Grzegorz Wróblewski - It is Kafkaesque and yet tender poems, cynical and yet warm, elliptical and yet wholly immediate

Front cover

Grzegorz Wróblewski, A Marzipan Factory, Trans. by Adam Zdrodowski, Otoliths, 2010.

A Marzipan Factory is the most original and enticing book of poems I have read in years. It is Kafkaesque and yet tender, cynical and yet warm, elliptical and yet wholly immediate. Grzegorz Wróblewski can take the most ordinary of phenomena and then give them the twist of a knife: to "spare" the life of a living organism—a "dry" tangerine for instance—is, from another angle, to forget it.   The pleasures and terrors of sex, of age, of the fear of death, of the deceptions of our social life, have rarely been so brutally—yet wittily and charmingly—documented as they are in these short, often gnomic poems, surprisingly well rendered in Adam Zdrodowski’s translation. Grzegorz Wróblewski restores one’s faith in the power of lyric poetry to renew itself. — Marjorie Perloff
Grzegorz Wróblewski's poems are ironic and serious, quick and probing, nailed to place and character but soaring in imagination.  If you haven't read his poems, it's not too late to start and this new volume is the perfect place to do that. —John Z. Guzlowski

"You are an > accidental being / just like me," writes Grzegorz Wróblewski, in his poem "Black Head," and the lines go a long way toward describing the provenance of his poetry. Wróblewski's present volume, A Marzipan Factory (the volume in which this quote appears), continues his Dada-Surrealist portrayal of our Dada-Surreal lives. In his better poems (and there are gratifyingly many) contexts are implied. Variations upon common phrases, in the opening lines, generally make them seem familiar for just a moment. By the end of the poem, those almost common phrases arrive at mock closures that suggest that there is little in life that isn't purely subjective, even crazy.
There is, however, a definite "feel" to life, and, frequently, a sense of an objective reality within which human existence is a-swim, poignantly ludicrous. In the poem "Cindy's Cradle" the protagonist obsesses over the daughter that he has not yet had or perhaps never will have:
Look what he's up to
How he's losing his head in the center of this asphalt island
surrounded by the police and the angels
from parallel worlds.
Until the angels appear, there is not a word in the poem that is anything less than humble, quotidian. There is only a vague suggestion, in the opening line, that something is vaguely out of hand: "Watch out for the cars, man—I shouted." With the arrival of the police a well-known closure is suggested but then suddenly there are the angels.
This method is remarkably effective at expressing a riotous abundance of life in the midst of bland, irrational, often unsightly details. It is the blandness, at which Wróblewski is uniquely talented, that gives the poems of A Marzipan Factory their special poignancy.
The details of romantic love are among the most bland. In a poem such as "If She Was Still Sipping Wine With You" it is barely mentioned and is everywhere:
You used to only care about women
and now you discourse about jays all the time.
You explain they have souls,
you analyze their appearance and behavior...
You observe them for hours, I even caught you
working out their nervous
birdy hops
It is an effective preventive against triteness. If there could be said to be an overall pattern to the human behavior in A Marzipan Factory it is obsession. In no particular does that obsession arrive at a more muted mixture of bathos and pathos than romantic love:
The first girl I fell in love with
told me incessantly
about her passion for preparing hens' stomachs.
Even listening to Brahms
in the evenings didn't help us.
If there is anything more pathetic than a man in love, it is a man not in love.
It is not likely that Grzegorz Wróblewski would agree that he has a "method." It is certainly true that a reader will find the volume more diverse than most. Moreover, Piotr Gwiazda has recently received a grant from the PEN American Center in order to translate Wroblewski's book of prose poems, Kopenhaga (2000), from the original Polish, highlighting the fact that the poet avails himself of a particularly wide range of techniques and voices.
The poems in A Marzipan Factory (also translated from Polish) display a considerable range, as well. (One is even a prose poem.) Perhaps the most magical lines in the volume can be said to have been crafted with completely different tools than those described:
This is not a dog although the natives describe him as such
he must have fallen out of the sky
I realized it
from the way he would conduct his argumentation—
He made two steps forward
And then
The sandstorm came.
Even the translations from Kopenhaga that have been released thus far, however, tend to be most successful when they may be said to employ the method described here. The farther the poet strays from it the more often his poems seem merely trendy and sometimes over written.
In the final analysis, Grzegorz Wróblewski is a tremendously energetic and talented poet and painter who is working his way toward the recognition that he deserves. The volume A Marzipan Factory: new and selected poems, at its best, is a particularly effective celebration of our deeply flawed humanity. It is also a fine record of the poet's journey to this point. - Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Grzegorz Wróblewski, Kopenhaga, Trans. by Piotr Gwiazda. Zephyr Press, 2013.

