Steve Whitaker, Literary Editor

Poem Of The Week: The Dictator And His Wife Watching Guernica By Katrina Dybzynska

The Dictator and His Wife Watching Guernica

We have seen this painting together.
I saw symbols falling apart.
Deformed pigeon, the parody of peace.
Cracks, chaos, avalanche effect beyond a turning point.

He perceived fame beyond death.
A story of power, strength, justification.
A narrative in which victims are believed to be animals.

I looked at their shock: death always seems to come as a surprise.
Amazed that it is happening now, that we did not bribe
our way out, that there are no second chances.

He noticed the military struggle, heroes protecting their territories.
He nodded to the reason, the eternal order of things.
He only wanted to know – who won?

A refreshing change to see a poet wrestle with a profoundly unsettling subject unflinchingly, for the duration of an entire collection. Peripatetic writer Katrina Dybzynska approaches human paradoxes, troubling dissonances and the making of politico-philosophical choices like a cold and divisive wind blowing in from Europe. Her new book - Secrets of the Dictator’s Wife - explores aesthetic apprehension and barbarism, individual and collective control, subjection and conquest, from the binary perspectives of Leader and Led.

Complicated still further by the unspoken resistance of the subject to the domination of the Leader figure, and to the possibility of independent thought thriving under duress, Dybzynska’s poems address wider concerns of power and coercion, brokerage and victimhood, through the lens of women, who here provide a singular, if inextricably contrapuntal, narrative voice.

And Picasso’s Guernica is a perfect prism for reflection: surveying a painting that describes the existential wreckage wrought at the hands of a Dictator, another dictator – this time, generic and all-purpose – renders the symbols of destruction and hopelessness as incidental by-products of a greater struggle, as Untermenschen detritus, as stepping stones towards the glorious restoration of mythical ancient orders. The ‘animals’ upon whose heads the bombs fall lay no more claim to human validity than the ‘deformed pigeon’ whose presence parodies the idea of peace.

His certainty is perversely commensurate with the one-dimensional view of ‘degenerate’ art that was a characteristic deformity of the Third Reich. The violence and terror of Guernica are inevitable, an inevitable subordination of weakness to ‘greater strength’. Nothing, as the Nazis who saw Jean Anouilh’s interpretation of Antigone in 1944 might have averred, to shake the foundation of ‘the eternal order of things’, in spite of the patriotic call-to-arms of the French Resistance implicit in the playwright’s intention.

Dybzynska nails the wife’s own silent resistance like a bleeding heart, like a guerilla in a landscape of predatory snipers, whose upholding of the real meaning of peace is conditional upon her survival. Seeing Guernica for a surreal fracturing of terrifying and pathetic symbols, her eyes rest upon a single image which becomes pivotal to her understanding, and is the hinge on which the poem hangs. The look of surprise on the faces of the doomed, is the look that Goya saw, and later recreated in a painting of the same name, The Third of May 1808. Dybzynska’s tercet is deeply affecting in its humanity and simplicity:

I looked at their shock: death always seems to come as a surprise.
Amazed that it is happening now, that we did not bribe
our way out, that there are no second chances.

‘The Dictator and His Wife Watching Guernica’ is taken from Secrets of the Dictator’s Wife, published by Fly on the Wall Press, and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the publisher.

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