In December 1970, amid a harsh winter and an even harsher economic situation, the ruling communist regime in Poland chose to drastically raise prices on basic foodstuffs. Just before the Christmas holidays, for example, the price of fish, a staple of the traditional Christmas Eve meal, rose nearly 20%. Frustrated citizens took to the streets to protest, demanding the repeal of the price-hikes. Things took an especially dramatic turn in the northern regions near the Baltic shore — later, the cradle of the Solidarity movement, which would eventually spark the fall of communism in Poland and throughout Central and Eastern Europe — where the government moved against their citizens with the Militia and the Army. Forty-one Poles were murdered by their own government when militiamen and soldiers opened fire with live rounds on the crowds in Gdańsk, Gdynia, Szczecin and Elbląg.
Jan Polkowski’s moving poetic cycle Głosy [Voices], presented here in its entirety in the English translation of C.S. Kraszewski, is a poetic monument to the dead, their families, and all who were affected by the ‘December Events,’ as they are sometimes euphemistically referred to. In his afterword to the collection, ‘Jan Polkowski’s Voices — The Antigones of the Baltic Coast,’ Józef Maria Ruszar notes that this work, in which Polkowski, as something of a medium, ‘enters the skin’ of the dead, the survivors, and their families to ‘speak from within his narrators,’ is something which ‘has no counterpart in the literature of Poland — or even that of the world.’ In its moving, subtle, yet powerful tribute to those who paid the highest price for the ultimate victory of right over wrong, liberty over oppression, Jan Polkowski’s Voices takes its rightful place alongside other immortal artistic threnodies, such as Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, John Hersey’s Hiroshima, and Henry Górecki’s Symphony III.
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Jan Polkowski (born 1953) is a poet and a prose writer. During the Communist years, he worked as a publisher and editor in the Polish underground press system. After Poland’s regaining of independence in 1989, he was publisher and editor of the newspaper Czas Krakowski [The Kraków Times].
As a poet, Polkowski debuted in 1978 with several poems in the uncensored literary quarterly Zapis [The Record]. His first volume, To nie jest poezja [This is not Poetry], was printed two years later, in 1980, by the Niezależna Oficyna Wydawnicza NOWA [NOWA Independent Publishers], which makes him the only Polish poet to have debuted in the underground press system. His subsequent volumes were also printed by independent publishers: Oddychaj głęboko [Breathe Deeply (1981)], Ogień. Z notatek 1982-1983 [Fire. Personal Writings 1982-1983 (1983)], Drzewa [Trees (1986)].
Polkowski was interned at the imposition of martial law on 13 December 1981. Upon his release from prison in 1983, he went on to serve as editor of the underground social and literary magazine, Arka [The Ark]. In the same year, he won one of the most prestigious Polish literary prizes — the Geneva-based Kościelski Foundation Award. His first legally published volume, Elegie z Tymowskich Gór [Elegies from the Tymowskie Mountains (Znak)], came out in 1990 and contained a selection of pieces that had already appeared in print, as well as previously unpublished poems from the early period of his career.
Several years of publishing silence ensued, after which Polkowski finally made his literary comeback in 2009 with Cantus, which volume won the Andrzej Kijowski Prize in 2010. He followed this up with two more collections: Cień [Shadow (2010)] and Głosy [Voices (2012)]. This latter publication won him the ‘Orpheus’ Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński Award for Poetry. In 2015, Polkowski published Gorzka godzina [The Bitter Hour], consisting of poems written in the village of Tymowa, where he had settled not long before. Another collection, Gdy Bóg się waha. Poezje 1977-2017 [When God Wavers. Poems 1977-2017], came out in 2017, after which several more books followed in quick succession: Pochód duchów [A Procession of Ghosts (1918)], Rozmowy z Różewiczem [Conversations with Różewicz (2018)], Łyżka ojca [My Father’s Spoon (2021)], and Pomieszane języki [A Confusion of Tongues (2021)].
In 2013, Polkowski debuted as a novelist with Ślady krwi. Przypadki Henryka Harsynowicza [Bloodstains. The Trials of Henryk Harsynowicz], which won the Identitas Award in 2014. A collection of his short prose pieces, Portier i inne opowiadania [The Janitor and Other Stories], was published in 2019, followed, a year later, by a volume of daily reflections, entitled Pandemia i inne plagi [The Pandemic and Other Plagues].
In 2014, Polkowski also published a collection of journalistic pieces, Polska, moja miłość [Poland, My Love], and in 2019, an autobiography in the form of a book-length interview conducted by Piotr Legutko, entitled Ryzyko bycia Polakiem [The Risk of Being Polish].
The present volume, Voices, has also been translated into German, Romanian, Ukrainian and Russian.
Charles S. Kraszewski (born 1962) is a literary translator from Polish, Czech, and Slovak. He is the author of four volumes of original poetry; three in English (Beast, Diet of Nails, and Chanameed) and one in Polish (Hallo, Sztokholm). He has also published a satirical novel (Accomplices, You Ask?).
Maria Gąsecka was born in 1982. She is a graduate of the Polish Higher School of Film, Theatre and Television in Łódź and Norwich University of the Arts. She collaborated in such documentary films as Herman Goering Karierre, Ku chwale ojczyzny [In Praise of the Fatherland], Czarny czwartek, dlaczego? [Black Thursday, why?]. She has worked as a cinematic still photographer; she is the author of a series of photographs and exhibits: Sport Photography (2006, 2007), Closer (2011), Mute (2011, 2013), Gates and Doors — Gdańsk (2013), Magic Doors (2013), Cool Days on the Baltic Sea (2014). She curated the one-day no-gallery exhibition Two Coasts (2019). She is curator and author of the exhibition, as well as author of the collage What Created Me (2021).
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