Tuesday 3 February 2015

A review of Wioletta Greg’s Finite Formulae and Theories of Chance (Arc Publications, 2014)

Brittany Krier reviews Marek Kazmierski's translation of Wioletta Greg's book.

Arc Publications has recently published an English translation of Polish poet and writer Wioletta Greg’s [Grzegorzewska] most recent, two-part collection of poetry and prose, Finite Formulae and Theories of Chance. The longer Part I features 37 poems and Part II, titled ‘Notes from an island’, includes dated journal-type entries, which span between the years 2006 and 2014. Both sections feature the original Polish and translated English side-by-side.

While there is a short biographical note at the back of the edition, given Greg’s numerous accolades and the expansiveness of this collection (and indeed my lack of knowledge of her impressive work), an introduction would have been welcome. However, I was happy to do some additional research. I discovered that Greg has published six volumes of poetry, a novel, and a collection of short prose. Her poems have been featured in Poland’s most prestigious literary magazines and she has won several awards, including the Tyska Zima Poctycka Prize. After earning a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Polish language and literature from Jan Dlugosz University in Czestochowa, she immigrated to the Isle of Wight. The collection has been translated by Marek Kazmierski, a Polish writer, publisher, and translator, who also translated one of Greg’s previous collections of poems, Smena’s Memory, through his indie publishing house, Off_Press.

In terms of content, Greg’s collection details her family’s experiences living in Poland through two world wars, Communist occupation, and subsequent liberation, and it progresses in time to feature her own childhood and adult experiences in Poland, as well as her more recent struggles living in the UK. The collection serves as a historical and personal document that tracks Greg’s rich inheritance of war stories, family trials and tribulations, childhood memories, character traits and flaws, and varied sources of inspiration, which colour the pages of this book. Initially, flipping through the book, the juxtaposition of sentimental poems about her grandparents and her less-structured personal prose pieces seemed unusual; however, it became clear that Greg’s collection is all about in-betweens and each piece connects to the subsequent piece, maturing as time creeps forward. The collection is meant to be read from beginning to end if you are to grasp the spirit and life of the poet. Her poems often begin in medias res, emulating a feeling of motion and indicating the force of time that propels them. They often encapsulate singular moments, which are brief and lap into the next like a wave.

In many of the earlier poems, Greg focuses on her grandparents and parents. She has an incredible ability to zoom in on a single moment or event, which is often indicated in the title, but pans out to contextualise that moment historically and personally in both the past and future. As the collection progresses through time, her poems which encapsulate her childhood experiences are filled with attentive observations of her surroundings and they ooze with nostalgia. I appreciated the simplicity and tenderness with which she treats her reimagined childhood moments such as sliding down a snowy hill and digging up onions for ‘near-worthless’ money. I felt a distinctive shift in the tone of the collection when it reaches her coming of age, particularly in her poem so aptly titled ‘Spring, 1986’, in which the speaker becomes aware of her body and sexuality. The maturity of the poet manifests itself in the revelation of deeper observations about her relationships, particularly with her father. In these poems nostalgia is tainted by the passing of time and renders a sombre yet perceptive sense of personal truth.

This was most evident in the poem ‘Swimming Lessons’ in which Greg highlights the irony of her father’s instructive statement ‘Only the strong survive’, while teaching her to swim on a lake at which, years later, he would suffer a heart attack and die. The irony is stretched further by the fact that Greg later moves to an island and lives by the sea in which she metaphorically finds herself unable to swim. The poem closes with ‘I drown and rise again’, beautifully exposing her resilient spirit which reverberates throughout the collection. Greg is able to pack a punch and make connections between layers of her past and present in very few words, demonstrating that concision is certainly an art form.

Greg’s prose pieces in ‘Notes from an island’ are much more provocative and certainly more emotional, as they are written from the perspective of a foreigner, or a ‘pale alien’, who feels ‘halved’. These pieces are also more confessional, autobiographical, and seem almost therapeutic, as she reveals her part-comedic, part-tragic struggles with the English language, with being a mother, and with being between jobs. Greg captures seeming ordinary yet beautifully humbling moments such as her daughter comforting a spider and a man taking pictures of hatching eggs for his dying wife.

Overall, her poems, particularly the earlier ones, are more reserved and almost sacrosanct, given the sensitivity required in preserving one’s past and the specificity of certain memories. Her prose, while also clearly thought-out, feels more in-the-moment and is less structured. The two-part poetry/prose structure of the collection parallels the movement of Greg’s life from her home in Poland to the unfamiliar Isle of Wight. In one of her prose pieces (dated 30.06.2011) she details her new-found struggle with poetry after having been deeply immersed in it her entire life. Marek’s translation brilliantly reads that she is ‘infected with Polish poetry’ and it has therefore become a disease rather than a delight. Perhaps I am reading too deeply, but her switch to writing prose (at least in the collection) seems a by-product of the fragmentary feeling of living ‘between worlds’, ‘right on the edge of everything’ and prose offers her the ability to represent her experiences as such. Yet, some of her prose pieces read like poetry and indeed many of her poems read like prose. She has an incredible ability to linger in between the worlds of poetry and prose, Poland and England, and the past and the present, making the unfamiliar seem familiar and the familiar seem foreign. This unique collection has the feel of a story and is an enjoyable, thought-provoking read.

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