A seven-month-pregnant friend told me recently that the day of one’s birth is statistically the most dangerous day of one’s life; for women, the second most dangerous day in their adult life is the one on which they give birth. It is on this border of life and death that poet Justyna Bargielska’s prose debut, Obsoletki, takes place.
This book is made up of 41 short anecdotes – or diary entries, or dream descriptions, or prose poems. Bargielska weighs carefully the words she uses so sparingly in these texts, which makes her shifts of tone dizzying. All you can do is try to keep up. Sometimes it is as if Dorothy Parker lived in a much poorer country and wrote about miscarriage and motherhood.
Parenting is seen here from the depths of exhaustion, accompanied, as it so often is, by absurd humour and moments of barefaced honesty. The extremities of life (birth, stillbirth, miscarriage, death in old age), framed in various religious and secular rituals, merge with the more down-to-earth aspects of motherhood and humanity, the innumerable trivia of the everyday. Bargielska’s talent for surprising and funny juxtapositions of register perfectly complements this subject matter.
The narrator writes of her pregnant friends, of the therapeutic practice of providing grieving parents with photographs of their dead children, of the pastel-hued rituals that are supposed to help parents let go, the necessary and bittersweet ways people – women – cope with trauma. There are no easy consolations: the mixed message of hope and hopelessness is delivered by a woman who has experienced or witnessed all aspects of motherhood. The narrator looks closely at the realities of the body, no matter how graphic. She is aware of gender politics and of the massive emotional labour mothers must perform, even if accompanied by the quiet drone of anxiety or postpartum depression.
The dense prose reads like poetry and incomprehension lurks close by: Bargielska’s words hold much more meaning than I was able to unpack at first reading. However, her language is so captivating, the themes of the book so unique and underrepresented, and the moments of recognition so extremely rewarding, I was unable to tear myself away.
There is nothing lukewarm about this little book. If you accept Bargielska’s subject and her sometimes bewildering language, you could revisit Obsoletki over and over, just to see what else you can find in the book’s rough textures, its visceral, painful compassion, its embrace of all that is human; its clear-eyed awareness of the infinite fragility of life.
Reviewed by Marta Dziurosz
Obsoletki (“Born Sleeping”)
by Justyna Bargielska
published by Czarne
Marta Dziurosz is a Polish <> English literary translator and interpreter, curator, and Free Word Centre’s Translator in Residence 2015-2016. Her writing and translations have been published by the New Statesman, PEN Atlas, In Other Words, For Books’ Sake, Asymptote, and elsewhere.
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