Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Keeping the Sea Keepers: Poetic Reflections on Living in Poland

Here are the poems I presented at the conference in Krakow. I will add more as I finish them. Unfortunately, I have not been able to coax this web page into formatting the poems correctly. As you'll see some of the spacing is off, but we will have to make due, I suppose. For the official versions, please contact me and I will send them as a Word attachment.

This first poem requires three "voices": the normal print, the italics and the words in parenthesis. The italics is a traditional Polish carol which marvels at the wonder of God coming to earth. It is filled with oxymorons, such as "Lord of Heaven naked" "the infinite limited," "brightness made dim."

Family Caroling Party

Angels sing sweetly o’er the plains
and I am tracing the words with my finger.

Bóg się rodzi, moc truchleje,

(Have some serniki—Ciocia Danuta worked all day on it!)

God is born, power is afraid,
and this carol is so full of consonants—
I break off pieces and work them over
with my tongue.

(Did you see Anna’s ring? But I hear the boy’s not employed.)

Pan niebiosów obnażony!

I try to swallow.
They hand me a tambourine.

(Her parents aren’t happy. Take some cake. Who is your friend?)

I brought four words to the party.
I put them on the table
between the makowiec and szarlotka,

Ogień krzepnie, blask ciemnieje,

but there’s no place for the silence.

(Well, she must be someone’s friend. Who’d she come with?)

I push it behind me and hope no one sees.

I’m afraid this looks a little rude.
Let me explain.

But my mouth is too full of the spaces
spaces without letters
to say even this.

ma granice Nieskończony,

(Did you offer her cake? Tell her Aunt Danuta prepared it.)

The dish is coming around.
First family members help themselves—
their Ciche noc, święta noc,
then my Grandfather’s Stille Nacht,

and then it comes to me.

I pour the silence in their cups.
They warm their hands while I sing.

A Słowo Ciałem się stało

And God sent His One and Only

(Dobranoc— Dziękuję bardzo)

His One Word

i mieszkało między nami.

They say it dwells among us.

The Virgin Mary is, in Poland, a cultural icon, a symbol of what it means to be Polish . Our Lady of Częstochowa is particularly important to Poles and is said to have miraculously saved Poland in several battles. During Communist times, all sorts of organized religion were repressed and in Soviet-era poetry, I believe one can sense a certain bitterness surrounding the Sacred. It is, on the one hand, a bitterness toward God--that He seemed to stand by and do nothing while His Faithful were put through such disgrace. But it is also a defensive bitterness that their beloved Christ and Holy Mother were defaced and made to suffer along with the least of these.

Poland is a place where you will find the sacred brushing against the profane. From where I live in Brzezno-Gdansk, I can hear the church bells and sometimes the sea. I can also on occasion see drunks from my window and twice I've seen men relieving themselves next to the sidewalk. This next piece attempts to deal with the contrast of the sacred and the profane as well as with the shift happening now with a generation growing up outside of the Soviet Block, leaving behind the sufferings of their parents, but also possibly some of the values such suffering brings. The result is a reflection upon and a presentation of the place where I live.

"Brzezno Mass" also requires more than one voice. Once again, think of the italics as another speaker.


The Litany to Our Lady of Częstochowa was written by Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko who was murdered by the Polish secret police Oct. 19, 1984.

. of those who are deceived,
is here at Brzeźno tram stop.

Forget the golden crown.
The Fleur-de-lis has become the fleur-de-lice.
Swollen fingers feel their way toward the child
She twitches to hold a weakened bladder.

The scars are bleeding again.
The Mother
. of those who are betrayed,
fumbles with a soiled kerchief.
Drops it. The child howls.

Number 13 belches body and spirits.
A drunk slams to the floor,
his bottle crashes down
at her feet. “Matka,” he smirks.
Mother of those arrested in the night,

She bends,
extends cracked fingernails.
. Grace to those who speak the truth.

The tram chastises her.
The Child’s head jerks back. Mother
. of those who are imprisoned,
falls against the door.

Those tapping down SMS SMS
SM turn S S O west-
ward to avoid contact.

. Mother of those who live in fear,

Those pulsing under beat and heat
of hooded sweatshirt
do not rise for her.

. Mother of those who suffer from the cold,

No one looks to her baby.

Holy Mother
. of those who were subjected to interrogations
stumbles toward me.

Her glassy eyes focus eventually on mine.
Parched lips open and close.
. “Grace to those who place their hope—”
. “I don’t speak Polish.”
I lope to the back of the car.

The drunk murmurs,
his head connected to the floor by a line of phlegm,
O Mother,
. in whom resides the hope of millions

"The Day of Mourning and Hope" is a reflection upon my time in Lithuania, upon the semester I spent there as a student and the summer during which I lived with a Lithuanian woman and her two-year old grandson. Throughout my stay with Aleksandra, I wanted to help her around the house, but she spoke no English at all (and I spoke virtually no Lithuanian) and was very particular about the way she wanted everything done. This made it hard for me to be much more than the bumbling, mute (if not semi-crazed) foreigner.

The Day of Mourning and Hope
Klaipeda, Lithuania

On June 14th, members of the Baltic States remember those who were sent to Siberia by Soviet Authorities in the mass deportations which began in 1941.

