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Review: Night truck driver

Night truck driver, By Marcin Świetlicki

Translated from Polish by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese


ISBN 9781938890802

128 pages 

Bilingual: Polish and English on facing pages

Zephyr Press

Reviewed by Amanda L. Andrei

night truck drive cover

The world drips. Caught in some kind of thaw, circling a winter on the verge of melting into a dream, or a dream solidifying into a cold city, Marcin Świetlicki’s Night truck driver (Kierowca nocnej ciężarówki) translated by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese, immerses us into icy, hypnopompic places where we can hear Death and other unseen forces calling to us—and maybe even respond to them. 

The opening poem, “Preface,” invokes the biblical origins of Genesis, reset in 1960s Poland: a man, a woman, a snake, but also “a stupid apple tree,” “depots, dead buses. / Old lemonade bottles of that unusual shape.” Here are seeds of Świetlicki’s themes: an overpowering sense of menace between sleep and waking, entanglements between the masculine and feminine beyond mere mortals, set among noirish urban landscapes and frosty worlds. The final line, “We’ll be observing the advance of darkness” sets up the reader for the opaque stillness at the heart of winter, questioning what life, if any, remains beneath the cold.


“Everything drips” follows immediately with an imperative, or maybe even a plea: “Don’t come into my dreams, don’t. In one dream / drown for good and don’t show up in any other.” To whom is the speaker addressing? A relative, a lover, a stranger, a monster? The ambiguity of other people’s presences in this poem and others compounds the sense of unease, giving you the sense of a faintly remembered nightmare just out of reach, or a stranger passing by your unlit house. Later on, in “Saturday, an impulse” the speaker announces, “Evil has come to my dream,” after which a female presence instructs them to undress and return to bed where they embrace. Other poems suggest the speaker is themself a dream, conjured by a stone or a stone moon, or a person falls asleep in broad daylight, searching for a missive in the world of sleep. The space between dreamer and reverie is not simply porous or overlapping: it is all-encompassing, cavernous, dissolving into the ache of the unknown.

The female presence in the dreams, waking life, and spaces in between appears to be a lover, the mother of the speaker’s child—or perhaps many lovers, or many mothers—but also an anonymous, distant figure(s) who seems to be on a parallel yet displaced wavelength from the speaker. The speaker seems to be in constant dialogue with this presence and others like it, and even when those energies are absent from the poem’s scene, the speaker continues evoking, recalling, and defying them. Herein is the brilliance of Wójcik-Leese’s translation that melds this shadowy feminine presence with that eternal, ever-present mystery: Death. 

One poem in particular showcases the paradox of having a relationship with that mystery. “Posthumous correspondence” (Korespondencja pośmiertna) takes the shape of a stage or screenplay script in which a Man dialogues with Death. Glancing on the left side of the page at the Polish, I observed that the poem followed a different structure, without the character/dialogue formatting.

Curious about this choice, I reached out to Wójcik-Leese, who explained that in Polish, death is grammatically feminine, and so verb endings signifying grammatic gender reveal which passages are spoken by Death and which passages are uttered by the other person. In their translation collaboration, Świetlicki suggested pointing out the different speakers in the exchange, which resulted in a fascinating version of the original poem in English. Both correspondents seem to be speaking aloud (as if in a script), but the framework of the text is as a letter. The reader feels the conflict and contradictions of their communication—not merely between speakers and what they speak of, but how they speak to each other and the plaintive rhythm of their exchange. 

Towards the end of the collection, the poems become sparser, more like jottings and diary entries. It’s as if the narrator is integrating the past, musing over the present and future, where “Plastic soldiers utter their war cries” in the ironically titled, “First poem” which is the third to last in the volume. Maybe this is the first poem for a new world or worlds, a transition point for more. It’s significant that Świetlicki has written thirteen books of poetry and that Night truck driver is the first English language collection in his work, which Wójcik-Leese notes in the translator’s afterword “follows the chronology of his poetic life and the lives of his individual volumes.” One hopes that more translations will come, as Świetlicki and Wójcik-Leese capture so hauntingly and precisely the cold ache of being called—and caught—among many worlds.

Radio Interview with Trafika Europe where you can hear Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese read the poems in Polish and English.

