Conrad at 160: ‘Notes Towards a Poem’ by Agnieszka Studzinska

joseph-conrad-heart-of-darkness-1075x605
The year 2017 has been declared ‘The Year of Joseph Conrad’ by the Polish Government to celebrate Conrad’s 160th birthday. To mark this, a poetic celebration of Conrad will take place at the National Poetry Library, Royal Festival Hall, on the evening of Wednesday 1 November. The event is free but booking is required. The event’s line-up of contemporary London poets includes Robert Hampson, Agnieszka Studzinska, Karen McCarthy Woolf, SJ Fowler, Saradha Soobrayen, Amy Evans, Harry Gilonis and Edmund Hardy. Below is a response to Conrad by Agnieszka Studzinska.

 

Notes Towards a Poem

after Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

 

  1. The heat is camouflaged in the morning wind. The wind smoothes our faintly tanned flesh. An orchestra of cicadas are paged in a cluster of small olive trees. As we sip our coffee, their punctual opera maps the Aegean air. We listen to the measures of nature, the cyclical accents of a language, unlacing.

 

  1. “And at last, in its curved and imperceptible fall, the sun sank low and from glowing white changed to a dull red without rays and without heart, as if about to go out suddenly, stricken to death by the touch of that gloom brooding over a crowd of men” (Conrad: 2015: 4).

 

  1. And suddenly, the cicadas stop, on cue. The backbone of this landscape eases into its arid skin. I smell the whispered trail of burning as our children nosedive in the swimming pool. Innocence clowning with innocence, and innocence vanishing. And suddenly, somewhere boys and girls their age are stopped, on cue. Taken to the markets and sold like fruit.

 

  1. “They were conquerors and for that you want only brute force – nothing to boast of when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got” (Conrad: 2015:7).

 

  1. What was to be got was money. The heart of all darkness. The broken promise of money enveloped in the granules of the Sahara desert. In the news, the African migrants are imprisoned in Libya, scope their limbs through bars like off shoots of a dead tree in the sheath of sun, white-hot.

 

  1. The sun without heart, dipping as we clink our glasses to yet another privileged view of a beautiful Its heat kicking those who travel under its foot.

 

  1. “But I couldn’t. I could not tell her. It would have been too dark – too dark altogether” (Conrad: 2015: 84).

 

  1. My daughter asks what I am reading on my phone in my deckchair: “I wanted to cross the sea, look for work, earn a bit of money, help my five brothers” reads the sentence. “They would flog my head, my hand, my bum,” reads another. The world’s earth swallowing dark spit.

 

  1. “The earth seemed unearthy” (Conrad: 2015:39).

 

  1. In 2016, more than 180,000 migrants crossed from Libya to Italy. According to the UN, almost 26,000 of these were children, most of them unaccompanied.[1]

 

  1. “There were moments when one’s past came back to one” (Conrad: 2015: 36).

 

  1. A school playground in October. No English on tongue. A spate of syllables on the outskirts of breath. A chalked blackboard with words. Copying. Learning their shape. Foreigner. Word. Disappearance.

 

  1. “They would let us phone our people once a day,” he said. “They would whip us while we were on the call so our families would get the message. We would beg them to send us money.” [2]

 

  1. In bed, our children shawl their bodies between thin cotton sheets and us. I try not to imagine. Lie there in darkness. Listening to breath, heart, the butterfly kisses of the eyelash fluttering in sleep, an accompanied silence. A mind is boned as it thinks of ravaged bodies between the sweat of months rolling away from home; among submissiveness and the quiet sniveling of adults turning into children and children into adults. Sleep comes cautiously.

 

  1. “Very well; I hear; I admit, but I have a voice too, and for good or evil mine is the speech that cannot be silenced” (Conrad: 2015: 39).

 

  1. The belted buckle of wind, the supple note of fire, a trace of secrecy, the silence of the sea cumbrous with people, voices beaconing.

 

  1. We jump off small rocks rounding a bay and swim together to the shore. I remember this. The sea bluffing in turquoise. The sky meets it seamlessly.

 

  1. economic migrant

immigration

colony

imperial

foreigners

chance

the apparition of a future

 

  1. My daughter says that history is her favourite subject, I ask her why? “It’s about the people,” she replies, “I like to read about the dead people.”

 

  1. In the morning after the fire had ransacked the land behind our villa. We watched the hawks, unsettled, as they swooped closer to the ground still looking for prey.

 

  1. On page 1, Julia Kristeva writes: “ the foreigner lives within us: he is the hidden face of our identity…by recognizing him within ourselves, we are spared detesting him in himself…can the foreigner who was the enemy in primitive societies, disappear from modern societies?” [3]

 

  1. The cicadas cower in a row on an olive leaf like some jeweled broach on the collar of a coat. The sweetness of fresh orange juice disguises what we are saying.

 

  1. “…it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of ones existence – that which makes truth, its meaning – its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible.  We live, as we dream – alone.” (Conrad: 2015: 29)

 

  1. Maybe, it’s the mother in me that switches off the TV sometimes when images of humans do not resemble humans.  Of children’s eyes, language searching the inside of a mouth. When I sit at the dinner table and shout, “you will eat all of this, you will eat, ” I hear somebody else. Their footsteps in my shadow.

 

  1. “The last word he pronounced was your name” (Conrad: 2015: 84).

 

  1. The wisteria of wind snarls names in the roots of where you left to come for a better life. You over there, just beyond that sea.

 

  1. “I want – I want – something – something – to – live with” (Conrad: 2015: 84).

 

  1. I think of the water heartbroken with darkness, pushing down as far as it can reach. How in its endless cycle of ablution, it cannot cleanse the taste of salt from itself, from those who enter its household.

 

——————————————————

[1] (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa)
[2] (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa)
[3] Kristeva Juliua, Strangers to Ourselves, (trans Leon S. Roudiez), Columbia University Press, New York, 1991.
Agnieszka Studzinska

About Agnieszka Studzinska

Agnieszka Studzinska has an MA in Creative Writing from UEA. Her debut collection, 'Snow Calling', was shortlisted for the London New Poetry Award 2010. Her second collection, 'What Things Are', was published by Eyewear (2014). She is currently working on her third collection of poetry as well as a PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London.