The Poetry of John Paul II-Roman Triptych: Meditations
Translated by Jerzy Peterkiewicz
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. 40 pp. $19.95
Poland went through something of a golden age of poets in the second half of the twentieth century, and I’ve always suspected that Zbigniew Herbert was the best of them, although he didn’t win the Nobel Prize, as both Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska did.
But I can only suspect it, for I know no Polish, and Herbert’s poetry as rendered in English is not, in fact, as good as that of Milosz and Szymborska. If poetry can be translated at all—and that is a serious question—then poets, and their readers, are at the mercy of translators. Does Herbert give the same feeling of incompleteness in his original language as he does in English? Or did his rivals merely have better luck in their translators? (Luck is not the sole factor, of course; in addition to producing one pope and several poets, Poland also gave us some of the great literary operators of the twentieth century, and while nobody can match the breathtaking standard of ladder-climbing set by Jerzy Kosinski, Czeslaw Milosz always knew which end was up, and he set out early in his career to meet the great translating poets of other languages.)
This question of not-quiteness in translation—the persistent feeling of the language not quite fulfilling the promise made by the poetic imagery and the thought—has to be faced when considering the recent volume of poetry from the Polish poet Karol Wojtyla, his first collection since he became Pope John Paul II twenty-five years ago. The Poetry of John Paul II—Roman Triptych: Meditations is a handsome book, all in all, but it is replete with amateurish touches—such as printing on the dust jacket the coat of arms of the Pontifical North American College, as if it were the Pope’s personal seal—that do not inspire confidence in a reader.
The verse collected in the book is not bad, by any means. As an instance of “poetry by famous people”—such is the category in which a review in Slate magazine placed it—the book ranks very high. And the celebrity aspect of Roman Triptych can’t be entirely set aside. The original sold nearly three hundred thousand copies in one week in Poland. Wislawa Szymborska has never had sales like that, not even when she won the Nobel Prize, and it’s safe to say that the Poles weren’t lining up to buy the book in ignorance of its author.
The sales figures for America—20,000 copies so far—also reflect the author’s status and stature. A few lines in the English translation of Roman Triptych clunk in prosy exposition: “In the Sistine Chapel the artist depicted the Last Judgment. / The Judgment completely dominates the interior.” Many lines are wildly overpunctuated: “Source, where are you?! / . . . (Silence—why are you silent? / With what care you have hidden the mystery of your origin!).” And some of the text seems genuinely obscure: “Read in this key, the invisible becomes visible. / Pre-sacrament.” But so what? This is writing from the Pope. He’s a genuine intellectual by anyone’s standard. He has led one of the most interesting lives in modern times. He spends innumerable hours in prayer and contemplation. And he’s the leader of the planet’s one billion Catholics. Just how good must his poetry be in order to be worth reading?
But Roman Triptych is better than the category of celebrity verse—or different from the category of celebrity verse, for it is, finally, about something. Considered purely as poetry, however, it feels incomplete. The clunkiness may come from the translator, Jerzy Peterkiewicz, who rendered Wojtyla’s earlier poetry into generally lifeless English in The Place Within: The Poetry of Pope John Paul II. But the occasional obscurity almost certainly derives from the extremely difficult poetic problem the Pope has set himself to puzzle out in Roman Triptych.
The book consists of three linked poems: “The Stream,” “Meditations on the Book of Genesis: At the Threshold of the Sistine Chapel,” and “A Hill in the Land of Moria.” In the first, the Pope watches a stream as it runs down from the mountains and through the woods: “The rushing stream cannot wonder / as it descends, and the woods silently slope, / following its rhythm.” In the second poem, he contemplates the art of Michelangelo’s Rome: “With this truth he once cloistered himself in the Vatican / and when he emerged, he left behind the Sistine Chapel.” And in the final panel of the triptych, the Pope considers Abraham as he journeyed from Ur to Mount Moria for the sacrifice of Isaac: “There was a time when people / continually wandered. / Surrounded by herds, they went where abundance beckoned.”
