Lidia Kosk
Meadows of Memory
Translated from the Polish by Danuta E. Kosk-Kosicka
Apprentice House Press

Reviewer: Paul Sohar

Ideally, the reviewer reporting on a volume of translation should be familiar with the source material as thoroughly as the target language, though this basic requirement is often overlooked when it comes to a source language not generally part of the standard school curriculum, such as Polish. Thus, what is discussed here is not the original product but its reconstruction, like, let us say, a gothic cathedral rebuilt from steel and concrete instead of the original limestone and marble. What validates the translation in this case is that the architect of the reconstruction is not a scholar from another age but the daughter of the poet, Danuta E. Kosk-Kosicka, who has published several bilingual editions of her mother’s verse. In addition, she is the translation editor of Loch Raven Review, which publishes a translation section from a different language in every issue. Surely the family connection and shared experiences must have inspired her English rendition of her mother’s poems as much as her expertise with languages.

Poland stands out among Eastern European nations by the amount and quality of poetry it has exported to the English-speaking world; Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Adam Zagajewski, and numerous other names have become household words in literary circles and beyond. A new Polish name roughly from the same generation of poets mentioned above inevitably demands attention. That said, Lidia Kosk is not a total stranger to the Anglophone reader; thanks to her daughter, her works have been appearing for some time in English translations.

This book is not my first encounter with Lidia Kosk; a few years ago, Danuta commissioned me and twenty other translators to participate in a multilingual translation project based on nine poems by her mother and rendered into English herself. Most of the poems gave me the impression of an urban intellectual living the typically cultured European lifestyle of our time, the kind of thing I look for and sometimes get to enjoy on my trips to the Old World. The present selection, though, expands on this image with childhood memories of an old-fashioned village life while at the same time not diminishing the voice of the urban intellectual.

The title Meadows of Memory may sound like a hint about escape into vague reminiscences, but actually it directly spells out the subject of this selection consisting of both prose and poetry. The author does not treat events from the past as pure recollections but rather as the building blocks of her life, thus celebrating memory as an organic function that contributes to one’s sense of life in the present. Maybe more; memories for her, good or bad, are something like the DNA of existence. In this way, she resembles Marcel Proust who discovered a material connection between the past and the present, giving memory a new definition: thus, Meadows of Memory is a more compact variation on Remembrance of Things Past.

The first part of the book contains several short prose pieces with village life used as background. Snow plays a large part in these selections, filling many of the spaces between the widely separated farms and the school the poet attended as a child. She describes the snow as a living entity. Additionally, various things, such as a rabbit, a dog, balls, horses, and old fables, are depicted as extant reminders of past episodes, things that can whisk the poet back in time. A good example of a transportive memory stimulated by sensory matter can be found in a short poem titled “Jasmine”:

The fair night’s blossom
the scent of rain
dog’s impassioned calls
my fear
under the spell
of storms of May

Oh, to happen again
upon that night
embedded in
jasmine scent

Toward the end of this selection of work, Kosk’s depiction of emotions experienced in the latter part of life comes to the fore, but always in terms of the past, as voiced by a younger self; thus, the present, no matter how intensely felt, always reminds the poet of things past. Love and looking forward to things in the future also forces the poet to look back in time. But now looking back is accepted as a natural – perhaps neurological, biological, and instinctive – part of existence. The most effective example of this attitude is the fantastic tale of a professor who tries to stop time by taking a picture every autumn of the season’s final leaf (“The Memory Leaf”):

to stop time
clasped to the branch

to save the memory
of the historian

wizard of medieval maps
poet with the camera lens

who each year
fall after fall

photographed the last leaf
to shield it against forgetting

This Kafkaesque narrative summarizes the theme and style of this slender compilation of prose and poetry: memory is an essential and creative part of consciousness. Lidia Kosk is a poet we should keep an eye on. And should anyone require the skills of a talented Polish literary translator, keep Kosk-Kosicka in mind.

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