Saturday, March 27, 2010

Review: Everyday Angels by Maria Jastrzębska

Everyday Angels
Maria Jastrzębska

Published by Waterloo Press

Reviewed by Colin Herd

As an epigraph to her new collection ‘Everyday Angels’, Maria Jastrzębska writes that,

‘In each film of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s sequence Dekalog, actor Artur Barciś appears briefly as an incidental character who gazes but never speaks and is said to represent a knowing witness or an angel.’

By doing so, she invites the reader to under-study the Artur Barciś role, gazing at and witnessing the emotional, personal, ‘everyday’, situations her poems evoke. These situations are often memories from childhood or young adulthood told in the first person. Such as, being called a ‘bloody foreigner’ at the side of her Mother in a supermarket by a woman jumping the queue. Other customers fail to spring to their defence. Narrated through a child’s perspective, the poem begins like so:

‘The big shop-
I helped carry the bags
which left my hands stinging,
red stripes across the palms.’

It ends on a note of determination and a sense of injustice that stings much more sorely:

‘Bladdifor aynerr.
The grown ups would pass this word
Between them like a novelty,
scoffing- something to get used to

like soggy sausages or smog.
I refused to go there again,
so my mother went on her own,
each week carrying all the bags home.’

You get a sense here of the understated but no less exquisite complexity of Jastrzębska’s phrasing. I particularly like the subtly potent, territorial half-rhyme of “home” and “own” and the stinging red stripe on the palms, so suggestive of the Polish flag.

At the heart of ‘Everyday Angels’ is a sequence of prose poems called ‘Dementia Diaries’. In it, Jastrzębska writes a section in the voice of each of the main players in the drama of her parents’s dementia. It’s the emotional highpoint of the text, in which complex family tension and awkwardness are laid bare, alongside the faltering perspectives of her parents. Jastrzębska shows great skill in communicating not only frustration and sadness, but also joy and love. The voice of Mrs Alicja plucks that string most pronouncedly:

“Thick as thieves those two. I call them my two love-birds . Fall asleep holding hands. In the night she rolls over onto his side of the bed, wraps her skinny little body around him and that big man squeezes right onto the edge of the bed to make room for her.”

Again, Jastrzębska‘s phrasing is delightful, the way her sentence, too, rolls over, wraps its skinny body and then, squeezes word-heavy to the edge of the bed.

Then there are the poems of sexual-awakening, such as the humorously titled but vaguely disturbing ‘Autobiografia di uno piccolo pezze di merda’ and ‘Veil of Tweed’, in which the poet remembers her eighteen-year-old self through its relationships (and its movies):

‘I fled from you into the arms of a biche
with long lashes, sulky lips. At least
her hair was long, even though it all ended
in tears. It might as well have been me

slumped, sobbing face pressed
against a bathroom door, behind which
Anouk Aimée made love with a real man.’

Jastrzębska shows a wonderful ability to combine warm, plain-spoken and tender vocal presence with a bracing and sometimes startling freshness of expression. Reading ‘Everyday Angels’ feels like washing your face. You’re comforted, reassured and drawn in by her warm tones. The sensation, as Jastrzębska puts it memorably in one poem, is as,

‘warm water slipping on the skin.
Delicious task.’.

And then, from somewhere, she delivers an exfoliating blow in which you wake up to the almost unbearable sadness or humour or cruelty of a situation as it is revealed with spare, unflinching honesty and most of all rapier insight. You emerge feeling different, feeling good, feeling like you’ve scrubbed at some of the pimples on the face of what is to be.

In other words, this is another storming success for Waterloo Press, whose books are not only expertly selected but designed with such care, and flair too.

Colin Herd is a poet based in Edinburgh whose work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in 3:AM, Dogmatika, Gutter, Shampoo, Velvet Mafia and Mirage #4/Period(ical).



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