Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Ruth Foley reads “Sea Monsters” by Tomasz Różycki.
Ruth, this is a wonderful poem. How did you come across the work of Różycki? Do you read a lot of translation work?
Ruth: I don’t actually read much in translation, but I probably should. I’m always worried that something will be lost if it’s a language I’m not at least a little familiar with, and I don’t have a clue about these poems in the original Polish. This poem is part of Różycki’s collection Colonies, which is one long sonnet cycle. The poems build and weave and I really had never read anything else like it. Also, I want to give a shout-out to his translator, Mira Rosenthal, because I get no feelings of removal or distance from these poems, as I sometimes do with translated poems, and so I think she must have super powers.
Last year, one of my core poet friends brought some of Różycki’s poems to an annual conference we both attend, as part of a talk she was giving. I had never heard of him, but when I got home I read through her handout again and kept coming back to his poems. I memorized this one, and a handful of others, because I wanted them in my head and in my mouth, if that makes any sense. I spoke them out loud over and over as I was memorizing them, and each repetition brought me something new.
Colonies is one of those books that I should own multiple copies of. I’ve loaned it to a few friends and I always miss it when it’s gone. Is that weird? I should just buy another one. It’s also maybe a little weird that it became so essential to me as a poet so quickly, but Różycki writes of loss, longing, damage, and displacement in a way that takes me over.
Chris: Haha I don’t think missing books is weird at all! Sometimes I picture my own books as pets—they’re very near and dear. What do you think it is about Różycki’s writing that makes it so powerful and appealing?
Ruth: For me, it’s a mixture of things that make this poem, and this book, so powerful. There’s the building and weaving I mentioned above, but there’s much, much more. “Sea Monsters” is typical of the poems in the book in that you can track the sonic shifts. Just look at the lines “Just past tank glass, in silent film, in dream, / the sea’s strange creatures bask. I ask them riddles,” or rather, don’t just look at them; read them out loud. They’re lovely, aren’t they? And yet, the sounds are fairly harsh, with all those hard “a”s and “c”s. Różycki softens them up with the “s” sounds, and the long “e”s, and I can’t for the life of me figure out how it’s not all too much. But it doesn’t feel overwrought to me, and part of that, I think, is that the language is deceptively simple, especially before the volta (which, since you can’t see it, I’ll tell you comes exactly where it’s expected, after the second quatrain, where he writes, “And me?”). In those first eight lines, there’s exactly one three-syllable word, “hypnotized.” Then after the turn, the language gets a little fancier, the words get a little longer, but it still isn’t terribly complicated diction. I love that pull of sound and rhythm.
And then, of course, he asks a question in the first line and doesn’t answer it until the last word. The whole poem is building toward that “No,” and when I get there, it’s like a small stone has moved into my gut. There’s a little heaviness there, more than a little sadness. Of course the answer is no—else why the sea monsters moving toward us through the fog?—but the first time I read this poem it never occurred to me that his opening question was anything but rhetorical. I love that surprise. I hesitate to say more because part of the joy of Różycki’s poems for me is discovery, but there are issues of place and displacement, the political, my own obsession with the sea…I could go on and on.
Chris: You mentioned this poem being part of a sonnet cycle. Is form something that your usually drawn to? Is the form of “Sea Monsters” something that contributes to its essentiality?
Ruth: I beat you to the punch up there in terms of the essentiality part! And yes, I love truly well-written formal poetry. My own roots are with formalists and poets who, if not formalists, are comfortable with form, and I still write a lot of formal verse. Even my free verse poems don’t escape my formal background, and I don’t want them to. I read and enjoy all sorts of poetry, though, and I make it a point to see what I can learn from poets writing in very different ways from those I’m naturally drawn to.
Chris: You mentioned obsessions earlier. Does Różycki write about the sea and use the sea monster image elsewhere in Colonies? Also, there’s a strange tone in this poem—almost as if the narrator is contemplating not only their existence, but their right to be in the place in which they are travelling. What do you make of the narrator’s constant questioning?
Ruth: He does use sea imagery in other places—I’m thinking of his poem “Land!” which has sailors approaching an island—but often the monster is us, the damage we can do to other people. I’m sure the fact that he’s in Poland, with its rich history of political poetry and the troubling need for that poetry, has something to do with that. I suspect that history also influences his theme of displacement. He doesn’t only ask if the people in his poems belong where they are, but if they belong anywhere at all, if it is even possible to belong. He writes about place as a physical, literal space but also as what it means for us as people, our relationships to the places we inhabit, our place in the place if you will. Time is a part of this as well—the past in particular—and what we leave behind. Time becomes an almost corporeal being, with a place and attitude of its own. Such great stuff.
Chris: Have you read Różycki’s other books and does he employ the use of forms beyond the sonnet? Also, how do you see formal verse manifesting itself in contemporary poetry? Are there writers that are writing especially exciting formal poetry?
Ruth: I own Twelve Stations, which is an epic poem (translated by Bill Johnston), but I’m holding out until the semester ends and I can devote proper attention to it. I know just from its form that it’s going to involve the travel of the quest, and I’m dying to read it.
As for formal contemporary poetry…that’s a more difficult question than it might seem. A.E. Stallings is a favorite of mine, and Molly Peacock does formal work that I quite admire. Finally, Laurie Ann Guerrero’s book A Crown for Gumecindo is a heroic crown of sonnets combined with some other writing, and that’s at the top of my reading list for the end of the semester, too. I often find myself going back to older poets—Bishop, obviously, and Auden and Yeats, but also Thom Gunn (whom nobody seems to know as well as they should if you ask me). I find myself wary to name anyone: the term “formalist” or “new formalist” can carry some pretty heavy baggage with it, and I’m aware that even though I don’t look at formal poetry as stodgy or constrained, a lot of people do. I know poets who find use of end rhyme insulting on its own, and all we need to do is take a look at how many submission guidelines prohibit rhyme of any kind to know that there’s an issue.
I think the issue is that there is a lot of disappointing formal poetry out there. There’s also a lot of disappointing free verse poetry out there, but it’s so much more convenient to label formal verse—it’s easy to recognize, and thus easy to dismiss it all. But my favorite contemporary formal poems—like the Różycki poems, for example—take a form and make it so essential to the poem itself that the poem simply has to be formal, there’s no other choice. Really, I think all poems should do that, but it’s a ridiculously high standard!
Ruth Foley lives in Massachusetts, where she teaches English for Wheaton College. Her work appears in numerous web and print journals, including Adroit, Sou’wester, and Valparaiso Poetry Review. Her poems can also be found in several anthologies, including the Best Indie Lit New England anthology. She is the author of the chapbooks Dear Turquoise and Creature Feature, the forthcoming chapbook Sink and Drift,and the full-length collection Dead Man’s Float (forthcoming from ELJ). She serves as Managing Editor for Cider Press Review.
Chris Petruccelli is still hanging out in Fairbanks, Alaska. He survived the winter, but is now facing off against eternal daylight. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Appalachian Heritage, Connotation Press, Still: The Journal, Nashville Review and elsewhere. In his free time Chris enjoys drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes with older women.