Wiesław Borowski, Cross words
The texts that make up the body of Dróżdż’s poetry are usually just single words and signs. They are unquotable because it is only their place, inscription and relation to other signs which enables a full contact and dialogue with specific works. Ideas, and the potential ways of their processing, are born and developed in the poet’s mind, but their ”optimal” representation (seldom constrained by a sheet of paper) is in a gallery or museum, or other venue reserved for the visual arts (nowadays that can be almost any space: architectural, urban, etc). It is Dróżdż’s intention that his poems be viewed, like paintings or sculptures. Yet a work of concrete poetry – whose shape is determined by conceptions and words – does not have much in common with a painting, sculpture or other visual work and its presentation. In Dróżdż Conceptiforms, a single, selected word provides sufficient ”substance” for both the shape and meaning of the work. Such early works as word and two words are the most elementary examples of this. The artist claims, and consistently implements his belief, that: ”if a word or a letter do not lie, then three words can tell a lie.” Can a poet betray poetry more deeply than when he renounces ever saying more than two words; when he resigns from the use of sentences? When his words do not communicate with the ”third” words, do not make up sentences and texts: how can a poet claim to remain in the poetic field? He does not go to these lengths simply to evade the possibility of lying, only to stay on safe ground, or does he? On the contrary, the decision he has made is risky, if not dramatic, and places him in a most suspicious position, a lost position. Resigning from poetry in the traditional sense and leaving the complexity and beauty of written poems (which he regularly reads) unquestioned, the poet wants to create a breach and to offer something in exchange. He isolates chosen words from the language, obvious words, but at the same time ones difficult to isolate, and shows them stripped naked. He uncovers their autonomous logic, displays their individual voice and, throwing them in the cross-fire of new relations and questions, he lets loose their fundamental meanings. The true reason for such a decision, for such an artistic activity – has long been a mystery to critics, readers and, first of all, many poets; it has been a real crux interpretum, a commentator’s cross. If today a small part of this mystery is being unravelled, then it is due in part to the longevity of Dróżdż’s career as a poet and artist. To reach the truth of a poetic ”sign” one needs to catch its meaning, to understand the truth of the word, the meaning of language and life by means of the ”sign;” one has to get closer to the sign, to wander ceaselessly around it and, last but not least, to test out each conclusion in other places and through someone else’s eyes, so that one does not go around in circles.
The words, letters and signs of Stanisław Dróżdż’s works usually lack literal meaning. When the author places them in the field of presentation, they no longer hinge on their literal shape. Appearing in various configurations and positions, they none the- less always rediscover their original sense. For instance, they create distances and opposites between each other (from to, from here to there, beginning-end), they cross and entwine (life-death, discontinuing); they vary in size (Hour-glass); they can be accompanied by punctuation marks and these are the very punctuation marks that enhance the meaning (certainty, hesitation, uncertainty). Dróżdż dynamically illustrates growing or diminishing of their constituent parts (forgetting). These works rarely keep their static balance as a result of the multiple repetition of signs (loneliness), or of a single word (like in the series man and why?), or owing to the oscillation between the movement of increasing and decreasing (e.g. numbers). Time and space keep growing in these works, but they never move far from their truth and their source. They retain legibility in the space that they occupy, thus enabling the reader to ”come closer” to their sense. There the reader will find simple messages and truths, evolving around such notions as infinity, death or memory.
A missing letter, in everyday life is simply a misprint, but in the case of Stanisław Dróżdż’s poetry it loses its literal consequence. A word from which a letter has been removed, such as forgetting, builds a surprisingly tangible space around itself and initiates the process of rediscovery of its own full meaning without any additional contexts or definitions. This space provides the reader with an entirely new experience. It is as if a word, otherwise very well known, was looked at for the very first time, as if it had to be recollected anew. Tadeusz Sławek, a well-known writer and interpreter of Dróżdż’s art, wonders whether these texts are meant to be read at all. Although doubtful, he still admits that they can be “an exercise at reading“ and goes on to prove it with a series of reflections on the nature of the eye, which becomes more than just an instrument of vision. ”The eye – Sławek writes – will under- go a harsh ordeal once it reaches the intersection of shapes” (which is precisely what a reader of Dróżdż’s texts encounters). ”Concrete art – he continues – is perhaps the gaze of an eye (…) which suddenly begins to sting, causing tears to fall.” Stanisław Dróżdż’s texts, reduced to an elementary utterance, are fascinating and significant as long as the viewer reads – not as much in them as beyond them, as long as the viewer does not give up the fascinating, meditational viewing process.
Nowadays, meditation is seen as outdated and reading has been replaced by consumption of information and desire to be entertained. Dróżdż’s ascetic approach to language, an instrument with infinite potential to inflate and falsify, can be taken as another of the poet’s warnings, the warning by somebody who does not intend to preach – only to point out that two words are usually enough.