“Grim, glancingly beautiful, always necessary.”   —Joshua Clover

“One of the most important books of our time: these are at once unsettling and comforting, timely and wryly moving poems about the laughable annoyances, limited joys, and the never fully present sorrows of cosmopolitanism, the life of the citizens of the world.”    —Gabriel Gudding

“Wróblewski is the true poetic chronicler of our 21st century diaspora in all its absurdities and anxieties … Kopenhaga is a journey to the end of the night that always makes a U-turn in the middle, to take in the latest folly—and also self-rescue mission—of the transplant. Read it and weep—and then laugh!”    —Marjorie Perloff

Kopenhaga is the first comprehensive collection of prose poetry by Grzegorz Wróblewski, one of Poland’s leading contemporary writers. The book offers a series of vignettes from the crossroads of politics and culture, technology and ethics, consumerism and spirituality. It combines two tropes: the emigrant’s double identity and the ethnographer’s search for patterns. While ostensibly focused on Denmark, it functions as an investigation of alterity in the post-cold war era of ethnic strife and global capitalism. Whether he writes about refugees in Copenhagen (one of Europe’s major transnational cities), or the homeless, or the mentally ill, or any other marginalized group, Wróblewski points to the moral contradictions of a world supposedly without borders.
“What if even in the afterlife you have to know foreign languages? Since I have already suffered so much trying to speak Danish, make sure to assign me to the Polish zone . . .”
So reads a typical aphoristic “poem” in Kopenhaga by Grzegorz Wróblewski. I use quotation marks in an attempt to indicate that while the book is being advertised as poetry, the form hardly matches one’s expectations. This, depending on your perspective, is a good or bad thing. As I touched on in my last review, poetry is not a huge seller in these United States. If you are the sort of reader who finds line breaks infuriating and coded language obnoxious, Kopenhaga is poetry for you. If you’re a purist—look elsewhere.
Or maybe you’re used to this technique. It’s not like other writers haven’t dabbled in prose poems. Still, while the approach is nothing new, how many readers of Baudelaire go beyond Les Fleurs du Mal into Le Spleen de Paris? Even seasoned poetry readers tend to shrug off prose poems.
Example: an associate of mine, a poet, flipped through Wróblewski’s book and commented that, while it seems quite interesting, it isn’t poetry. I could practically see the dismissal manifest physically. Never mind the content—the form doesn’t work for him. This is lamentable and further evidence that poets and their readers may be poetry’s worst enemy.
It may be worth considering the purpose of prose poems, specifically in the case of Wróblewski. The theme of Kopenhaga, if one can be found, is the familiar one of writer-in-exile and the pieces that comprise the book—usually only running a paragraph or two, sometimes only a sentence—are episodic in nature, often funny, deceptively disconnected, and frequently profound. While constructing these poems, Wróblewski did not concern himself with meter so much as impact. Brief meditations on the everyday life of a poet in exile can go in numerous directions. Such freedom requires breaking out of traditional form.
Despite the random feel of these musings, the book is a complete and intentionally constructed work (even though the reader learns from translator Piotr Gwiazda’s introduction that the English edition is a collection of different texts). The fragments (I think this is a better description) discuss the trepidations of exile, but also incorporate pop culture, URLs, personal recollections, advice to beginning writers (“If an editor doesn’t respond at all . . . you need to calmly drain two bottles of cheap wine and discuss the matter with local pigeons”) and sardonic jokes. The result is a perfect example of the poet as witness. Better: poet as anthropologist, observing and reporting on the absurdity of orienting to shifting cultures. Wróblewski quantifies his existence by writing:
A letter from the insurance company PFA. My life is currently worth 7,993 Danish crowns. (The amount my family will get if I unexpectedly relocate to the next world.) Cosmic Loneliness. Thank you, Krystopher, I will keep you in my thoughts when I’m underground. A unique combination of protein and paranoia: 1,330 bottles of beer (or four tickets to Poland.)
What might otherwise be a brief interlude in a different book stands out on its own as a contained thought, yet serves a larger goal. In this sense, Kopenhaga is a piecemeal accumulation that deserves to be read in its entirety. Picking isolated movements feels criminal and detracts from the cumulative effect. In this sense, the poems adhere to a theme and build upon each other not unlike a novel. Any one page from Kopenhaga can stand on its own, but taken as a whole it makes a larger, albeit bizarre, sense.
And for all his concern with his homeland and his adopted country, in the end Wróblewski’s realization is that they are irrelevant:
bq, What terrifies me in Denmark (the land of Bohr and Kierkegaard, a caring tolerate state, with a high standard of living, etc)? What terrifies me is homo sapiens. Also in Wilanów and other wholly innocent corners of the Earth. What terrifies me is homo sapiens.
In this brevity, Wróblewski communicates the enormity of not only the exile’s tragedy but of all of humanity’s. The joke, it seems, is on us all. - Vincent Francone

