By Marius Kociejowski Carcanet, 99pp, £12.95/$18.99
The literary travelogue – with elements of history, anthropology, personal experience and quest – is a difficult genre. In the absence of conventional plot, the challenge is to create a forward momentum, something that Bruce Chatwin, say, or WG Sebald were notably skilled at doing.
Marius Kociejowski, poet, essayist and non-fiction writer, is the author of two matchless travel accounts of Syria. Published in 2004 and 2010 respectively, The Street Philosopher and the Holy Fool and The Pigeon Wars of Damascus intertwine scholarship with crystalline description of landscape and people met along the way, among them Sufis, Catholic priests and Damascenes both Christian and Muslim.
For all that, Kociejowski would, I think, be embarrassed to be described as a travel writer. A rash of gimmicky yarns with titles such as Hang-Gliding to Borneo or To Bognor on a Rhinoceros discredited the genre in the 1980s. In an attempt to simulate the hardship of Victorian travel, the writers had imposed artificial difficulties on themselves. In every case it would have been quicker for them to take the train. Why windsurf across Syria when there’s a decent coach service?
Kociejowski is not of their tedious company. He pursues the strange logic of his own sensibility in a manner that suggests travel writing (Bruce Chatwin, Colin Thubron), but which eludes any conventional literary category. Ultimately, it is impossible to say what sort of writer Kociejowski is, except that he is his own sort. His newly completed book, The Serpent Coiled in Naples, promises to reveal the ragamuffin Italian city in all its obscure exuberance of life.
Born in 1949 in eastern Ontario, Kociejowski is Polish on his father’s side and English on his mother’s. That may account for his European sensibility. In 1973 he left Canada to settle in London, where to this day he works part-time as an antiquarian bookseller. His four collections of poetry – Coast; Doctor Honoris Causa; Music’s Bride; and So Dance the Lords of Language – combine a sensuous immediacy of detail with punctilious descriptions of landscape in a bracing gallimaufry of Rimbaud-like imagery (“The forest is a cathedral of light”) and dour spiritual cogitation (“The hour is late, the spade’s edge sparks upon stone”).
As a poet, Kociejowski has a strong weakness for oxymoron (“dark light”, “stupid with intelligence”) and is much exercised by the nature of time (clocks and astrolabes appear frequently in his verse). Thoughts of death are never far away, either. “A Seventh Jew”, a magnificent poem, honours a Jewish French Resistance fighter who was heard to sing an aria from Puccini’s Tosca as he was led with six other anti-Nazis to the execution yard:
We imagine just how it was Seven men pushed down the corridor’s bright glare to the courtyard beyond, As if allowing them to go in peace would destroy the bigger scheme Which was to make men less than what they are.
The poem, with the hushed intensity of its music and lyric sparseness, could only be by Kociejowski.
Spanning five decades from the mid-1970s to the present, Kociejowski’s Collected Poems elaborate on parables and tales from folk legend. “Salvatore Giuliano”, written in natural or “sprung” speech rhythms, considers the Sicilian bandit in all his dubious Robin Hood allure. The poem’s painterly impressions of Sicily (“the dark glow of aubergines”) and collage-like impasto of demotic and Italian speech communicate an air of disquiet and violence barely controlled beneath the surface crust. In time-honoured bandit fashion, Giuliano was betrayed by his closest friend, we learn, but the circumstances surrounding his death in Sicily in 1950 remain murky.
Another fine long poem, “The Charterhouse at Valldemossa”, recreates the freezing winter in Majorca in 1838 when Chopin completed the Preludes.
Allusions to the bookseller’s trade distinguish the collection. Kociejowski’s first job was at the London bookshop Bertram Rota, where, as he relates in his superb essay collection, The Pebble Chance,
Bruce Chatwin was occasionally to be seen. During his years as a bookseller, Kociejowski became personally acquainted with the poets Geoffrey Hill, WS Graham and, not least, Christopher Middleton. Middleton’s profound knowledge of Central European poets such as Zbigniew Herbert, Czesław Miłosz and Paul Celan is shared, manifestly, by Kociejowski, whose poem “The Stag” is dedicated to Herbert.
If one or two of the poems frustrate easy comprehension, difficulty has its own rewards in Kociejowski, whose careful orchestrations of language open up unexpected delights for the reader. For all their abstruseness, these wonderful poems might serve as an antidote to the dumbing-down of modern life. “Why is dumbness to be prized?”, the New York poet John Ashbery wanted to know. It’s a good question.