A Review of Zero Visibility

Leonard Kress
Zero Visibility
Grzegorz Wróblewski
translated from the Polish by Piotr Gwiazda
Los Angeles: Phoneme Media, 2017.
123 pages. $16.00 (paperback)

I first read Gregorz Wróblewski’s new collection of selected poems on the bus from New Jersey to Manhattan. It was Good Friday morning (probably around the time when Jesus is stripped of his clothes, Crucifixion a few hours away) and a young couple sitting behind me were mapping out their impending shopping spree, intentionally referring to the day as Black Friday. So here I was, reading the poems translated from Polish (peeking from time to time at the adjacent Polish), recalling the Stations of the Cross, heading to the commercial capital of the world, the Trump world. I include these details because they seem to reflect the same collision or juxtaposition of poetic realms that Wróblewski’s poems construct and deconstruct, often within a constrained space. In “Minimalism,” for example, he writes:

In the sorrow

of war

she found the road

to hope

(In theatres


The same dynamic plays out in, “Ducks in Ho Chi Minh City,” where some nameless authorities call for the slaughter of all ducks — perhaps a situation like the Bird Flu Epidemic. However, the result is that now there are “No more / duck dishes / in Ho Chi Minh City.” Although these two short poems are emblematic of Wroblewski’s pleasing maneuvering, they are actually more complex and nuanced. Throughout these poems of disjuncture and collage and dialectic, there is also a powerful element of Socratic interrogation — what the poet has in mind in one of the longest pieces, “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques,” whose title is taken from the bureaucratic jargon of torture. Regarding “Minimalism,” the reader is called upon to question the ways “hope” might be a byproduct of “war,” why the speaker is female, whether or not she was on the winning or losing side, and why the word “theatre” can so effortlessly lay claim to the world of cinema as well as military combat? Likewise, in “Ducks in Ho Chi Minh City,” who are these authorities, whose interests do they represent, why do Westerners tend to fetishize Chinese cooking in ways that are often racist?

In some poems, Wróblewski employs a reverse strategy — one of reconstitution, where the “mutilated world” (to borrow a phrase from his fellow Polish poet, Adam Zagajewski) reasserts itself and refuses to acquiesce, as in “Velvet”:

A frightening new strain of tuberculosis. You fuck others now.

Old ska music.

A memory of something velvety remains

Music, streets, beaches — I see you everywhere

Likewise, in “I Think About You Constantly”:

Traces of RDX found in the wreckage!

(I think about you constantly …)

Poultry processing plant is being evacuated.

Wróblewski’s poetic vision is always double and at times the conjunction resembles conjunctivitis — scratchy, irritating, and infected. In “Bronislaw Malinowski’s Moments of Weakness” (one of the longer poems in this collection), the famous anthropologist, whose field work among the Trobriand islanders was once a staple in introductory anthro courses, is reduced to an absurd, racist rant attributed to him: “If I had a revolver, I’d shoot a pig!” Next, his own wardrobe is described in anthropological terms:

two Norfolk jackets from a tailor on Chancery Lane, Also a helmet

made of cork, with a lacquered canvas cover.

These two elements are repeated throughout the poem, surrounding and engulfing an ironically quoted passage from a textbook about his “investigative methods,” that set the standard for modern research. And a reference to Malinowski’s classic work, Sex and Repression in Savage Society. So we are left with a severely degraded figure, the tables turned, from ethnographer to subject, seen the way the original European and American anthropologists viewed the people and cultures they studied. Curiously, and with no explanation, the English translation of the poem intensifies the turnabout by repeating Malinowski’s rant several more times in English and then concluding the poem with the line repeated three times in its original Polish.

Much has been made of Wróblewski’s use of found language, a tricky device or strategy for translated work. The lure and beauty and distinction of found language lies in its nuance and tone, as well as the assumptions about its readers’ shared apprehension of its context. I suppose this might be less of an issue when the target language is English, because so much of the web is in English, so that an opening passage from the long poem “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” seems almost universal, a sort of web-Esperanto:

It wasn’t until he was 39 years old that Tom Cruise decided to straighten and

even out his teeth! People Magazine named Jennifer Lopez the world’s most

beautiful woman.

Mixing mushrooms with alcohol causes the skin to turn into pesticide-

covered rootworm. Do you remember the Colorado beetle?

Alas, but … we can’t all have an hourglass figure.

This initial stanza of seeming non-sequiturs is followed by Angelina Jolie’s borderline personality disorder. Interestingly enough, the Polish word for hourglass, “klepsydry,” can also refer to the obituary notices that were commonly pasted up on walls and billboards throughout Poland. This is significant, because the poem then forays into near-deadly torture techniques (presented in both English and Polish) and most likely the crash of a Polish airplane presumably involved in the American CIA’s Extraordinary Rendition Program, the outsourcing of torture. These disparate, found elements reoccur throughout the poem, creating an uneasy confluence and correspondence between American/world popular culture and the dark side of the War on Terror.

Zero Visibility is a smart, seductive, provocative, unsettling collection. Wróblewski continually pulls the rug out from under his reader. Sometimes his approach is unrelenting, sometime it is subtly soothing, as in “(A Disappointment)”:

A dead sparrow at the bus stop

near Oxford Street in London.

So is this your only discovery?

you ask with surprise.

Yes, because for a moment I thought

it was different in England.

about the author