Reading the opening lines of the poem “Love Toward the Ashes”, we realize that an oft-used symbol or image can deliver distinctly divergent effects when different poets wield it. Let’s compare this poem excerpt – from the 2012 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Sobbing Superpower by Joanna Trzeciak, translating from the Polish written by Tadeusz Rózewicz – to another recent Poem of the Week selection.
We pondered the symbolism and significance of ashes when Poem of the Week turned its spotlight on “Her Birthday as Ashes in Seawater” by Sharon Olds, from her 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Arias. Part of the exercise of gathering our thoughts and reactions to Olds’ poem brought us to a purveyor of cremation urns, who offered interesting insights into religious and cultural interpretations of this end-of-life image and ritual.
Olds’ lyrical ebullience imbues ashes with lightness, life and the optimism of considering life’s continuum in her poem. What a contrast, then, to encounter Tadeusz Rózewicz’s abrupt words, translated into crisp English by Joanna Trzeciak, in reference to the ashes of Samuel Beckett.
Olds’ poem presumably comes from or at least arises from imagining a literal experience of spreading the ashes of a loved one. We can likely assume that Rózewicz’s is a figurative reference, and might not be referring to the actual death of Beckett, but perhaps to Beckett’s posthumous influence or oeuvre, based on an artistic arsenal of prose, poetry, drama and translation not unlike Rózewicz’s own. Either way, both poems present ashes as a substance denoting a transitional state between life and death.
And either way, ashes symbolize the end of something. Depending on the approach, that something could be sad, horrifying, disgusting, profoundly and irrevocably final, or it could be a beginning or continuum, positive, hopeful, part of a greater whole. (This examination of the phrase “ashes to ashes” in literature offers a range of examples.) Either way, ashes or the related materials of burning or decomposition are fertilizer, with all that suggests, but in comparison to Olds’ treatment, Rozewicz’s words as translated by Trzeciak are earthier and more explicit:
“meat still full of love
spoils in time
one has to bury it”
The observation is acerbic, but not devoid of wit, either. 2012 Griffin Poetry Prize judge Heather McHugh captures this aspect of Rozewicz’s voice and approach perfectly in her citation:
“Rózewicz proves as wary … of heaven’s offices as man’s. Alert to our condition’s own momentous momentariness, he’s funny, fierce, or casual; but never inconsequential.”
Just because he’s wary and acerbic and witty, funny, fierce and/or casual … doesn’t mean his words, for all their brisk, seemingly dismissive tone, lack positivity and, as the title points out, love.