After class I stay behind
. I told you, save the water
to ask you

. from the shower
scientists and poets
. so we can flush the toilet.
families carted

. I will peel the potatoes.
into the cold
. They’re different from yours.
How did they explain?
. Close the curtains, please

And what
. because the sun
am I to do
. will dull the sheets.
now that I know?

. Carry this Little One
. down the stairs.

My classmate interrupts.
“She’s an American.
She can’t understand.”

. Can you do that much?

You sigh.
“But she needs to,”
you say.

The final piece I have posted comes out of my experience and the experiences of some friends of living as a foreigner in Poland. It is my sense that during the Soviet Era, Poland was a sea of bureaucracy in which it was extremely difficult, if not impossible, to do almost anything. This has, of course, lessened immensely, but it is still quite frustrating for foreigners to be directed from office to office and to work through reams of paper work. A close friend of mine was able to get a visa herself, but near had to return to the US when Poland would not grant one for her 12-year-old daughter, even though they are both here through a partnership between the American and Polish governments. Experiences like this make me want to ask, "Well, Poland, do you want us here or not?"

Tomasz Jastrun wrote poetry during the Soviet Era and, as the epigraph states, he attributes this mess a bureaucracy to a need to mature, a search for identity. Poland doesn't know who she is quite yet.

Post-Soviet Poland, Age 19

We are fleeing Poland itself, a Poland which is free, but which we just cannot lift, and the problem isn’t that it’s heavy, but that we just can’t get a handhold. Two hundred years shattered with a hammer, smothered fifty years or so by the Soviet system…, we’ve lost our shape entirely. And we ourselves don’t know if we are some proud nobility or just a bunch of smalltime Jewish merchants driven away from the market stalls of Europe.

“August 1990”

And, worst of all, they still don’t know if it’s better to open the door or not open the door whenever someone starts ringing.

“November 1990”

from Awry, Tomasz Jastrun, trans. Daniel Bourne

Can we come in?

It’s just me
and my friend—

she’s only twelve
and I’m twenty-two.

So can we come in?

We won’t even talk.
We’ll just sit
while you read our papers.

. Yesterday I was here.
We drank Coke
talked about Eurovision.

Today you’ve
adorned the door in
red and white tape
“Property of Poland:
Authorized personnel only!”

We wait.

Then you re-cross your arms
and turn up your music.

See you tomorrow.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Poland, the Sea, the Swans, and Me

I walked down to the see the other day.

I had been planning to do this for a long time. "It's winter," I told myself. "I have never seen the sea in winter." What does it do when it's surrounded by snow? And when the snow is falling, where do the flakes go? Do they abandon their selves right away and become immediately part of the sea? or do they float for a moment, holding onto their last shreds of iciness?

On the days when I wanted to walk to the beach, I told myself, "This is my chance. The sea, the winter. I have to see it. " On the days when I didn't go, which was all of them, I told myself, "It's the sea. Sand, water. The sky will be gray. The sea will be gray. What's to look at?"

But then I did go.

In the winter, the beach had become the territory of the swans. Earlier we had had cormorants, and of course there were always the gulls. But now the huge birds--twenty of them, at least, a mixture of the old, pure white, and the young, mostly brown--formed a large cluster extending from the water out across the beach.

Two of the birds, at least waist high to me, stood guarding the entrance. We watched each other for a while, them making small movements toward me, me standing very still, petitioning to enter. I must have passed because when I finally did walk by them onto the beach, the looked away disinterestedly.

I made it a point after that to visit the sea and the swans. Because when I am there, there is me and the water, quietly moving along the shore, and there are the swans. And the other sea-watchers with their dogs, who come to bid good morning. And I am not alone.

One afternoon, I saw a man standing at the edge of the water, feeding the swans from his hand. The birds were grouped all around him and not just swans but ducks and gulls as well. They fought over the food at his feet, squawking and nipping at each other. And in the midst of all this sat his huge, black St. Bernard. And the swans were not scared, and the dog was not scared, and the man stood letting the birds pluck at his clothes and snatch the food from his hand.

A few mornings later, I went for a run along the water's edge. As I passed the swans, one leader and then another and another stood up from the water and began their slow waddle toward me. The whole group came sauntering casually after me. Swans, white and brown, rising from their stations in the shallow water to crane their necks toward me, walking slowly, a hint of suspicion in their eyes. Why had they chosen me? It was not the two middle-aged women, strolling arm in arm that they approached. I was their choice.

I did not wait to see what the birds would do when they reached me, but still I was not afraid. We were here, all together. The swans, the sea, the gulls and ducks, the middle-aged women, the St. Bernard, and me. All together in this mix of a beach. That seems to be one of the points of Poland. Maybe it is some leftover Communist mentality or maybe it comes from living so long in a state of need. For years, the food was rationed and the stores were empty. Who cares about money where there's nothing to buy? And this puts people more or less on the same plane. All of us are in need and so we help each other.

And now, still, the professor at the university bids good morning to the cleaning lady, calling her Pani Dorota. The teenage boys on the tram with their hoods pulled up spring out of their seats for the woman with the cane. And when the child on the tram shouts and screams with laughter, we all smile toward her, and then toward each other.

The St. Bernard stands among the swans and, I suppose, so do I.