by Piotr Gwiazda
Pond Road Press, 2012
978-0971974128, 62 pp., $16.00 paperback
Standing against conformity, yet skeptical of change, Messages, Piotr Gwiazda’s second book, Messages, offers biting commentary on contemporary culture in America and beyond. The compelling rhythms of Gwiazda’s free verse create a conversational diction perfectly suited to his outrage over social/political subjects. For this poet, war, religion, and technology threaten both the natural world and our ability to determine our individual purpose in it without succumbing to outside influences. Gwiazda’s poems will leave their imprint in resistance to these forces that influence our individual lives as the poet makes navigating their hold one of his defining preoccupations.
In part one of the collection, readers are confronted with the numbing prevalence of arbitrary change: “Every six months you are required to change / your email password and / or sexual partner” (“Removable Tattoos”). Culture requires speed and even poets get caught up in the whirl, but Gwiazda makes the case that poets will eventually escape industry and conformity to bring some degree of beauty back into the world: “All is not lost, however, when poets—/…improvise in softly toned sprechstimme/songs of dubious importance and vague beauty.” He urges us to stop and look up from our cell phones and computers, to notice that most of our world doesn’t require cell reception or Wi-Fi to be appreciated. Yet what we see when we look up isn't always affirming: “To the right, a shopping cart.//To the left,/ a dead squirrel.//My cell phone rings.//It’s good to hear your voice” (“Three Pieces for Two Hands”). Gwiazda’s pessimism about Western culture is prevalent in “Life After People”—“Most of the intelligent life on earth/doesn’t include humans.//…Folks, why do you keep asking me/if there is life on another planet?”
The second part of Gwiazda’s collection, “Time,” is a composition in seven parts. Through dramatic and musical references, Gwiazda explores human mortality and the speaker's disdain for social conformity. While exploring the trials that beset his own quest for explanation and understanding—awareness of mundane surroundings that are also “terrorists’ targets,” the imposing influence of predecessors, the challenge of writing the poem itself—Gwiazda proclaims his own resistance: “But I won’t lead you out of confusion; / I won’t comfort you / as you follow your leaders / and their somnambulist leaders” (“Time”). Gwiazda’s poems are about taking action, and breaking free from the herd, yet they are also self-aware and conscious of poetry’s limits: in “Time,” Gwiazda observes, “This poem amounts to, at best,// a conversation with myself./ (Who?) My letter to the world/ that never wrote to me.” These poems encourage readers to discover passions of their own, rather than follow those that their leaders or the media suggest.
In the collection’s title poem, the last in the book, Gwiazda comments on the dual nature of language, religion, and progress. The image of God’s voice on a call-waiting recording, saying, “Your call is important to us” (“Messages”), suggests we are alone in the universe. We are caught, stagnant, yet changing, lost, yet moving, unable to simply stop for fear of self-destruction. We live on “this planet,/with no future,//where the wilderness has the color/of worn-out dollar bills,” and even “the horizon” appears as a word crossed out, as if the world itself is as easy to erase as language.
Despite moments of deep pessimism, Gwiazda’s poetry is invigorating and enlightening—just the thing our conformist culture needs to awake from our drone—like technological dependency. We are human; but what does being human signify these days? Gwiazda’s passionate voice stirs the yearning to restore our species, to wake us from our own somnambulance and make us look around. It is a powerful collection that urges us to think, and its outward cynicism masks an urgent call for change.—Elizabeth DeFries/b>