Saturday, August 22, 2009

Review: I'll be Back Before You Know it

I'll be Back Before You Know it
by Maria Jastrzebska

Published by Pighog Press

Reviewed by Radcliff Gregory


In a market awash with books from sub-standard prose writers masquerading as poets, Maria Jastrzebska’s stunning anthology shines out like the Star of Africa. Here is a rare collection not suffocated by propaganda, self-indulgence or plain bad writing – I’ll be Back Before you Know it doesn’t just make the grade, it holds up a challenge to other modern poets.

Before I began reading the book, I admit to dreading the complement described as ‘prose poems’, which, along with ‘experimental poem’, is usually a warning light that a literary abomination is thundering relentlessly in the direction of an unsuspecting reading. Instead, here we find mind-altering gems such as the truly innovative ‘Stripes and Polka Dots’ that will forever change the way you look at these enduring staples of design. This piece, with its anarchic anti-punctuation spacing and slithering rhythms, dances before your eyes and plunges into crevices of the imagination other poets have long since forgotten to explore. The lines of this poem are rather like the eponymous polka dots that “are/ self-contained yet vulnerable scattering what poise they have/ like teeth breaking out onto velvet shiny as sequins tiny/ as seeds drops in snow spotting blood they always bounce”.

I’ll be Back Before you Know it is full of surprises, each snapshot of life perfectly poised, lingering over the scene like a lover. The reader is taken on a journey exploring and celebrating who and what already is, and is about to be, lost, the intended and unexpected absences that kaleidoscope our lives. Memory is the dynamic force that unites and divides. For the narrator of “1”, it is the tape recording of an androgynous voice that carries the vocal ghost of “My mother… rough like the smoke in your throat, a caress of light from a long dead star.” This prose poem’s sequel recounts the “First Anniverary Of My Mother’s death,” the protracted and gory removal of a tooth presenting the dentist as a symbolic midwife to spiritual reincarnation.

Jastrzebska delights in dragging out the full beauty of language, kidnapping words from disparate cultures only to liberate them in a linguistic joie de vivre absent from much modern poetry. ‘Night Afore Monster Ceilidh’ paints a vivid picture of Scotland in vibrant carnivalesque mode, revelling in native dialect to force the poem into the reader’s own throat so we can taste it for ourselves. The “…enormous/ metallic birds and stooped/ in ragged cloaks – poking long/ noses in our armpits till we can’t help/ but laugh” beautifully encapsulates the ‘time warp from reality’ concept of the genre.

Maria Jastrzebska

The echoes of early spirituality in modern organised religion introduce and close the ‘Syngoga Wysoka’ “Two griffins/ in a bare wall/ remain/ after the clutter of churches,” and the sunlight still “falls across a fragment/ of faded Hebrew.” The poem draws heavily on the imagery of art to show how much of what has been perceived to be knowledge of biblical times and theology has historically been extrapolated from later fictitious depictions rather than unadulterated contemporary documents and representations.

‘My Beloved’s Shoes’ is a fascinating dissection of how a shoe collection can not only reveal a great deal about someone’s taste, but also how the assorted manifestations of footwear can become an interactive extension of the owner’s psyche, always awake and ready to liberate their wearer, submissive enough to be neatly contained, and yet disconcertingly active, as “Rows of them, her own small army, its generals at the top” are “Neatly stowed in Perspex boxes.” Yet the “red Choos, green sparkling Ginas, nude manolos for smooching [and] pleated silk Louboutins” have a secret double life: “when night falls they pirouette above us, glisse here, echappe there.”

As Jastrzebska’s collection is about human transience, the later poems inevitably turn to the consideration of the ultimate departure from life. ‘The Holidaying Dead’ is a curious narrative, pointing out that “Eternity needs to be filled.” The poem alternates between the poignant mischief of ghosts who “with a flick of their fingers[,] sprinkle water on the heads of their loved ones and leave”; they also “swap lovers, switch genders, falling helplessly in love.” But “they have, after all, their own journeys to make. To go where they can pick blue plumbago flowers under a waning moon, learn to skim empty ravines like shadows in undulating flight.”

It is easy to see why the Warsaw-born author has been translated into languages that intersect many apparently disparate cultures. Jastrzebska transcends time and space, ethnicity and the politicised religion to speak to our inherent spirituality, the poetry of shared and individual soul that converges in the collective ancestry from which we are all forged.


Radcliff Gregory is the author of Everywhere, Except…, and the sold-out Fragile Art, and Figaro’s Cabin (under a pseudondym), and also anthologised in Chroma, Poemata, Coffee House and Poets International literary publications, and a dozen books by publishers including Crystal Clear, Forward Press and Poetry Now. Outright winner of six UK poetry competitions. Also writes non-fiction articles and essays on literary criticism, literature, disability and gender issues. Currently organising Polyverse Poetry Festival, which he founded. He also tries to find time to complete his first full-length prose work.

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