Marcin Świetlicki is a legend in Poland. He is an influential figure in the poetry world, but also has a strong presence on the music scene. Having fronted a rock band called Świetliki since the early 1990s, writing most of their lyrics, and more recently collaborating with other musicians, his hoarse voice is highly recognisable. There is something about his writing, both his poetry and prose, and, more widely, about his creative output, that leaves neither critics nor public unmoved. Perhaps it is the fact that he turns the everyday into something new, fresh or surprising. According to Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese, the translator of Night Truck Driver, his first collection published in English, ‘Under Marcin Świetlicki’s scrutiny, the homely often becomes the uncanny’.
Świetlicki is perceived as an outsider, a rebel even, with his signature dark glasses and stubble, who has, in his own words, ‘never really or completely been in the mainstream’. As we see in this collection, this distanced position makes him a perceptive observer and critic of our skewed, insincere world, which hides behind a curtain of culture and religion. He writes about life and death, about love and time, about our times – ‘the galloping Now’ – about communication. He captures small moments and uses them as a magnifying glass. He values his privacy, but also has a good sense of humour and sometimes turns to self-parody.
Again I’ve put on the dark glasses, I can see now glaringly: the world is old, gaudy, its broken colours are creeping to my eyes. Negatives burn, burn glaringly.
Apart from thirteen poetry collections, Świetlicki has also published crime novels, a short story and an autobiography. He is the master of cold, dark pessimism, of melancholy, gloom and discomfort, but also of, often quite bitter, humour and irony. He lives in Kraków, the city that features heavily in his writing. These poems describes urban walks, meetings with friends, watching strangers, streetlights, stairs, the texture of a city, also his frequent visits to one or another local joint. But he’s also happy to use Biblical references, often adding a sprinkling of irony.
‘I shall name him Abel,’ said the stranger – a man to be later called, with such terrible difficulty, father; he said it to a woman whom we’ll later call mother. ‘WE shall name him so,’ stressed the mother, and he grimaced: it’s him who had decided, she should have only approved.
Świetlicki’s poetry has been translated into several languages, but – after a string of publications in numerous magazines – this is the first time a collection of his poetry has appeared in English. Thanks must go to the efforts of his translator, Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese, who has championed Świetlicki’s poetry for a long time and who selected the poems for this collection from twelve volumes in Polish. Her translations are precise and balanced, carefully examining every small detail, and are highly respectful of the originals. They come across as a labour of love.
Reviewed by Anna Blasiak
NIGHT TRUCK DRIVER
Written by Marcin Świetlicki
Translated from Polish by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese
Published by Zephyr Press (2020)
Longlisted to the 2021 PEN America Literary Award for Poetry in Translation.
Anna Blasiak is a writer, poet and translator. She has translated over 40 books from English into Polish and, mainly as Anna Hyde, Polish into English. She is a co-translator (with Marta Dziurosz) of Renia’s Diary by Renia Spiegel. Her bilingual poetry book, Café by Wren’s St James-in-the-Fields, Lunchtime, is out from Holland House Books, as is Lili. Lili Stern-Pohlmann in conversation with Anna Blasiak. annablasiak.com.
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