Kapuściński’s journalistic career, his attempts at poetry, and the atrocities he has witnessed at every turn in his life. The relative ease with which Kapuściński can create a stone or a town by merely writing the word "stone" or "town," and then simultaneously destroy it either by deleting it, throwing away the page, or adding the word "shattered" or "obliterated" mimics the ease with which many politicians and governments can create or eradicate a real town with the same nonchalance and ease.

Kapuściński seems almost overburdened with the weight of death and destruction he has witnessed, and these atrocities are certainly palpable in his verse. His journalism was one outlet to express the atrocities and difficulties of the world, but the distance from the subject inherent in journalism seems to have left some lingering need for expression.

In the final section of the book the focus of the poems shift from the variety of world-scenes previously to the author himself, and more specifically his battle with cancer at the end of his life:

I did not want to see daylight
only darkness.
I shut my eyes
so not a single ray
would penetrate,
so I would not see
the emptiness everywhere,
from the unseen beginning
to the unseen end.

Even faced with his oncoming death, a swift bout with cancer, Kapuściński could not help but retain his tone or reportage. He touches upon the great fear of death with a surprisingly unbiased touch even as the lines are imbued with emotion by the reader, who knows the inevitability and is faced with a posthumous message from beyond.

I Wrote Stone by Ryszard Kapuściński, translated by Diana Kuprel and Marek Kusiba
ISBN: 978-1897231371
96 Pages