What will we learn by looking again at Joanna Trzeciak’s spare, elegant translation from the Polish of Homework Assignment on the Subject of Angels by Tadeusz Rozewicz, from the 2012 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Sobbing Superpowers: Selected Poems of Tadeusz Rozewicz?
The judges’ citation for this collection notes how Rozewicz’s work, deftly and deferentially translated from the Polish by Joanna Trzeciak, takes on grand themes but uses plain speech to examine them. “Homework Assignment on the Subject of Angels” is a striking example of this approach, as Rozewicz takes on and Trzeciak interprets in English the multiplicity of meanings of the sacred symbol of angels.
Rozewic deconstructs the symbol of the angel – an idealized being and a messenger from God with an equivalent in many religious and spiritual traditions – by associating it and its “fallen” counterpart with numbers of simple and vivid images. While simple, though, some of the images are difficult to align, even nonsensical. If the angel and the fallen angel are delineated as the embodiments respectively of good and evil, or the failure of goodness, why aren’t the images associated with each also obviously denoting or connoting good or evil? For example, why is a fallen angel like an abacus? what are the negative connotations, if any, with being compared to “streaks of autumn rain” or “birds taking flight?” While equating an angel with the purity of a young girl might make sense, equating an angel with the anatomy of a girl described with a more pointed adjective is troubling.
In keeping it simple to the point of terse, Rosewicz the poet and Trzeciak the translator powerfully call into question, even subvert the symbols. While contemplating something truly immense, they still modestly categorize the exercise as a “homework assignment.” The symbols are viewed freshly and anew. With clear language and images, it’s revelatory to discover the surprisingly blurred lines between good and evil.