Grzegorz Wróblewski: According To The Enclosed Brochure / Cindy’s Cradle

Translated from the Polish by Agnieszka Pokojska

According To The Enclosed Brochure

Three pills were said to help, or at least do no harm.
Still, after I took two, unpleasant things started to happen.
Suddenly Homer disappeared from my memory and then
thieves walked out through curtained windows
with a week’s supply of food.
Loss. Anger. Misunderstanding.
The chemistry promised relief
but instead
I landed myself in new trouble.

I am now thinking of changing my prescription.
The thought of upping the dose excites me.
I have always been much too impatient.
(I could have kept the pet macaw but I was obsessed with betrayal… )
I took the third pill.
And then the fourth.
I half-close my eyes.
Someone’s hand creeps up to the tin of jasmine tea.
I wait.

(Translated from the Polish by Agnieszka Pokojska)

Cindy’s Cradle

Watch out for the traffic, man! — I shouted
and all he replied was,
she was supposed to wear pink tights and
gorge on melons with me

Cindy, Cindy!
You should visit your old man sometime

Look at him now
losing his head on the safety island
surrounded by police and angels
from parallel worlds.

(Translated from the Polish by Agnieszka Pokojska)

Poems by Grzegorz Wróblewski
Translated from the Polish by Adam Zdrodowski

In the salty sand. Jellyfish...
The plane slowly went up.
Several mango sellers

or retired generals.
(A platinum sombrero.)
A flare

they’ll find the lipstick within a radius of...
Urine, suspenders –

Two offended skeletons:
Do you think they could've copulated
on the wing?

Psycho Taiga

A chicken with cut-off wings.
Misery. Somebody’s wrapping an old iron in newspaper
(acid rain! save water,

Greenland’s melting away).

The prostate’s sucking away our Noble Lord

spruces, business, they’ll go get the kidney.
(the queen’s throwing up like any ant)
Greenland’s melting away... What does she have in her belly?

She’s carrying a shark,
a whole swarm of salty bugs.

Two Grilled Tuna
He’s being quickly transported to the dragons’ hollow.
Listen, I’d like to sleep with a sort of amoeba
or something even more repulsive,
(It’s no wonder; when he was young, they bashed in
his face and knee.)
I can’t specify what species I have in mind…
As a reward, you can have some fun with my old lady,
he offers the garrulous XXL.
But shouldn’t the objects be notified

Are you out of your mind? Surprise is the key.
He finishes a bottle left from yesterday’s session. (Unknown
cults and organisms are budding in vases.)
In the morning he calls XXL. He’s just been to a city
famous for its wonderful grilled tuna. He had
two servings.
He only thought about her and couldn’t help himself.

Highway of the Sun           

Flesh and horns over the run over wing and a pig got out of the metal
he cooperated with the papacy and the Habsburgs
a renaissance art patron
he had a triceps and a sticker but it wasn’t enough that’s why the radio
the lipstick khaganate used to exist on Mongolian territory (they’ll serve coffee with
amphetamine any minute now) the wing already in purgatory but the patron Rubens life’s lesson
a watch
an ass
your panties
my ass
together with the watch
the plane
the bambi doll
Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus.

