Two poems by Aleksandra Byrska

Julio Cortázar staring at the axolotl. Illustration by Belén García Monroy

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Fałdy oświaty

 

wokół nas wapienne wzgórza, hałdy fermentacji, fałdy ewolucji
w mojej dłoni miękka skała sproszkowanych istot
krzemień dolomit margiel
dzieci potrzebują wapnia, by mieć mocne kości czasem jedzą
kredę ze strachu bądź niedożywienia
kruche pancerzyki ten proch z obcych istot
muł ił szarogłaz
podkładam się im, ja pożywka na szkiełku
wykarmiam się, wysławiam, wypączkowuję
gdy głaszcze ich niewidzialna ręka rynku
amonit o bezradnych odnóżach  

Folds of education

  

around us limestone hills, fermentation heaps, the folds of evolution
in my hand the soft rock of pulverized creatures
flint dolomite marl
children need calcium to have strong bones, sometimes they eat
chalk out of fear or malnutrition
this powder of alien creatures a fragile armor
silt loam greywacke
I lie myself down for them, a medium on a glass slide
I nourish, glorify, pullulate
as the invisible hand of the market strokes them
ammonite with helpless legs



Wakacje

I

Co pani robiła w czasie wakacji?
Łowiłam pustkę na haczyk, przycinałam
róże pozwalając kolcom swobodnie zadrapywać skórę,
usiłowałam zapomnieć, czytałam
trawy, dotykałam liter, unosiłam się
na gładkiej tafli tlenu.
Żyłam jakby was na świecie nie było.
 

II

Dziś skaleczyłam się przycinając róże,
powinnam zapaść w letarg rodem z baśni,
lecz niestety – 

brnę przez godziny jak przez mętny muł,
zapadam się 

grudki tlenu w przełyku, nie oglądam się
za siebie
zagrożony gatunek, szczute zwierzę
           – zapadam 

akwariowy aksolotl marzący
o symbiotycznym  stylu życia ukwiału – śnię.
 

III

nie jest wam teraz potrzebna odrębna
jak meduza wyrzucona na piasek
sharatane tkanki zapadają
w letarg
oczekuje osadza się cementuje
wapiennieje w kalcyt 


Vacation

  

I

What did you do during your vacation?
I fished the void with a hook, pruned
roses allowing the thorns to freely scratch the skin,
I tried to forget, I read
grass, touched letters, I was floating
on a smooth sheet of oxygen.
I lived as if you didn’t exist.
 

II

Today, I cut myself pruning the roses,
so I should’ve fallen into a fairytale lethargy,
but no –

 I wade thru the hours like a muddled mule,
sinking 

lumps of oxygen in my esophagus, I don’t look
over my shoulder
an animal hounded, an endangered species
           – I fall 

the aquarium axolotl longing
for the symbiotic lifestyle of anemones – I dream.
 

III

you don’t need her anymore, discrete
like a jellyfish tossed onto the sand
the torn tissues collapse
into lethargy
she awaits, settles, cements
clotting into calcite

 


There’s vocabulary, and then there’s vocabulary. A word you can look at in your native tongue and think, “Huh? Is that right? That can’t be right”. For me, two of those words—marl and greywacke—surface in the space of one poem: “Folds of education” by Aleksandra Byrska. Marl immediately conjured up images of Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes in The Walking Dead shouting for his son: “Carl! Carl!” Greywacke? Couldn’t that be the name of a castle in Game of Thrones? Or a venereal disease in Game of Thrones?

To say that Byrska knows a thing or two about geology is to make plain just how little I do. And it’s not the first time I’ve run into my lexical limitations with her poems. It’s perhaps no great surprise that Permian, Carboniferous, Devonian, Silurian, or Ordovician weren’t part of my go-to discussion topics over coffee. Without research and reading, these geological time periods could just as well have been schools of philosophy or little-known Byzantine religions. Or maybe that’s just a typically Devonian thing to say.

I note these details not (only) to highlight apparent blindspots in my knowledge, but to celebrate the fact that it was precisely this kind of specificity that drew my attention to Aleksandra Byrska’s poetry. Byrska's work explores intersections between classroom behavioral dynamics, speech pathologies, and posthumanist empathies with the nonhuman (like the geological). She toggles between shifts in tone and register, nursery rhyme and epistemological lyric, and brings to mind writers such as Elizabeth Willis and Charles Simic, along with a dose of what Arielle Greenberg termed the “Gurlesque”.

The geological details in Byrska’s poems serve to reinforce a certain intimacy. We’re invited into and part of the poetic worlds that Byrska creates, worlds that simultaneously care about planetary time and pedagogical difficulties—for both students and teachers. A teacher can be invested in the success of her students while also craving some time away from their relentless demands: “I lived as if you didn’t exist”. She can evince concern about her students’ malnutrition—“children need calcium to have strong bones, sometimes they eat / chalk out of fear or malnutrition”—while also marveling at the geological process that produce the object she’s holding in her hand.

As a reader and a translator, I’m drawn to work and literary worlds that are very different from those that I might imagine as a writer. To my mind, it’s one of the most enduring and intimate forms of travel. I didn’t know the word axolotl before Aleksandra Byrska’s poetry, but I won’t soon forget that humans aren’t the only animals with dreams.




Aleksandra Byrska (b. 1990) – a graduate of literary criticism at the Faculty of Polish Studies of the Jagiellonian University, and now a PhD student at the Faculty of Polish Studies at the Jagiellonian University dealing with Polish prose after 2010. She edited the cultural magazine Fragile and is the author of the play Śnieg [Snow] published in the anthology Nasz głos [Our Voice] by the Helena Modrzejewska National Stary Theater in Kraków. Recent poems of hers have appeared in Mały Format, Wakat, and, in English translation, Periodicities and Salt Hill. She is a speech therapist, Polish language teacher, and librarian.

Mark Tardi

Mark Tardi is a writer, translator, and lecturer on faculty at the University of Łódź. He is the author of three books, most recently, The Circus of Trust (Dalkey Archive Press, 2017). Recent work and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, Circumference, Armstrong Literary, Another Chicago Magazine, Jet Fuel Review, Berlin Quarterly, La Piccioletta Barca, Notre Dame Review, Asymptote, Anomaly, and Periodicities. His translation of The Squatters’ Gift by Robert Rybicki was recently published by Dalkey Archive Press in 2021.

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