Because we want to get a head start on showcasing your best seasonal content, we’re inviting new submissions as FEATURED SEASONAL CONTENT across all categories.
Explore O:JA&L’s Buttonhook Press offerings on Amazon.
Support publication of Erik Harper Klass’s forthcoming novella.
Subscribe to the O:JA&L YouTube channel.
Become an O:JA&L Member through Patreon.
Follow O:JA&L on Facebook.

Book Review

Rachel Custer, Editor-at-Large

A Review:

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

Mayakovsky with book via staff prompt to Jaspar AI.

In Erik Harper Klass’s Polish Poets in Beds with Girls and Other True Stories, the woman has green eyes. “As green as the cordate leaves of linden trees,” (4, and later) the reader is told again and again, with “a tiny gap between her front teeth” (10, and later). It is perhaps less accurate to say that there is one woman to whom all the various poets make love than to say that all the women are the same woman. All the beds are the same bed, “simple, comfortable, nondescript” with “pale saffron sheets” (5, and later). The room is the same room – “the Universe” in a library – with orange walls and furnishings (sofa, nested side tables, rug) whose descriptions are repeated in each vignette using exact language. All of the poets anticipate a reading by the great Russian poet Mayakovsky to take place the next day. The effect of this repetition is an endless present in which the only thing that reliably changes are the poems being translated and the art on the wall above the bed.

A story can be conceptualized as the interplay between plot, setting, and character over time. What, then, of a story in which these elements are rendered practically irrelevant because they are all the same, repeated in some sort of infinite looping multiverse where everything is happening now in the same place? What can such a story be said to be about? In Polish Poets…, the clever use of this repetition flattens the effect of plot, setting, character, and time into a surreal sameness, while the changing art and poem references highlights their relative reality.

In the rare scenes not set in the bedroom, beginning and ending each of the novella’s two sections, the main character tells the poets’ stories to statues of poet Julian Tuwim: “…he turns to me, a changing of light, a reflection….I remember you, he says. It was a year ago, wasn’t it? Here in the shadows of a past spring. You were so happy then” (4). All of the women are the same because they are all, in his mind, his lost love, Rachel. In this way, the narrator’s interaction with the statue is presented as more real than any of the other interactions in the book, taking place in the present in “the real world.” The story ends with the narrator walking away from another statue of Tuwim: “I know he watches me, beneath that lowered hat. Yes, we will meet again. He is everywhere in this city. If only Rachel were so easy to find” (53).

In the bedroom scenes, while so much remains the same, the art above the bed changes. It is once “a Japanese woodcut of man and woman in bed making love in the yin-yang manner” (7) and later “a framed print of Theodor Mattias von Holst’s A Man and Two Women in Bed” (27). The art reflects what is happening in the room – in the former scene, the poet and woman are head to toe while the latter reflects a scene with the poet in bed with multiple women. The art is presented with equal specificity to the rest of the room’s furnishings (including the people), but lacking the repetition. This gives the art an importance lacked by, for example, the women or the side tables.

The poetry, as well, changes throughout the novella. In the vignette about Bruno Jasienski, for example, that poet works to translate a poem while in bed with his lover, Klara: “Omnipotent one/You thought up a pair of hands/Fixed it/So that everyone has a head./Why couldn’t you fix it/so that without torture/We could just kiss and kiss and kiss?” (33-4). He worries this verse over and over in his head while reflecting how Klara no longer loves him. The verse finally becomes “O Lord,/grant us that we might fuck without/torment!” (38). The changing nature of the poetry throughout the work draws attention to it as something real, something that endures beyond the relatively unchanging story of the interaction between the poets and their lovers.

The overall effect of the repetition of major components of story in “Polish Poets” is to lessen their relevance to that story’s meaning. What remains is the art and poetry, which is active and vital throughout. The result reveals a multi-layered, provocative, and well-told story about art for art’s sake, language for language’s sake, and meaning-making itself.


Against the repetition of the setting, plot, and character, the focus of part two of Klass’s novella is Mayakovsky’s suicide, and the various poets’ reactions to his loss. Having elevated art and meaning-making to what is truly real, Klass elevates the artist to meaning-maker, and Mayakovsky to Poet among poets. Section one ends with excited anticipation regarding the great poet’s impending visit to Warsaw, and section two begins with the fallout from his death.

“How to write of this man?” This is the thought of Aleksander Wat, who believes Mayakovsky has killed himself over lost love: “…there was something else in his poems: some of the poets thought ex ante that this was an affectation, but when one embodies a certain sorrow for too long, it becomes a part of him, like a patina….Yes, Mayakovsky had lost love.” He explains this theory to the woman he loves, who is “his comfort” in the face of the loss. Even in his state of need, he knows “his desperate clutching of this love is the catalyst for the change he wishes so desperately to forbear.” Having lost Mayakovsky, he is unable to admit that he is in the process of losing the woman he loves as well.

