Piotr Gwiazda, Aspects of Strangers, Moria Books, Chicago 2015, ISBN 978-0-9888628-3-8 86 pages $12.95
Where the unit of Hiram Larew’s poetry is the word and the image, Piotr Gwiazda’s is the phrase, the thought, the idea. If you are a reader that wants a nice tidy form, everything tucked in, hospital corners for the poetic blanket, you will not find it in this poet’s work. Gwiazda’s work is as sprawling and contradictory as real life. He is a maximalist. However, this book isn’t wild unruly stream-of-consciousness. It is as calculated as a sonnet but the playing field is often a paragraph of prose-poetry.
There are three sections of the book. The first is the book’s title, Aspects of Strangers . This first part is a long poem in itself that examines alienation. It opens to a page with four two-line stanzas and much blank space or silence on the page. Thus we have:
You see their other faces.
You hear their other voices.
You pass them in the airport
Or the subway station
Or any street and plaza…
Are you a part of them?
Your face gives you away.
Your voice denies you.
Then a large expanse of white frames these eight lines. The lines are seemingly direct. There are no esoteric words or allusions. There is nothing exotic described here though these lines are kin to Ezra Pound’s In A Station Of The Metro:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Pound captures a sensory perception, turns it into poetry with a metaphor. Gwiazda captures an emotional perception, the feeling of the alien one, the one that doesn’t fit in this crowd. “Other faces” , “Other voices” . Already the narrator looks on as an outsider. This stranger who is asking whether the “you” if he or she is a stranger too. Perhaps he is asking himself? This is a moment of self-consciousness in every sense of the word. Is the person’s face darker, lighter, the eyes, the nose, somehow different? And there must be an accent or the very act of questioning whether “you” belong separates the speaker and perhaps also the one addressed. Self-conscious? Who is asked “Are you a part of them?” The reader of the book?
Each page advances uneasy perceptions. The reader is uncomfortable being an alien but as the poem progresses page after page there is a feeling that he or she doesn’t want to be a part of them, but begins to feel that he is. He recognizes the faults, the object of the satire. The poem is satire, a quiet critical look at a country of strange people, the strangers of the title. Or is the observer the stranger? However, Gwiazda does chuckle at times. Look at this prose poem that occupies its own page.
They are uncomfortable with the idea of indeterminacy
Because it increases their irritability. They have explained
Their origins, mastered the vast ocean. They hang their
Paintings upside down (one shows a boat on the horizon,
Or just below). They are estranged from their statues.
The poem is not dry angst-ridden, depressive pounding away at a theme. Though much of the writing appears direct, there are many non sequiturs and tangents that make the reader halt. What is going on? The poem captures the irrational, the contradictory, the absurdity, not to just criticize this society of strangers but to marvel at it as well. Here is a paragraph that shows this.
They believe in the transmigration of souls, especially
Animal souls. They protect their eyes from the sun (they
Are afraid of the sun). You can easily mistake them for
Robots. Don’t tamper with their systems. Beware of their
Hands and of their little sharp fingernails.
The poem throughout is woven with surprises. The closing eight lines of this poem sum up the many observations the poet makes.
Proportion is anathema to them.
Perfection is catastrophe to them.
The absolute is relative to them.
They maintain equilibrium.
The future is unknown to them.
Their destiny is unfair to them.
Their solitude is poetic to them.
They embrace contradiction.
And we as readers should embrace the many enlightening contradictions that are artfully presented.
The second section is Ozone which the author describes as “part dystopian vision.” It contains some magnificent lines like these:
An eyelash, a stray comma, on the pillow
From an unfinished dream, an unfinished reality
Words too far in the past to know what they mean
The final section is Moral Commerce which Gwiazda describes as a poet-critic’s journal. Here is a sample:
Chances of being in a plane crash are infinitesimally
Small, yet almost every day a plane crashes somewhere in
The world. In most aviation accidents, a number of things
Have to go wrong. Until the final report comes in, we
Shouldn’t jump to any conclusions. Then the flight
Attendants started chanting: “Brace! Brace!”
© Dan Cuddy and Piotr Gwiazda
Piotr Gwiazda is the author of two previous books of poetry, Gagarin Street (2005) and Messages (2012). He has also published two critical studies, James Merrill and W. H. Auden (2007) and U.S. Poetry in the Age of Empire, 1979-2012 (2014). His translation of Grzegorz Wróblewski’s Kopenhaga appeared in 2013. He teaches at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC).
Dan Cuddy is an editor of Loch Raven Review. Previously he was a contributing editor with the Maryland Poetry Review and with Lite: Baltimore’s Literary Newspaper. He has been published in many small magazines over the years, such as NEBO, Antioch Review, Connecticut River Review. In 2003 his book of poems Handprint On The Window was published by Three Conditions Press.
Postscript: In Scroll.in, Adam Zdrodowski highlighted Aspects of Strangers as one of “Six books of poetry in English from around the world that 2015 will be remembered for” (http://scroll.in/article/778519/six-books-of-poetry-in-english-from-around-the-world-that-2015-will-be-remembered-for/).