Michał Choiński uses poetry to express love and desire in the 21st century
Love and poetry are as old as, well, love and poetry. Since biblical times with the Song of Solomon, extending through the poems of Ovid and Catullus in ancient Rome, poetry has been used to express love and desire right up through our own times.
Sometime in the 20th century, likely with the rise of the Modernist poets in the 1910s and 1920s, love poetry fell out of fashion. It’s never really regained its footing. That’s not to say it’s disappeared; love poems continue to be written and published. But it’s unusual to see a love poem published in the well-known literary and academic journals and magazines.
Gifts Without Wrapping by Michal Choiński is a collection of love poems. The publication is what Americans call a chapbook and the British call a pamphlet. An ultra-slim volume of 10 poems, it won the 2019 White Label Deux competition sponsored by The Hedgehog Press, based in Britain. The competition, now in its 10th year, is for first-time pamphlet or chapbook publications (the current deadline is Oct. 31, 2022).
Like the love he’s describing, Choiński’s poems are simultaneously beautifully sensual and distanced. This is about love in the 21st century, and it is a love hedged by a wide range of restrictions and notions different from previous generations. It’s a love where individuals mark their territories and establish their definitions. Love may be consummated in the same, traditional way, but it is not the same, traditional love. “Our love was never contracted,” Choiński writes, “and yet, we bartered / gifts, like two totalitarian leaders / at a political summit / before they do business.”
Some loves are certainly safer, requiring no contract or definition. The love that the poet gives his all for is, not unexpectedly, the love of running, described in almost sensual terms. But when love involves another person, something tentative exists, something that holds us back and turns us into observers rather than participants.
The Full Moon
The pouring of wine takes time,
so we talk
of those we have abandoned.
And when you sip from the glass,
I watch your lips, all in red.
But your eyes are somewhere else.
So, from where I sit, I can relish
but a fraction of your full image.
The taste of that lukewarm claret
still lingers on, while the dead listen in
on how we discuss the coming tide,
and how words passed from mouth to mouth,
like a candy during a kiss,
bring us far more pleasure than they should.
Choiński teaches literature at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland. His academic research work focuses on digital humanities and the literature of the American South. He’s the author of Southern Hyperboles: Metafigurative Strategies of Narration (LSU Press). His poetry has been published in numerous literary and academic journals, and he was the featured poet at The High Window Press in June.
He’s been a guest lecturer in creative writing and literature at Yale University, University of South Carolina, Queens University in the U.S., and the University of Padua in Italy. In 2020, he was awarded the Senior Fulbright Fellowship at Yale University. He will be doing poetry readings in the United States in September, including at the Brazos Bookstore in Houston on Sept. 8 and the Hudson Valley Writer’s Center in Sleepy Hollow, New York, on Sept. 10.
Gifts Without Wrapping is a small collection of love poetry for the times we live in. Its poems express a yearning for something that seems lost. Yet it is the yearning that provides the hope that it might be found.
LSU Press Remote Author Series with Michał Choiński (actual discussion starts at 3:15)
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish
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