Distant Lands, Close Quarters

Cody Walker
July 26, 2013
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When I put my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter to bed at night, the last thing I tell her is “I love you a lot.” The “a lot” feels crucial—not as an intensifier (though perhaps there’s a bit of that), but rather as a way to make the sentiment my own. I’ve been saying it for nearly as long as she’s been alive; to say only “I love you” would feel like reading from someone else’s script. But what I’ve done, of course, is to lightly ironize the exchange. The “a lot” can be said quickly, giving the sentence a jazzy rat-a-tat feel; or it can be dragged out (“aaaaaaaaaaaaa lot”), so that the final “lot” lands like a punch line. By tweaking the standard “I love you,” I’ve guarded myself against (self-?) accusations of earnestness. But I’ve got to say it somehow, because it’s important and true.

I thought about this nightly ritual while reading Polish poet Agnieszka Kuciak’s Distant Lands: An Anthology of Poets Who Don’t Exist. The book is full of lovely lines, but that loveliness does battle with (and is simultaneously protected by) the bio notes of the purported authors. Here’s the full text of “From Childhood,” credited to the poet “Lola”:

It was like a scarecrow for storms,
that black umbrella. Just seeing it I’d burst
into rain. Its wire-lined, watertight abyss
swallowed up many a houseguest.

I’ve reread the poem a number of times; it always surprises me. Then I turn back to the bio notes and am reminded that Lola’s habits include “roller-skating to poetry readings” and maintaining a “long-term relationship with a known pedophile.” Does that change my feelings about the poem? It does—in ways that interest me. I’m always hoping that Belief and Irony will share closet space and swap wardrobes.

In her introduction to the book, translator Karen Kovacik writes,

When read alone, the poems in Distant Lands offer nuanced meditations on mysteries of existence—old age from the perspective of a child, the sudden onset of depression, questions about life after death. But when read with the poets’ bio notes, the poems acquire ironic resonance. This play with perspective that allows Kuciak to be both wittily ironic and seemingly sincere reminds me of Umberto Eco’s remark that in the postmodern age, we can no longer simply say, “I love you.” We have to say, “As Barbara Cartland would say, ‘I love you.’”

The poet “Pilgrim,” riffing on Larkin, ends “Where Can We Live But Days” with a potentially profound two-line stanza: “We have to let the dead recede / to hold them close.” But back to the bio notes: Pilgrim, we’re told, experienced a mystical shock “after eating an ordinary slice of good pizza.” (He also “possessed the grace of being able to heal with his shadow.”) And so the tonal complexities multiply. It’s the kind of thing we find in Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s, David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Wendy Cope’s Strugnell poems, John Berryman’s “Eleven Addresses to the Lord,” and much of Borges and Calvino. And don’t we want to be pulled in several directions at once? Isn’t that when we feel most alert, most alive?

Distant Lands was originally published in Poland in 2005; it’s Kuciak’s second collection. Kovacik’s translation appeared this year. I was given a copy of the book by the marvelous poet Marianne Boruch, whom I met at the Bear River Writers’ Conference a couple of months ago. Boruch forever endeared herself to me by cheerfully sharing her goldfish crackers with my snack-obsessed daughter—but Distant Lands is the greater gift. I can imagine my daughter, in another decade or so, reading these beautiful and haunting poems by the non-existent “P.P.” (“theoretician of ‘creative suicide’”), “Student” (“believes in the concept of ‘poetry as revenge against the reader’”), and “Sunny” (“The editors regret that the rest of the contributor’s note for this poet was wiped out by the I Love You virus”).

This is the daughter, remember, whom I love a lot.

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