The excess of the word has been troubling people for a long time. ”Words, words, words” – the famous answer Hamlet gave to Polonius’ question (”What do you read, my lord?”) – was an early sign of the Shakespearean despair, a looming possibility of failing to trust the language of reading. Regaining that trust has been the ceaseless effort of poets, and the source of anxiety for readers, of all times. Concretists are no exception here: they strove, says Dróżdż, ”to make themselves trust the language, not distrust it.” In their eyes, the over-inflation of language has become a key issue. It is only at the end of the twentieth century that the early word-poems by Dróżdż, so severely alienated and isolated from the colloquial language structure, have been restored with all their precision and power. There are no more than a few dozen of them in the artist’s entire oeuvre. They are all worth seeing and contemplating in the exhibition spaces approved by the author.
”Why has everybody become so interested in forgetting?” – asked Dróżdż when I told him that it is this work – forgetting – that is going to be exhibited in the museum of Bremen. A question like this (posed by the poet rhetorically) was not an invitation to discuss memory or the defects of the human mind, now released as is so often the case from the burden of remembering things of import. Dróżdż has retained the skill of remembering. As any author, he prefers to talk about his works, but he does not refrain from talking about life and art. It is true that we find it more and more difficult to memories information, especially in the traditional, encyclopaedic way: ”our contemporary memory – states Tadeusz Sławek – is shifting towards forgetting, oblivion, non-recollection.” The words sound like a memento for contemporary man who assembles all knowledge and stores it away, outside of his mind, in information banks or computers. The future will show whether this activity is purely negative, as we often tend to think. And let us not forget the role of the advertisement whose task it is to remind. Aggressive, impudent or cajoling, infantile or pretentious – words, images, scenes assaulting us from screens large and small, filling the electronic communication lines as well as streets, squares and city mews – advertisements do the job of incessant, endlessly multiplied reminding. Are we supposed to see people as bodies who remember nothing and see nothing? In light of such inventive and never- ending advertising campaign, what do we make of such ordinary, surreptitious and anachronistic works as forgetting or here-there? Certainly they belong neither to the prophetic nor the avant-garde. During the time of the people’s democracy, when Dróżdż made his works, nobody really realised the irrational power of advertising. By chance, Dróżdż recently found an appropriate space for his here-there poem: in a huge, ultramodern, fair venue in Leipzig. The two, hyphenated, words (in Polish), multiplied over and over appear on glass corridors of about a kilometre in length. Thus Dróżdż ’s work was offered a permanent home in a grand exhibition space. Here-there does not inhabit the space in an aggressive way, on the contrary, it interacts discretely with the passers-by as a barely visible space vector. It brings to mind the ambling pace of an invisible surveyor, who endlessly walks the spacious corridors here-there, taking measure and reminding the passers-by of their human scale. Alienated from their linguistic context the two words by Dróżdż have been brought back into the public sphere where they are assimilated in a semantically pure form.
Let us mention another challenge which Dróżdż decided to face recently when he was asked to show one of his pieces on hundreds of commercial billboards (blank as a result of an advertising company’s crisis). He chose the word or printed many times in each board. What we confront here is outright opposition to paid advertisements: the word or offers endless possibilities of choice, as opposed to a single article, arbitrarily imposed on viewers.
Forgetting belongs to the earliest poetic works by Stanisław Dróżdż, which right from the start fully displayed the ascetic qualities of the form. Remembering the word today, after over thirty years, confirms the universality of this almost untranslatable poetic art. It seems like recollecting a word fleeing memory, a word which – in accordance with the auto-determination presented by the author in the gesture of creation – manages to annihilate itself and, thus, to acknowledge its immanent significance. Showing the way to reach the essence of the word, Dróżdż enables the viewer to experience emptiness, silence, void – a sort of dying. Cutting a letter off a word broadens the field of such experience, adding, at the same time, space and time for the free imagination. This space and time is a gift from the author to those who might – in a moment of reflection however brief – realise that the ”expansion” and ”spreading” of man does not enhance or enrich his existence.
Stanisław Dróżdż is the most outstanding Polish concretist. His earliest texts from 1967 (mentioned here in no particular order) – before the author actually heard of the concrete poetic movement abroad – were called conceptiforms, and the term ”concrete poetry” added precision to this notion. In the 1970s, Dróżdż inspired and later consolidated an active group of concrete poets in Wrocław. Within the movement, academic sessions on concrete writing were organised, together with group exhibitions and publications of anthologies of Polish concrete poems. As time passed, many artists left the movement, leaving Dróżdż almost alone in the field. ”I am a sort of mastodon – he said in an interview – who wanders about galleries.”
Translation: Joanna Szymańska