'You Really, Really Have to Read This' & Other Urgencies from Jacek Dehnel

A review of Aperture




By Jacek Dehnel

Translated from the Polish by Karen Kovacik

Zephyr Press (2018), 112 pages



In his newest collection titled Aperture, the Polish poet, Jacek Dehnel, presents the urgency of preserving what is alive and what has been. As this collection of short lyric poems orbits adolescence, memory, and the present moment, Dehnel has the urgency to preserve it all. Topics of intimacy, queer love, and religious and historical events are explored through a range of forms from prose poetry to freer lyrics. Each poem offers a lens into how we struggle to preserve and how we lean on “the imperfect consolation of form” when we fail, all of which translator Karen Kovacik expertly renders.


The first urgency Dehnel details is the preservation of the adolescent spirit. The line, “You really, really have to read this,” from the poem titled “Hor ich das Liedchen klingen” (“I hear the song sound”), refers to the adolescent self who lacks the ability to linguistically convey the intense impression left by a book. There is an urgency to remember the boy who once struggled to express himself, who was eager to appear interesting, to experience all pleasures forbidden and allowed, and yet, felt “one’s master of one’s life.” Dehnel lusts after what was once everywhere: potential. But after “long afternoons of our first initiations” there is surprise for how suddenly life becomes commonplace. With similar longing for the unburdened self, the poem “4x6, ‘84” suggests gazing at a photograph of a younger boy, stating “wherever you go, it will be worse / so pause right there, and smile.” The speaker seems to speak to himself, having knowledge of the future and envying his unseasoned life.


The enthusiasm of adolescence is not then absent with age, but transformed into a different medium—one of artistic endeavor. In the poem “Ungratefulness,” the speaker remembers his love for the cherry tree, saying, “who else props a foot on that forking branch, / leans out far, / and looks as if he won’t reach but does, tears off three at a time / and lifts them / to / his lips.” In desperation, the speaker wishes there were others who could have profited from the physical and spiritual experience of plucking cherries in the wind.


The preceding poem, “Cherries,” admits however that nothing is preserved. “The broken branches tumbling from above,” “the big leaves leathery,” “the cherries bursting from too much juice, attacked by starlings,” are all details of a time past. The poem is a vessel to encapsulate the memory, to provide a living ground for its survival, and in the middle of doing so, admits that some lichen, time, has intervened and won’t let go. The author knows his form is only a blueprint for happiness that won’t be fully reconstructed. The need to preserve this all through the form of poetry is some consolation, though imperfect.


Secondly, Dehnel has the urgency to preserve the present. Kovacik notes that Dehnel has a habit of dating each poem and noting the place of composition. Dehnel religiously sets each poem with the year and place like a scientist would mark his lab notebook. So, what is it about time-stamping? What does it do? To anchor a poem in time and space acknowledges the body of the writer—the mind and its current station. Knowing the anchor of the poem from whence the idea was born is believed to be necessary for the reader to more closely engage. From this worldly locator, Dehnel can deliver us into the reality he observes. “Big Splash” goes from Wikipedia images to contemplating the fragility of our reality. The speaker goes from “Europa’s crust of ice” to “even this table feels small, this saucer fragile,” inviting the reader to enter the speaker’s surroundings. We are brought into the room, and therefore the mind, able to immediately witness that particular place of inspiration.


Vivian Maier, 1952

Lastly, Dehnel exhibits an urgency to preserve the ones we love. In the poem “Saint-Malo” the speaker gazes at a photograph and lists the many unknowns about the figure. “Who you were, where you dined, whom you quarreled with / at three when he returned from Violette—I have no clue,” holds specificity about the figure but maintains that the speaker does not know. Ironically, we are presented with intimate details that are presented with the possibility of being untrue. What is intimately known is not enough for the speaker to own as knowledge of the beloved. He will never know “how often you prayed and in which of the churches.” There are mysteries surrounding the most beloved person, housed only by them and their own memory. In this poem, there is a longing to preserve that beloved and their own unique mystery—“a sea of words and things.” Not only does the poet long for the loved one, but the loved everyday beauty. In the poem “Appetite.” the speaker hungers for the current beauty of an ordinary day: “How long / will all these beautiful things (the chill, Satie, / Cahun’s albums) resist my appetite?” The speaker mourns having a perpetual deficiency to consume the common things he loves.


My favorite poem in the collection, the title poem “Aperture,” reminds me of the ecopoetry in Julia Fiedorczuk’s Oxygen. Not unlike Dehnel’s other poems, this one more obviously invites the reader to participate in his observations. “Here” repeats to stress urgency in the reader. We must become present: “Here, on your knees” and “Here, you observe. Here, head-tilted, / one species studies another.” We are asked to engage with the nonhuman world. Dehnel ultimately proves his scientific nature as one inclined to question and “observe and believe / in others: ovoid, slippery, cold-blooded, bottom-fed.” The invitation to look at “some creature / with winter coloring,” brings us into the dark glade, the pond, where we can slip into the mutual communion of silence with the animal world. Similar to Fiedorczuk’s ecopoetry that observes the atmosphere, water, creatures, and animals, Dehnel participates in a familiar fashion, connecting to the nonhuman world, dwelling in observation and flirting with memory or prophecy to evoke an emotional connection.


Despite the poems being written over the span of many years, it’s apparent how neither time nor place diminishes one’s obsessions or urgencies. The un-possessable quality of what is alive, and fleeting, is what obsesses the poet. Porous, permeable, and drifting toward each other, these poems uplift the providence of neighboring poems which draw us closer to the moment of living. Dehnel proves his heart is on the page, and in so doing, his love for the present world is revealed. His language aims to convey the passion, mystery and awesomeness of what we love: “this fierceness of beauty” for the very much alive world that is found in being.  He fears not the subjects of current modernity—including internet culture, science, and postmodern architecture—as his writing remains unabashedly bound to the present, while anticipating its artifact quality for the future. 




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Poetry, Poland, Translation