Drunken Children
They jumped all around us like kangaroos

“Turn the torch off, the light
will bring us bad luck”

I noticed their small hands,

A group of drunken children

A black, buzzing box on a line
(Moons in a sack)…

They quickly walked away towards
the flyover

As if frightened by the shape
of your dentition

Cinnamomum Bark

Out of cinnamomum bark emerged chitin
knights. Alex’s smoking a cigar.
In his childhood he signed a pact with the devil,

but back then people still believed in dragons.
Yesterday he split a pillow and an armchair.
He was looking for diamond cones.


We know them only through descriptions in books.
They have to be small, fluffy and quite cunning? Or maybe you mean
midsummer night?
An old cat is also indispensable. (All the people you could trust have been

Experienced enough not to be afraid of fireworks in Iraq?

You suggest making love in the fresh air. And let there even be
predatory leeches.
‘Cause we’ve come too much unstuck from the skin.
It seems to us that the sun was installed yesterday by Mcorso,
the stiff from the ground floor, the scenography guy.

The Dodo

The islanders lick the snow with respect.
No occultists in sight. (The feuding cats
are out of the game.) The dodo couldn’t

(the hot ocean evaporated from the stone floor).
I stopped walking.
And here’s my skipping rope!
I roll in a jar,

together with a damaged sweet cherry
and an autistic beetle.

A Marzipan Factory

Even birds persuaded that I’d lost my mind and terrified
chose the tricks of the street juggler. (Where are the promised

Worried tramps steal a paper medallion with
rose petals fastened to it.
I don’t react, nor call anybody for help. The city’s guardian
passes me by
not suspecting anything.

Lying under the monument of a Danish king, I patiently wait for
the bus to S.

I’ll have a look at the chimneys of a marzipan factory closed down
a dozen years ago.

He’s Worth Following

Let’s go, he’ll lead us to the apartment that still belonged to us today,
he’ll fish the keys
out of the sea,

This is not a dog although the natives describe him as such
he must have fallen out of the sky
I realized it

from the way he would conduct his argumentation –
He made two steps forward
And then

The sandstorm came.

Potato Crop

The parish priest falls asleep over a book on turbulent
motions of matter. Could this fieldstone,

on which dappled birds rest,
have once been a strongman in the circus?

You haven’t changed much – I console him.
Look! The others ended up as potatoes.

My Life With Ann 3


Shells have been entering triangles since morning.
Stocks with grey fruit

grew in the evening in the middle of our bedroom.
You were reading Wu Ching, and I Doctor Dolittle’s Circus.

Lords of the Night

They’re no bandits, they’re rather old bats
cowering in fright.

They furtively pull out their hip flasks,

women prod their groins
with pink umbrellas.

The Rose Demands a Poem

The rose demands a poem sensitive to a lizard’s tongue,
crooked cumulus clouds or the gesticulation of deranged
(You remind me of a rose, my cunning rose!)

She would like a lofty day, a betrayal or a duel over a demonic
that would have cheeks as smooth as her delicate

Could the rose be a feminist?
A calculating politician?
(Thinking about the rose, I associate independence or only domination.
A lot of blood has been spilled, and the rose took part in this incident...

A withered rose or a juicy rose... (The rose doesn’t have to be connected
with baroque lyricists exclusively, the rose was also inspiring to lonely
astronauts and ruthless procurers of all descriptions.)

The rose has always been the muse of poets.

Does this poem give you satisfaction at last?

Escapes and Approximations

I am by no means the one you had been dreaming about...
Are you waiting for a change of my interests?
Even two-headed butterflies under meticulously
dusted glass, would they do?
Meanwhile, since morning I’ve been sending you love letters...
Calm down, there are still so many important errands
to run
, you escape.
Important errands don’t have the taste of your lips,
I’m imitating an ancient poet.

Let’s set it:
The day is allotted to the pursuit of carpets and the night
to a rational rest before the next day...
(At noon you can afford to read the Guardian.
So move away to a safe distance.)
In this case:
Effusiveness of feelings after the end of an evening chat
about how you should prepare sweet potatoes
(but then it’s time to put out the light...).

