Julia Fiedorczuk's Materialization of Oxygen: Poetry 'in the Outbreath of the World'
by Julia Fiedorczuk
Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston
Zephyr Press (2017), 134 pages Polish & English
From the title Oxygen, one can intimate that Julia Fiedorczuk’s new book of poems, her first book-length bilingual poetry collection, is all about what is essential. As a Polish poet and scholar, Fiedorczuk writes ecopoetry with a “personism” pulse, centering her work around a trust and a celebration of our inherent relationship to nature. Before we even pick up a copy of her beautiful new book translated by Bill Johnston, Oxygen indicates that the main concern of her poetry will be about what is necessary to life. And unfortunately for you, dear reader, that may not be you.
Fiedorczuk’s poetry reveals that that which is crucial to life is not humanity or its existence, but the forces of nature omnipresent: the earth, sea, stars, minerals, and other microscopic bodies. Whether these aspects are “Electricity,” the “Weather,” or the “Evening,” the non-human perspectives take primacy, and in doing so, Fiedorczuk attempts to dismantle mankind’s favorite point of view—the anthropocentric universe.
Although she stated in Asymptote’s review that she would like to be understood as “simply a poet,” and therefore does not necessarily identify as an ecopoet (one that writes in relation to their ecology or ecological surroundings), an ecopoetic approach is at the foreground of her content. She utilizes nature’s chemistry, its movements between light and dark, and its transformative qualities to explore life.
The term “ecopoetry” can often be misunderstood as it has less to do with the content and more to do with the process of the poet in finding connection with the non-human world. “Nature is energy and struggle,” John Berger says and, “Art is not imitating nature, it is imitating creation,” which is exactly what Fiedorczuk does through her language—creating a world full of sound and beauty that relishes “in the outbreath of the world.”
She brings awareness to the natural world by inhabiting non-human perspectives through persona poems such as “Beetle” and “Photosynthesis,” where she uncovers the extreme joy or “dull lament” of being a part of the cosmos. In the “Beetle,” the “tiny heart” has “so much time. Sunday! Like a length of silk” and has “such hunger, such desire / That the day must turn into an endless stream / Of richest yellow,” connecting us to the vastness of the universe and its light. She will attempt to speak for the incredibly, almost invisibly, small creatures or natural processes to appease the ontological questions that she will never disclose.
The book opens with “Lands and Oceans” which begins: “It is literally fire that is dear to us,” signifying that both death and creation—the transformative process—is the one act shared by humans and nature that is revered as sacred. This revelation is grasped by Fiedorczuk’s chasing of the transformative process through her act of writing poetry. She writes “from this perspective” or “in this version,” with a ceaseless devotion to altering her approach where “the sun is something like eternity / the sea a stubborn subtext” and in doing so, she too sustains connection with the world.
Her work reminds me of Wisława Szymborska in part due to its colloquial language that makes you feel as if you could be speaking to the poet over the phone. For example, in Szymborska’s poem “Here,” she says “I can’t speak for elsewhere, but here on Earth we’ve got a fair supply of everything. Here we manufacture chairs and sorrows,” a style of speech that no doubt influences Fiedorczuk. This conversational approach was first brought about by the New York School poets, especially Frank O’Hara, whose poem is alluded to in “Autobiographia Literaria,” the second section of the book.
O’Hara’s poem “Autobiographia Literaria” recollects childhood memories of isolation from other children and the separation he felt from other living creatures, ending with “And here I am, the / center of all beauty! / writing these poems! / Imagine!” It is in this attitude, I believe, that Fiedorczuk reluctantly writes about herself, surprised, too, that she would be writing poems in celebration of the world around her, while having felt disenchanted in the past.
What Fiedorczuk does so well, and so unexpectedly, is the diminishment or eradication of the “self” within her poems. She does not acknowledge herself as the writer or the vessel. She is all voice and no body. She is the beetle, she is the drawer, she is the “landscape with the little girl,” she is opening a new “road” where “there is no map,” showing us that we are not the center of the universe, nor should we consider that the center needs us. The universe revolves around light, and the oceans wave their own course.
In the poems, Fiedorczuk is as hard to trace as oxygen itself; invisible, but perceived nevertheless. Poems like “Being a Self 1” and “Being a Self 2,” showcase the joy of being a body who comes alive “because this / is splendid news,” and the estrangement of being a body who longs to be “touched.” Ironically, the autobiography portion offers little information about the poet’s life and instead catalogues objects in the “drawer” and the surrounding “noise” so as to shape the poet’s identity. Like in the painting technique of chiaroscuro, where the body or form is determined by the light against it, Fiedorczuk defines herself only in part by shining light on the essence of other objects—gas, ocean, stars—and wraps them up newly for us to take home.
One of the most interesting poems is “Fort-Da,” a Freudian phrase meaning “now gone, now there,” referring to child’s play of causing things to disappear, such as “playing dead.” These actions induce small traumas that are strangely gratifying, so the child repeats the action. I was drawn to this poem because it had a tension between more human aspects: the relationship between child and mother in dealing with the infantile psyche. The poem shows her hesitation of speaking to her daughter about the reality of the world on the way to pre-school, so when they play “at one of us being dead,” we think of the satisfaction each one must derive from creating these unpleasurable feelings. It is unsettling and bizarre.
In the final section, “Psalms in the Making,” Fiedorczuk completely abandons any notion left of the self. In a voice that does not belong to her, but to the poem, we encounter a striking address to the “someone,” the “something,” the “whoever you are” that may be the great life-force whom she has been trying to speak to or bargain with the entire book. The psalms point out that the “something” has provided us with “gifts,” but the power is not always helpful and is sometimes unkind. There is violent imagery in the “crimson yolk” inside “the crypt of dawn,” and in the “hanged children.” The omniscient life-force of creation is violent too.
Overall, Fiedorczuk is a strongly guided voice. She writes from the spine, close to the bone. The poems move thematically across sections and remain “unsolid,” flowing the way clouds would across space. Fiedorczuk controls the language without controlling its aim; she trusts her poetry to bring her into a transformed state. As Oxygen is what we need for life, her poetry is what she needs for her life. Poetry is what she breathes, poetry is what is necessary, and this writing work, this labor of organizing the world into a poetic fashion, is most central to her existence. And so ironically, in the end, the anthropomorphic message is that we all ought to look at ourselves and then look beyond that, to see what is truly vital and essential for us.
Read more of Julia Fiedorczuk's poems over at World Literature Today: Orion’s Shoulder, Drawer, Bio, Relentlessly Craving, Lands and Oceans.