ON KASIA BUCZKOWSKA'S IN PROSE

Is this a book of poems in prose? A book of vignettes or “short takes,” as Rosanna Warren has called them? A book of dreams, fairy tales, observations?

 

The easiest answer, and I think the truest, is that Kasia Buczkowska’s in Prose is all of these things. Each of the book’s forty-two patchwork pieces is brief, but colossally insightful. Here is the piece “Open Book,” for example, in its entirety:

A crowd of people flowed down the street. They walked in a hurry, closely, one next to another to make it on time, to reach their destination, as cascades of new pedestrians joined in the stream. A woman walked against the current with a steady, dignified step. She did not look ahead, or to the sides, or at her shapely-heeled feet. A flowing skirt reached her slim calves, embracing her thighs. The afternoon rays stroked her face. Her eyes rested on the page of an open book that she was carrying. The crowd parted before her. (73)

This is a paragraph as compressed and complex as any poem. Its prose sings and rhymes even as it makes us see: the crowd flowing, the woman’s dress flowing. The sentences—calm, insightful, precise—press onward, as though inevitably, to their visionary rush-hour moment of revelation: “The crowd parted before her.”

The world as seen by Buczkowska is rich with such revelations. She looks at the everyday chaos of elements and discerns the elemental:

The summer heat stabs the skin with needles. The usually assertive acacia tree, sky-gazing with its leafy symmetries, looks resigned. A man’s hand glistens with sweat-beads as he scrolls up and down on his tablet. A little boy dressed in tennis clothes practices rotating-the-ball movements with his racket. (“In Transit,” 76)

But Buczkowska is not just a talented noticer. in Prose is also a brilliantly told book of stories. In its pages, we meet a parrot with a perfect memory who overpreens its feathers (so neurotic it seems almost human), a woman attempting to live in peace with a mouse who has taken up residence in her apartment, and a mortician laid off from her job for trying to minister to the wishes of the dead that only she can hear.

 

Many of the tales Buczkowska tells are tales of miscommunication, between humans and animals, women and men, grandchildren and grandparents, and even, in the case of the second-sighted mortician, the living and the dead. Yet no matter how gross the miscommunication, Buczkowska's language remains attuned to near-misses, imperfect correspondences. She provides us with plenty of the pleasure which the mind derives from the perception of similitude in dissimilitude:

A cow stood on the grass. Grandma was milking the cow. The milk was flowing into the bucket. A fly was cruising around the cow. Granddaughter was chasing the fly with a birch branch. (“The Fly Bit the Cow,” 16)

In the door of a shady building, a girl stands, all dolled up, dressed in a skimpy sequined top, and a boy in a baseball cap, bare feet, with a guitar slung across his naked chest. She fixes her hairdo; he pulls up his low-hanging pants. (“Hobby: A Life,” 38)

Buczkowska’s compositions are always en passant, giving us train-window glimpses of places, situations, characters. All the same, we sense that she truly does care for these characters—whether strangers on the subway or remembered relations, imaginary beings or recreations of self. And we sense this, I suppose, because we also come to care for them. We understand the grandfather in “Blind Love” who appreciates but does not want the new watch or the “state-of-the-art bicycle” that his children foist on him (63). We recognize the beggar’s impulse in “A Piece of Your Orange.” “Could you share a piece of your orange?” he asks:

“Sure,” I said.

“Oh, no, thank you,” he demurred with an easy smile.

“Here you are,” I said, stretching out my hand with the offering.

“Thank you, really. I just wanted to check the state of your heart.” (43)

These people, sketched in a matter of moments, come home to us more vividly than many characters drawn out in bulky novels.

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Buczkowska has said that she started writing the pieces that make up in Prose almost by accident, as a result of living in New York City. (“A Piece of Your Orange,” in particular, is a pure slice of city life.) But her prose is too imaginative, too beautiful, to be thought of as a series of fortuitous journal entries worked up into publishable form. In Buczkowska's clipped parataxis and penetrating perceptiveness, there is something of Isaac Babel; in her whimsy, something of Walser or Kafka; in her penchant for the unpredictable word and image, something of Rimbaud. She is a ventriloquist who can give voice to a man weeping over the horses he has sold:

 

“I am modest, resistant to cold and vermin, like topinambur; I can live on every soil; I am knowledgeable; I like ironing my shirts; I love women and I admire breasts of every size, I’m looking for a woman who can carry my crying over horses.” (“Sly Animal,” 17–18)

 

She is a storyteller who recounts the lives of Soviet prisoners, twenty-first-century scientists, panhandlers, and children with a few careful strokes of the pen:

 

This child is brilliant but difficult. She learns easily, but does not listen. She frolics when the hour is not for it. Contrary, disobedient, merciless. You wilt.

 

At night, when she is falling asleep, she says: “I love you so much like from here to the sky.” (“Size of a Feeling,” 26)

 

She is an observer on whom nothing is lost and a seer who urges us to look (and think) again:

 

The ocean flows eternally. Constantly, yet not monotonous. Consistent, yet unpredictable. It fights, struggles, tears itself to smithereens. It crashes against rocks, spatters into droplets. It reclines gently on the sand. With its waters it sculpts mountains, with a thunder it smashes them into rubble. It disguises itself as an avalanche, burns in a white smoke, crawls like lava to the shore. It roars, hisses, murmurs, quiets down to whisper, and recedes into the abyss. It never falls into habits. (“Oceanness,” 78)

 

If it’s true that Buczkowska began writing as if by accident, let us be thankful for accidents. Sometimes they produce a writer blessedly untouched by literary fashion, one who composes fragmentary, gorgeous, memorable prose, freighted with the weight of the past and animated by the fluctuating pressure of the present—prose shaped by a mind which seems never to fall into habits.

[1] Kasia Buczkowska. in Prose. Boston, MA: Un-Gyve Press. 2014.

Originally published in Literary Matters 8.1 (Fall–Winter 2015)

© 2019 Alex Andriesse