Once again lips and colourful, exotic shells.
I dreamt that I made love to you in a steaming ocean.
And do you know how much a steaming ocean costs?
You’d better go to a course in masculinity in Istanbul,
let them show you women slaves and a jewel case full of
almighty gold.

Afternoon Apparitions

This bulky woman sipping her wine next to me Or the other one, in a black dress,
whom I’m passing now
and whom I’ll probably never pass again Or even the doctor without make-up
who’s checking my pulse with a cool hand, surprised that I’m still breathing

Suddenly I see their faces leaning over me I think we have
something in common

– that for a moment I could be happy with all of them...

The Return of the Armada

In the flat country, poetry still flourishes:
stopped pestering me.
We should dig in the Jute peat bogs.

there lie there many brown men with slit
throats and seeds
in well-preserved entrails.
(Seamus Heaney should become an honorary
citizen of Aarhus.)

When will the armada I sent in 1970 in search of
Atahualpa’s rings return?
Rotten, Lilliputian ships – two-headed birds
will come out to greet them.


The first girl I fell in love with
told me incessantly
about her passion for preparing hens’ stomachs.

Even listening to Brahms
in the evenings didn’t help us.
Love evaporated in no time.

The second one ate tulips before going to sleep.
Then I began to ponder again
about the first one.

A Visit by a Woman from Before Five Months Ago

Instead of you – something very
similar to you.
(Doesn’t scream.)

Then a telephone:
And how was it this time?

Be careful choosing new lovers.
Sex with phantoms is worse
than nicotine.

A chubby blonde
will prove the easiest.
If you are of medium

So the star-gazers say.

The black-haired ones are dangerous.
They won’t leave your mind
for 200 long days.

You can drink boiled water
but you’ll still have nightmares
and humiliation.

A Summation Scheme (About the Illnes of John T.)

A general state of consciousness?
In the tenement house live a pimp and a carpet-seller.
Neither of them can stand Dante.
they have never set their eyes on him.
Because we’re flooded by light literature and life
is devoid of a single shred of comedy.
A mannerism of thought is out of the question here.

It’s rather the style of the punchline or a classicaly degenarate speech.
Secular, prehistoric content.
But... no!
The pimp has heard something about Virgil.
Because it had something to do with the stealing of old prints.
He might have meant Caligula’s white stallion.
Why is there so much bitterness in me?
And it would be like that everywhere:

if somebody mastered the whole of Cervantes,
it would never occur to him
to devote himself to the study of Diderot or, say,
Panfilo Sasso’s summation scheme.

Black Head

Ghosts are unhappy at our place. Together with a mad family of cats, we look
at the snow-covered Black Head. “Don’t you think that Black Head
is heading in our direction?”

Calm down, it’s just a mountain.
Mountains don’t move yet. And even if they do...
(Then we’re dead.)

Will the cats manage to hide?
Yes, cats have their mysterious tunnels (cats and May bugs.)
Something must have provoked her!

Was it the skyscrapers? Then you should quickly believe in your reality...
You’re an accidental being,
just like me.

Three Plaits

Amulet trade in the morning.
Bone serpents haven’t started their negotiations yet.
Bards hidden in oaks twitter
about the gods’ will and men not born
of women.
Your spells on the back seat
– you look like Macha Mong Ruadh,
the daughter of Aed Ruadh.

Light at the River

Already wingless (The moon flees from
the insects) In a moment
starry leftovers

in the reeds, the first crayfish catchers
Kidnap her and make her weave
wicker baskets.