Antoni Slonimski “is a collector” who collects details of the woman he loves. He reads Mayakovsky poems to his beloved in bed. “I still miss him, he says to her. You loved him, she says. All the poets loved him. We all loved him, she says.” In the face of their grief, the couple makes love. Slonimski is not comforted by the thought that “we love only what we do not wholly possess.” He tries to gather enough information about his lover to understand her, but “she is nothing more than this: an accumulation of sensations, an arrangement of patterns, an incoherent stream of ductile matter continuously molded by the fleeting impression of each passing moment.”

His lover having retreated into memories of lost loves, Kazimierz Wierzynski retreats into memory of his time in the war. He wants to touch here, to “reach out through his dreams and find something real….But only a lucky few of the poets may live in the present. There is something of the arranger of words that must allow the light and shade of future and past to imbue–which is to say: obliterate–the present tense.” It is not the loss of Mayakovsky that causes her to withdraw, we are told, but he is rendered alone by the loss, unable to reach out to the love he so badly wants to touch.

Jan Lechon “went alone to hear the great man read his poetry and then slipped away…so he could listen to Mayakovsky’s words, keep them pristine, allow them to slowly solidify in his mind, like a painting set aside and left to dry….Silence had been changed now, charged, he thought, after Mayakovsky’s thundering voice.” Lechon’s lover leaves, we are told, without haste, Lechon imagining him turning to look back. Imagining him even while he is still in the room. Having lost a first, real love, Lechon is perhaps unable to be fully intimate, a trait that seems common enough to be called a theme for our male poets.

Wladyslaw Broniewski is thrown in the aftermath of Mayakovsky’s death into a reliving of his time in the war. Unsure if German bombs are still falling, half in the room and half in the war-torn streets of Lvov, he cannot name the woman he is with. He wanders the streets, “drunken and enraged…recit[ing] from memory the poems of his loves, the poems of revolution, the poems of Mayakovsky, as if in these presentations of his own rage, his own madness, he might somehow make sense of all this, might wake himself from this dream.”

Nine years later, Julian Tuwim lies in bed with his lover. Through him and his backward gaze, we hear the summary of the matter as regards art: “Art is entirely without noise. There is always signal, always meaning. Every word is drenched in meaning….He does more than represent reality with the word; he compels the word to become reality itself, so that he might…destroy both the word and the idea.” The poet, here, in a world in which words are meaning, is both meaning-maker and meaning-destroyer. Art is both the most real thing and its end.

Mayakowsky’s death, then, is something like the self-destruction of a minor god. The poets grasp after Mayakowsky by grasping after love inevitably lost: “So how does one go on in the face of so much madness, linguistic and otherwise? How does the poet who has relinquished the word survive? How does he–how do you, Julian Tuwim–persevere after the death of Mayakovsky?” The answer comes back, and sums up for the reader the second act of Klass’s meaning-full novella: “With silence. With gesture. With touch. With the simple and yet intricate dance of sex. And yes, of course, with love.”


What, then, is the overarching meaning of Polish Poets In Beds with Girls? Klass offers a thoroughly-researched, dense story laden with symbolism, which seems, above all, to be saying this: art exists. This work is. And in being itself lies the meaning. Art stands (sometimes literally) above what changes and what doesn’t, outlives giants, and imbues repetitive, sometimes hopeless lives with color. For anybody who finds that meaning important, Polish Poets is a work worth taking in.


About the writer:
Erik Harper Klass has published stories and essays in Europe and North America. His work has appeared in a variety of journals, including New England Review, Yemassee (Cola Literary Review), Summerset Review, Slippery Elm, Open: Journal of Arts & Letters, Blood Orange Review, and Delmarva Review, and he has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes. He writes in Los Angeles, CA.

About the reviewer:
Rachel Custer is the author of Flatback Sally Country (Terrapin Books) and The Temple She Became (Five Oaks Press, 2017). She was a 2019 NEA fellow. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in many journals, including Rattle, Valparaiso Poetry Review, OSU: The Journal, B O D Y, One Art, and The American Journal of Poetry, among others. Rachel Custer is Editor-at-Large (Reviewer and Editorialist) at O:JA&L.

Image: O:JA&L proprietary image via Jaspar Art AI.

OJAL Art Incorporated, publishing since 2017 as OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters (O:JA&L) and its imprints Buttonhook Press and HOT BUTTON PRESS Contemporary Issues, supports writers and artists worldwide.

Support publication of Erik Harper Klass’s forthcoming novella.

OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters (O:JA&L) recommends the services of Duotrope.