Ken Head reviews 'Snow Calling' by Agnieszka Studinska

Snow Calling by Agnieszka Studzinska
Salt Publishing 2010
ISBN:978 – 1 – 84471 – 559 – 6 Hardback:  £12.99 45pp


“I was going to say something, / and stopped”.  Polish-born Agnieszka Studzinska’s choice, for the epigraph to her interesting and intriguing first collection, of these deceptively straightforward words from Irish poet Thomas Kinsella’s poem 'Ancestor', provides an early indicator as to how the entire collection may best be read.  In common with Kinsella’s New Poems 1973, from which 'Ancestor' comes, Snow Calling also contains poems concerned with sharply focused, clear-eyed recollections of the past and, as in Holding,  Studzinska’s preoccupation with what commentators on Kinsella’s work have described as “blood and family”:  “I look at your hands / your tiny fingers gripping my thumb, / hard to imagine them touching / someone else rather than me / or holding the way I held / your father that night – ”.  The notion of being about to say something and then stopping, however, suggests rather more than simple tact or reticence about sex, a sense, perhaps, of the need to hesitate or pause and think again before committing to words, a conviction that too much clarity over-simplifies, or that words, in the final analysis, “can’t help but pull apart / the very thing in front of me / as if to punish.”  Clearly, for Studzinska, poetry is neither entertainment nor a beautiful alternative to living:

“I don’t miss home, just the mountains,
in the beginning I could see the mountains
in rows of chimneys, that was enough –
I still consider myself a visitor.”

Despite a degree of apparent clarity, then, Studzinska’s poems remain in other ways challengingly elusive and enigmatic.  They are sparse, offer little by way of context, plunge straight into seriousness without preamble, are sometimes structurally demanding for the reader in terms of the arrangement of words and lines on the page and leave much either unsaid or in the hands of imagery that ranges with great precision from the delicate “snow light at an angle saying more than we can” to the  brutally direct “people shredded like wood”.  Throughout, it is hard to avoid the sense that this is a poet for whom every word matters, who mistrusts easy revelation and struggles against it, a quality found also, it seems to me, in the writing of the fine Belgian poet Miriam Van hee, with whose work Studzinska’s may well bear comparison.  The closing line of her seven-part poem 'Haunting', quoted from the work of Joe Bousquet, a French writer and poet badly injured during World War 1 and left paralysed for life, serves to make the point well:  “I am my own hiding place”.  Yes indeed.  To borrow poet and critic Dennis O’Driscoll’s comment on Kinsella, reading your way towards an understanding of the complex interior of Studzinska’s poetic life as explored in Snow Calling is like letting your eyes adjust to the dark in a cinema.

That said, however, and despite W. H. Auden’s view that poetry derives from the human instinct to play, serious poems, as Studzinska’s most certainly are, do make something happen, something that matters to the reader’s (and the writer’s) heart, to their consciousness of being human.  We are, after all, the only creatures in our world possessed of self-knowledge, the capacity to meditate upon our own predicament and the courage to live with what we learn:

“A stopping at an edge –
sensing a world of minerals, mistakes, the molecules of air,

water, the width and breadth of love, a vacancy –
this singular moment in its spectrum of sadness,

where are we in this immeasurable opening?”

.….Reviewed by Ken Head

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