Aspects of Strangers.
Moria Books, 2015
The world is peopled with family and friends, or so we complacently think, but it teems with a conglomerate of strangers moving all around us in vast herds and masses. This realization provokes the sensation of wandering into a room filled with unfamiliar people and discovering there is no exit. This dislocation provides the jumping off point for Piotr Gwiazda’s third collection of poems, Aspects of Strangers. Although “collection” is really the wrong word since it is one long poem divided into three sections that differ in structure. Gwiazda has also published two critical studies, James Merrill and W. H. Auden (2007) and U. S. Poetry in the Age os Empire 1970-2012 (2014), and a translation of Greggorz Wroblewski’s Kopenhaga (2013).
Aspects of Strangers begins with three long epigraphs, which set the stage and tone for the discourse and the range of influence from which Gwiazda will draw his images and metaphors.
The titular first section begins with this sense of alienation and otherness that pervades throughout this examination of the swarm of strangers that surround and crowd in on us. Cast into a sea of indefinite and personal pronouns, the reader, directly addressed, confronts a barrage of images and imperatives. Gwiazda interweaves quotes from resonant works like Rae Armantrout’s “Errands,” Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody Who Are You,” and Wallace Stevens’ “Less and Less Human, O Savage Spirit.”
In a conspiratorial second person point of view, Gwiazda begins his descriptive examination of the world of “other faces,” “other voices.” A catalogue of seemingly ordinary objects and things, “buildings, statues, pigeons/Empire’s avenues/ a bus stop, a lamppost, a trash can/ and this and that” evoke a foreign and distant sense taken out of their context and standing alongside one another as unconnected items. It’s akin to wandering around in a post apocalyptic world in a phenomenological crisis.
The two line stanzas spread themselves out over several pages in random groups until they gather into blocks of text and form mini-prose poems that shift into the third person pronoun. The lines crowd together like crowds of people before returning to their two line march. This latter group of two line stanzas that follows a curious page with an answer/response structure are nearly all end stopped which creates a staccato rhythm. Together these prose-like poems and end stopped two line stanzas sound like reports being sent back to the speaker’s home planet. “They visit cities like Paris and El Paso to collect souvenirs […] They sleep with their eyes open, wash their faces and hands neurotically…They wear sunglasses all day long […]”
The second section, “Ozone,” opens up into three line stanzas with a few exceptions that break the uniformity. The lines are given more breathing space in the layout which changes the rhythm and flow of the information and images. The pronouns “I” and “We” make a brief appearance and disappear back into the shadows. The only terminal punctuation here is a lone question mark. The sociological and philosophic examination of this peculiar world continues, but the tempo, timbre, and tone shift. The jarring juxtaposition of images that seem to have nothing to do with one another and everything to do with one another fly from the page like projectiles from a scattergun. The cumulative result produces a stunned and stunning effect, disorienting and eye-opening at once.
It puts me in mind of the explanation of zen by one of its revered monks who said: “Before I studied Zen, I saw mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers. When I reached a more intimate knowledge, I came to see mountains were not mountains and rivers were not rivers.” When the monk reaches the substance of things, he sees mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers. Gwiazda intends to offer a more intimate knowledge of the world to open eyes that once again will be able to really see. He leads the reader deeper into an intellectual lost world in search of rare treasure on this archeological expedition that rivals the search for the Holy Grail or El Dorado. At the end of this journey, the intrepid traveler might just discover self realization or an aloneness to equal no other.
The final section takes its title, “Moral Commerce,” from a quote by Josiah Warren, the first American anarchist, that is included in the random and formless collection of observations, notes, and images. The prose style, comprised of a diverse assortment of data, information, popular culture references and direct quotes from a wide range of sources of varying lengths from two words to several sentences, each separated with an asterisk, continues to bombard the consciousness. Peppered with quotes, literary references and personages, political theory, painters, musicians, composers, poets, philosophers, pop culture, familiar phrases, the quotidian, historical and political figures and events, the overall effect staggers one into feeling it is all foreign and distant, alien and other worldly. The vast array assembled by Gwiazda, curious, diverse and interesting, compares to the cover of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. Aspects of Strangers contains a crew that includes Whitman and Marx, Yeats, Paul Lafargue, Modigliani, Celan, Brecht, Yeats, the Doors, “movie posters for Nine/Invictus, Hangover/Alec Baldwin and Meryl Streep,” John Kennedy and his Ich bin ein Berliner, the D.C. Sniper, the Beijing Olympics, the cover of Newsweek, Jefferson, Venusians, Lars von Trier, Debussy, and so on. He reminds us to “be careful not to click twice” and “please do not listen to this message if you are not the person we are calling.” At times I felt like I was turning the knob of an old radio or switching the channels on the television. The book, resembling a musical composition, builds like, if I am allowed another Beatles reference, the song “ A Day in the Life,” to this crescendo of image and metaphor that threatens to explode your head.
But, in the end, Gwiazda has amassed an impressive world that resembles but disassembles the known world. He disturbs viscerally through the cerebral portal. The ideas appear safe in their presentation, but they seep into one’s physical being like an alien life form. Don’t let this frighten you away. Those brave enough to make the journey will come away richer and stronger, ready to face a new day and the herding masses with clearer eyes and a deeper understanding.
When I finished reading Aspects of Strangers, the world appeared to be a different place. It emanated a strange electric aura. I looked around and wondered if my face gave me away and if my voice would deny me.
Alan C. Reese