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A Book Review

Contributing Editor Vera Falenko

A Review:

Polish Poets in Beds with Girls
and other true stories
by Erik Harper Klass

A Novella of Layers

Mayakovsky with Book #2 via staff prompt to Jaspar AI.

To engage in conversation with others is a most natural thing for any human being to do, be it in bed with a lover or in a knajpa with comrades. Almost as natural to any poet are the impulse to highly particularized self-examination and the compulsion to offer eloquent but unsolicited judgments on contemporary circumstances and the larger human condition. We listen with sympathy and fascination to this series of intimate colloquies that Klass has created in his captivating narrative that brings into our awareness again several notable Polish poets of the Interwar Years 1919-1938.

Feelings matter here – the relationships between the lovers. The expansive descriptions of tiny things matter here. The internal monologues of the individual poets matter here –  their musings on the condition of the world around them.

In the opinion of this reviewer, it is the blending of all these things in Klass’s precise proportions that matters most. His many thoughtfully nuanced ingredients in this literary recipe are the result of exhaustive research, and his efforts provide his readers with the ultimate experience of the vibrant Polish poetic community of the first half of the Twentieth century.

«I’m asked from time to time (actualy just once (my dad)), 
how much of this novel is historical and how much is fictional? 
My answer is exactly 32.6% is historically accurate.»

Erik Klass

Having worked for more than a decade, Klass has done as much investigation on the lives and lovers of the 8 polish poets in the novel as possible, but keen reader is sure to feel the balance between the fictional — the emotional, poetic part — and the historical one which gives a person interested in east-european poetry basic understanding who was prominent at that time.

«My goal, I think, is to have created something
in which a conscientious researcher, using readily available sources, 
would have a difficult time identifying, without question,
the fictional elements in my work, my non-falsifiables».

While one can take on the play with the writer and go online in quest of what is true and what is not, others might like to walk along an imaginary gallery of portraits painted by Klass and get to know the poets. The mere setting of the novel, the attention to tiny details from nature to the lovers’ bodies position suggests that we slow down and try to soak up the precious seconds of the world that is yet in peace.

The poetic nature of the novel is a central motif. It is easy to notice the repetitiveness of it, but it is exactly the repetitiveness, the pattern that carries two more layers of meanings. The first to name is the desire to relive the same love moments over and over again but with minor changes as if to see what would have happened. The other is all the tiny details in the parallel description of all eight rooms: from the colour of the room to the rug on the floor. Once a description starts it gains pace and gives an impression of a train of thought that can go through a poet’s mind while coming up with a new poem. Descriptions of apparently random things described in such tiny details can give a glimpse of the way an artist’s mind works: getting hooked up on one idea and developing it into something poetic, attractive to another observer’s eyes. And all of the above is not the end to the un-layering.

«…He is translating one of Mayakovsky’s poems…:
…More and more I wonder
Hadn’t I better just
Let a bullet mark the period of my sentence?»


Interestingly, there is one extra, additional poet — the ninth. If the name Vladimir Mayakovsky does not ring a bell then you are probably just not familiar with the futurist movement in poetry and here is another thread that you can pull on to discover more about the beginning of an amazing and sad era which goes under a common ordinal numeral the twentieth.

Vladimir Mayakovsky, who by himself deserves a separate book, merely peeks out in every story. We only see him mentioned in connection with two events: the eve of his coming to Wassaw and the day after the poets find out he had committed suicide. His ghostly presence is felt throughout the narrative.

«The next layer , I think has to do with the Narrative Theory…
Here of course is where postmodernism 
and all the freedom of experimentation 
and playfulness and metafictionality 
and that overt intertextuality 
creep into the novel…»
Erik Klass

Another feature of Klass’s novel that deserves our attention is without any doubt the composition of it. It starts off as a monologue inquiring about if the listener remembers certain facts, later on we find out that this is actually addressed to a woman.

With every chapter the focus shifts to the eight Polish poets and we get little clues as to what these poets’ personalities are like and there is always Mayakovsky’s presence. This adds a tinge of sadness and inevitable doom if you are familiar with the fate of the great poet. If this is not the case and you have no idea who he was and what his poetry was like the impression will probably be that of hope and light at the end of the tunnel. The Polish poets seem enchanted by Mayakovsky, they are full of expectations and hope that he will show them the way into the future. He is a futurist after all…

The part that follows brings us back to where we started: a lonely man having a conversation. This is a very special one — with Julian Tuwim — one of the eight poets. It is a very intimate conversation more of a therapy than just friendly chatting: the listener is keen and his answers and comments are critical. It is this type of conversation that makes one speak the words that come right from one’s soul. This is the binding part, a bridge of a sort that connects the scenes in the poet’s bedrooms with the heartaches of the narrator.

What follows the exchange between the narrator and Tuwim is the same round in the gallery of the Polish poets. Here is the same tantalising repetition of the room decorations and the affectionate description of the girls. This time we see the poets after they had found out about Mayakovsky’s unfortunate end and it is a completely different palette of emotions.

The novel is full of beautiful poetic descriptions but what makes these descriptions special is the occasional drop of technical terms, words that belong to geometry or trigonometry or some other -try. These words add specific highlights to the description, it becomes torn and edgy in a way that shifts your attention and wakes up the reader’s imagination making them slow down at these moments. At the same time it is something that adds the feeling of stability to the changing nature of poetry, it is in the science with its strict rules that one can find a refuge from the stormy sea of feelings.

The closing part talks about darker times representing the passage of time that will inevitably bring change. Sometimes it is the change for the worse and one of the last scenes that Klass shows us is sombre, however some hints are dropped all along the narrative. A keen and careful reader is sure to encounter some old friends of the great and sad era that Klass reintroduces. Seeing a reference to Jorge Luis Borges, for example, might indeed make one feel hopeful. We know what tragedy is coming but knowing what Borges would eventually become for the world literature also lights the way and gives comfort, as if saying: «this isn’t how it all ends, there’s still plenty right on its way…»

Closing off the flow of the mind of this review’s author: whatever the background knowledge, even though you have no idea about Polish poets or Mayakovsky, there are still a thousand angels to look at the novel from and enjoy the company of Polish Poets in Beds with Girls.

P..S : the title is a reference to a revolutionary poem by V.Mayakovsky.


About the interviewer:
Vera Falenko is a 2017 graduate of the Moscow Aviation Institute, a State University. She is a native Russian speaker and a language specialist with fluency in English (English level C2, according to the European frame) and Spanish (Spanish level C1). Falenko provides selected Russian and Spanish translations for our readers in the Eurozone and in eastern Europe. She maintains an independent book review site, offering book reviews in three languages.

Images: Mayakovsky with Book #2 via staff prompt to Jaspar AI. Proprietary image.

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