In The Afternoon Babylon

A leaf functions until the last moment. Even when it falls from the tree,
it still breathes. In 1546 an unknown fish was caught off the shore of Denmark.
The fish had long fins and a tail, and its scales were covered by a brown habit.
They called it a sea monk. Did you know that Richard Kuklinski
from the Bronx murdered 100 people? He kept the quartered bodies
in the fridge. He went down in history as the mad “Iceman”! A seal trainer:
My alumni can play water polo and are the idols of handicapped
youth. (The Copenhagen zoo greets people and pensioners – animals:
no admittance!) An invasion follows… A mushroom, clasterosporium carpophilum,
is approaching us… Lazy pugs – multum in parvo!
In 1733 Karl Alexander, The Duke of Württemberg, had a pug monument
erected in Winnenthal castle. (Pugs need a 20-minute walk every day.)
Remember before you fall asleep: Only broccoli will cure your paranoia
once and for all. 3 inconvenient questions: What was the fate of the sea monk?
Did they let him speak to the smoked flounder mongers?
Or maybe they had a festive post-mortem? The chronicles are silent on this point…
Peroxide Joanna speaks: My relatives used to like plums and in December they fed on
meatless sauerkraut stew. It must blend well…– they would whisper mysteriously
beneath their quilts. (The Clasterosporium mushroom…) This time it was my
last visit – I promise to myself and I shut my eyelids tight.
On the other side the winged “Iceman” awaits me.


In a moment something bad will happen,
something I’ll be forced to forget quickly.
Or just the opposite.

Who knows their fate? An old washerwoman
hangs bed-clothes on lines between the trees.
When she sees the clear sky she is happy again.


In the beginning we observe bumble-bees and colourful petals
We are still small and fascinated by the flies
enjoying themselves in the sugar-bowl

After them are sparrows which we shoot with a catapult
Later on we keep canaries and this way
we learn to love the animals

The first sexual act we associate rightly with the nightingale
and maturity with the regular
feeding of the pigeons

Finally there are only eagle owls
We sit offended by the window and everything alive
brings on a rabid fury


12 hours daily for 50 years, without even seeing the sun,
in meat factories and mines, repairing other peoples trousers,
only to drink himself unconscious every Saturday,
and later getting sober during Sunday mass at St. Patricks,
and on Monday working again, without seeing the sun,
trying to convince himself that one day everything will change,
and in the end taking apart an old chest of drawers,
and taking out a bundle of bank-notes and giving them
to his surprised wife, who will say, that one could travel to Honolulu
for that money or at least buy two pigs, but now there’s no reason
to do that, she could have married the local doctor, but made
a mistake and chose, how stupid, this rascal, slow-witted Robin
and wasted her life instead of buying two pigs, and now he will
desert her, and did such a life have any meaning at all?


Old González, who feeds on grass
and collects fag-ends under the tables.
They say, that he once ate tortoise
to become immune from the coming
epidemic. (Americans throw him lettuce
leafs now!) Since that time tortoise have
never left him. González crawls on the ground
in silence. Filthy and popular as no other
tortoise in the vicinity.

Translated from the Polish by the author and Malcolm Sinclair


Some times it’s women with a false diamond
in the ear, other times gossiping parrots
or failed politicians.
There came often to my uncle’s house, a priest
in company with a professor in corpse
conservation. They played poker
and drank peppermint liquor.
They had a good time together.
I also knew a man who chose
loneliness. (He had a passion
for silence and vermin crawling
on the walls!) When he died,
he bequeathed his body.
He was a huge man.
He lasted many months.

Translated from the Polish by the author and Malcolm Sinclair


a brothel (250 per head)
a slaughter-house (a sweetish, sickly smell)
a barber (clips old men who are already dead)
this is my danish space and specifically
Valby Longstreet

a tired house-painter in white overalls
goes in, makes quick love
and leaves in his van from which
a folding ladder protrudes

(the butcher shovels up the red grease
from the street)

but I can’t go so suddenly in
and come so quickly out

Translated from the Polish by the author and Malcolm Sinclair

In a moment something bad will happen,
something I’ll be forced to forget quickly.
Or just the opposite.

Who knows their fate? An old washerwoman
hangs bed-clothes on lines between the trees.
When she sees the clear sky she is happy again.

—Translated from the Polish by the author and Malcolm Sinclair


Stooping streets and bars on the windows.
(Inhabitants guard their hard-won rings...)
It occurs to me that I recognise some faces.
Someone suddenly answers my greeting.
The last day I pass a girl, whom once I loved.
The girl is dirty and limps. She doesn’t see me.
She disappears pulling a hand-cart filled
with glass, old newspapers and ripe tomatoes.

—Translated from the Polish by the author and Malcolm Sinclair