Reviewer Amanda L. Andrei is a Filipina Romanian American playwright, literary translator, and teaching artist residing in Los Angeles by way of Virginia/Washington DC. She writes epic, irreverent plays that center the concealed, wounded places of history and societies from the perspectives of diasporic Filipina women, and she translates from Romanian and Filipino to English. For more information on her work and upcoming events, visit:


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The Museum of Unconditional Surrender by Dubravka Ugrešić – Book Review

The Museum of Unconditional Surrender 
Translated into English by Celia Hawkesworth
Reviewed by Natasha Ravnik

While reading Dubravka Ugrešić’s book, The Museum of Unconditional Surrender, I wondered if humankind had learned anything. Although Ugrešić wrote this work between 1991 and 1996, when her homeland of Yugoslavia was being destroyed by war, her words remain current. 

There are many threads in Ugrešić’s writing that are worth exploring, but I have limited this review to just one aspect of the work: the life of the exile. 

The Museum of Unconditional Surrender is unusual from the beginning: it starts with a catalogue of the contents of the stomach of Roland the Walrus in the Berlin Zoo and continues with an experimental mixture of genres. The use of narrative from various viewpoints, diary entries, and quotations parallels the recurrent fragmentation effects of trauma on the psyche – shards of not fully put back together-able language, memories, and images, bring us back to a starting point that can never be the same. 

By definition, an unconditional surrender is one in which no guarantees are given to the surrendering party. It can be demanded with the threat of complete destruction, extermination, or annihilation. To what kind of life does the refugee surrender to? 

“Those are all cold, melancholy, objective images (or more precisely: verbal photographs) from a past life in a former country which it will never again be possible to connect into a whole,’ writes Mihajlo P. in a letter.”

The Museum of Unconditional Surrender is a disparate archive of the bleak reality of loss as a result of forced migration. The stories within are mournfully human – they endear with their naked vulnerabilities. Displayed openly like a pack of cigarettes on a card table at a flea market are the visceral consequences of a nation’s spontaneous dissolution.

“10. ‘Refugees are divided into two categories: those who have photographs and those who have none,’ said a Bosnian, a refugee.”

With exquisitely simple sentences, Ugrešić brings out complex truths – the utter senselessness of the effects of war is tied up with a tender bow. Her prose unfurls unexpectedly like a poem, a jewel offered on a platter of tears, shiny but dissolving. 

“Like the train of a gown, he dragged after him his secret, which, it seems, bore the simple name: indifference.” 

Much of the narration is from a singularly feminine viewpoint ranging from a quiet melancholy,

“What a woman needs most is air and water.”

to a lonesome inevitability,

“As she crossed the Yugoslav border she was suddenly afraid, either because of the custom official’s black mustache, or the finality of her decision. And as she opened her suitcase, thinking in panic that she still had time to change her mind and go back, it slipped out of her hand and scattered its modest contents over the floor. She remembers the rolling apples (“There were lots of them, lots of apples,’ she says. ‘I don’t know myself why I had packed so many.’) Her memory was stuck on that picture of apples rolling over the floor. And it was though the apples had made the decision and not her: she had to pick them all up, and then the train left…” 

Dubravka Ugrešić’s gift is the struggle: internal and external – of longing for the seemingly impossible – simply to belong, and in peace.  Descriptions of oppressive banality under communism mingle with the tell-tale vacant stupor of a person without a home, an address-less individual with no country or state, constantly in motion – unmoored due to outside circumstances.

Her words are precise, chosen with exquisite care. Much like a museum exhibit, many of her paragraphs are numbered, catalogued, and exact. Equally precise is the English translation. 

The pain of exile is not pretty, but Ugrešić’s words capture a sadness that is quite beautiful. The real tragedy of losing one’s country and the baggage (or lack thereof) that goes with it, how this loss seeps into the cracks of everything, reaching the most nuanced recesses of one’s personal identity. 

“I hear my heart beating in the darkness. Pit-pat, pit-pat, pit-pat…I feel touched, as though there were a lost mouse inside it, beating in fright against the walls. Somewhere far behind me the landscape of my deranged county is ever paler, here, in front of me, are steps that lead to nowhere.”

Dubravka Ugrešić is a literary powerhouse, and The Museum of Unconditional Surrender is a book to be savored again and again. 


Natasha Ravnik

Natasha Ravnik is a first-generation Slovenian American writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is fascinated by stories of cultural resilience, with a particular interest in women’s voices. Natasha is currently writing a fictional memoir based on Slovenian migration stories. Her documentary short film, “Moja Nonica – My Grandmother” was a finalist at the 2016 SEEfest Project Accelerator. A big fan of SEEfest, Natasha believes in the power of art to encourage dialogue, in the hope of finding mutual understanding. She is constantly searching for beauty and common ground.


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