Amor de Lonh, Gabriel Olearnik, Andromache Books
The composer Robert Schumann once described the music of the man who is still arguably the Pole par excellence to the non-Polish world, Frédéric Chopin, as ‘a cannon buried in flowers’, and this isn’t a bad description of what the Polish-British poet Gabriel Olearnik is up to either. To carry the analogy a bit further, as Chopin built upon the old classical style with new, exciting harmonies, so Olearnik makes use of the rich traditions of the medieval troubadours as well as those found in such deeply reflective and intellectual poets as T.S. Eliot and Zbigniew Herbert to create a burning bright new poetry of the mind.
There is of course an earlier poetical work known as Amor de Lonh, that of the twelfth century prince, Jaufré Rudel. His enigmatic verses on the theme of distant love serve as a template for this new Amor de Lonh in which every kind of obstacle, both internal and external, must be vanquished before the soul is free to fly upwards towards its goal. Olearnik’s book opens with a translation from the French troubadour about to embark on a journey into the unknown in search of his ‘distant love’, he imagines himself already at her feet,
In that far court, I shall sit beside her beauty
and draw sweet words from her mouth.
According to legend, Jaufré Rudel departed on a Crusade more on account of the imagined charms of his lady, the Countess of Tripoli, than out of any desire to do battle with Saracens, but fell sick on the journey and arrived at her castle only just in time to die in her arms. To the medieval mind, this was not so much an exercise in futility as a confirmation of the power of the soul above that of the mere physical self. ‘Distant love’ only makes sense if you can see that, and if you can see it, then only ‘distant love’, unearthly love, a wholly purified and spiritual love becomes your aim.
The book is divided into three parts dealing, approximately, with themes of science, war and the art of love. But the dividing walls are porous, there are cannons buried among Olearnik’s flowers, and flowers bedeck his cannons. There are lines of heart-stopping beauty, as in this neatly counter-weighted conclusion to the early poem ‘Acid and Optics’:
It may have been otherwise.
I could have singed my skin with strong waters,
you might have stretched light and its daughter, shade,
but in each weighed cosmos, every counterpoint of the real —
in another world I would still find you.
The language is rich but never cloying, vivid and direct, sometimes playful as well. There are references galore, everything from Ryszard Kapuscinski to St. Exupéry to Thucydides, adding layers of meaning in counterpoint.
In the second part of the book, we are plunged into the terrors of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, ‘War comes and will not be gainsaid.’ The tone is alternately apocalyptic, sardonic, or simple and moving as in the quiet poem ‘Ice Wine’:
But I remembered my father, his hands brown
his head red from the sun, steaming, sweated
his height, his green bottle and the love in it
thirty summers ago.
A theme begins to develop with this poem of fathers and sons, and lends a personal weight to the tragedy of war as part two unfolds.
The third part opens with a poem of sickness, ‘108 degrees’. The poet speaks from a hospital bed, burning with fever, or is it love? We are never sure:
Every heart is a dark forest.
I press the sand to stand still, gaze beyond the beachhead
At times the language of the Song of Solomon is invoked, then suddenly we are in London’s dirty streets where the ‘Madonna of Soho’ stands ‘with stilletoed core and white innocence,’ sacred and profane love become one. The book ends with a reprise on the theme of distant love that is also, oddly enough, a joke. But, the sly humour is one of the more unexpected notes, another moment of Chopiniana if you like.