There are several misdirected ways to take all this. Despite the fact that “The Stream” is the shortest of the poems, the dust jacket of the English edition features a photo of the Pope walking beside a mountain brook, as though we were about to read the extempore effusions of a nature poet warbling his native wood-notes wild. There’s a moment in the second part where the Pope, describing the Sistine Chapel filled with cardinals at his election in 1978, declares, “so it will be again, when the need arises after my death”—and many news re-ports have taken the book to be about the Pope’s refusal to give up authority before he dies. A few adventurous reviewers, remembering that Ur is in present-day Iraq, have even decided that the book concerns the current situation in the Middle East.
There’s no denying that all of this is present in Roman Triptych. John Paul II is an old man whose death looms, and he recently returned to Poland in part to walk again beside the streams he had known when he was young: “The End is as invisible as the Beginning.” He is also a man who remains deeply worried by the state of the world: “‘God saw all that He had made and found it very good’? / Is this not denied by history?” But as he tries to draw these themes together, something else emerges. The puzzle he finds in himself is the puzzle of the human condition, and Roman Triptych shows a man making one last effort to discover how to join the pieces of himself.
The epistemology here is difficult. When an artist knows a truth, does he know merely in a different way the same truth a philosopher or theologian might know—or is it an entirely different truth? When an intellectual knows a truth philosophically or theologically, is it the same truth that simple faith holds? And when believers know something through their faith, have they merely arrived directly at that toward which artists must create their way and intellectuals reason their way?
If God is one, then truth is one—and yet, the experiences of artistry, reason, and faith are so different, they do not feel one. All mystics reach eventually the same peak, which may be why each mode of knowing produces, at its highest expression, genuine mystics: there is a mysticism of art, a mysticism of the mind, a mysticism of pure faith—and, in important ways, they are in the end the same. But short of a mystical vision, how can we be sure the three distinctive paths will converge at the mountain’s top?
The image of a threshold occurs often in Roman Triptych, and it is at the threshold of the unity of mystical truth that each of the three poems stands. In the first, a poet contemplates the stream of nature—and does not find, directly, God. “The Stream” ends in great tentativeness, with God never named, as though the human experience of the natural world reaches to the edge of some great revelation—but not beyond. The stream murmurs that “all this passing has sense / has sense . . . has sense . . . has sense.” But it does not say what that sense is.
Although the second poem concerns an artist, it is not as an artist that John Paul II confronts Michelangelo, but as a theologian. Again the poetry waits in a doorway, but the door is a different one, for who but an intellectual could look at the Sistine Chapel and say, “We are standing at the threshold of a Book”? The book is Genesis, and Michelangelo’s Adam, receiving creation, compels reason to consider—and extend—the “theology of the body” that John Paul II has proposed throughout his papacy.
But just as the Book of Genesis moves from the universal history of creation to the particular history of the faithful, so Roman Triptych moves in its third poem to the things that only the faithful know. On a journey from a hill in the land of Moria, the believer shows his truth to the artist and the theologian. Again, however, the truth waits upon something final: “If today we go to these places / whence, long ago, Abraham set out, / where he heard the Voice, where the promise was fulfilled, / we do so in order to stand at the threshold.”
Considered purely as poetry, Roman Triptych fails to bring all this to perfection. The translator may be largely to blame, but I suspect that that is not all that leaves the reader grasping for something just beyond the text. Like the theology of the body, the mysticism of Genesis has been a constant in John Paul’s work, and each of the three panels in the Pope’s poetry reaches through a particular mode of knowing to the edge of something that the verse itself cannot reveal. John Paul II takes us with him to the threshold—of his own impending death, of the mystical vision, of the ultimate unity of human experience, of the final fulfillment of the promise implicit in Genesis. Roman Triptych is not a poem so much as a doorway. Judged as a doorway, it is a serious and important construction, in whatever language one approaches it.
Joseph Bottum is Books & Arts editor of the Weekly Standard and poetry editor of First Things.