By Abby Dockter
I am on another plane trip. Patchwork farms, webs of highways, wide rivers and furry green mountains, all pierced by the wing of the plane as we glide into a new port. That’s the outside—inside the plane are a middle-aged couple speaking soft Turkish and eating chocolate bars, a young man holding his suit jacket, and a woman next to him sleeping with her brightly-colored scarf wadded up as a pillow. I am taking Piotr Gwiazda’s injunction to “Look at this city—”, “Look at these people” as I go, and it’s remarkable how the traveling experience parallels Gwiazda’s Aspects of Strangers, a book that opens with an observer’s entrance to a new place. Alienation is on the table immediately:
You see their other faces.
You hear their other voices.
You pass them in the airport
or the subway station
or any street and plaza…
Are you a part of them?
Your face gives you away.
Your voice denies you.
I could object to the blunt instrument of dichotomous Yous and Thems, but I’m too busy agreeing with the poet. I am already self-conscious that people abroad know where I come from as soon as I open my mouth, if not sooner. Okay, definitely sooner. But hiking pants that zip off at the knees were still a good American idea, dammit.
Aspects of Strangers styles itself an ethnography: a series of cultural observations that have been cut, dried, and gathered into poems. A true anthropologist would not have been able to resist fleshing them out into a treatise—context, you know—but the speaker in these poems is more interested in blank space. There is a fresh, field-notes quality preserved in these records, and somehow his cherry-picked observations gradually suggest the beauty and complexity of what’s under description. Poems are for moments, and Gwiazda provides a gorgeous rush of them.
At times the speaker seems to be other-worldly, with detailed knowledge of Venusians and naïve surprise at human activity. But each segment describes Strangers in ways that are grossly familiar:
They are prone to envy and indignation, but their most
genuine emotions are fear and shame. They refuse to
accept responsibility for their actions; they breathe the
polluted air. Their statues stare blankly into the future—
the living, the unborn. What a sad masquerade…
These are not new critiques.
And yet there is not much explicit critique. For the most part, the poems are simply observations, and the blank spaces are for the reader to fill with any latent guilt, fondness, or frustration for her own culture and species. Maybe the cold list of observations is supposed to draw attention to their strangeness, but it also lends them intimacy. I know these people and these living conditions. The poignancy of our odd relationships to technology and to our own demise is part of any implicit critique. I have a defensive tenderness for these Strangers.
In the final poem sequence, the American-ness of this society of Strangers becomes explicit, as European artists, musicians, poets, filmmakers and philosophers are called in for comment. But somewhere in “Moral Commerce,” the yous and theys become “we.” An “I” sneaks in with stories of its own. A small shift that means everything.
Gwiazda can be somewhat overconfident in deploying anthropological observations in these soundbites: “Their flags are patriotic. Their fences are cosmopolitan. Their nightmares are scripted. Their needs are mass-produced.” But the rhythm of language sends me rocking along anyway, and in the end, my hackles lay down: “They embrace contradiction.” Gwiazda taps into our communal horror: the confusion of modern life, the furious pace and constant marketing, which sometimes produces a profound blah and sometimes makes you want to write poems about it. Society’s ridiculousness can be deadly or just adorable:
They speak about the ineffable
in highly self-conscious tones.
Sometimes they break into song
or an orgy of flower arranging.
This is what it feels like to encounter new people. Traveling through Europe, where Gwiazda grew up and where I cannot speak or read the languages at all, I rely on snapshots and moments. I depend on the images of people growing lavender, selling shoes, cutting the weedy grass of a public park with a curved farm blade. People selling what’s in season alongside dry tobacco out of a plastic sack, young teens smoking, pushy cab drivers, a man hoeing with a horse-drawn blade between rows of pale green leaves. Each new scene is a mystery, “(And yet there are patterns/if you watch closely./There are patterns/if you listen—)”. Gwiazda has certainly been watching, listening, and now he offers us the findings. Lucky for us, he made them into poems.