Georgia Scott

  Poets as Expatriates - Georgia Scott

 

Essay:

    

The Place Where You Live
 

Poems:

    

(1) History
(2) Small Islands
(3) Muddied Feet
(4) Ripening in the Dark
(5) What Survives
(6) World War II; or, The English Lesson
(7) The Good Wife
(8) Anna D. Moves Into a New Apartment
(9) Polish Television 1989
(10) The Witness
 

Translations from the Polish:

    

(1) The Road North
(2) Leaves
(3) With Sadness and Precision
(4) Song from Behind the Wall
(5) Domestic Song

 

 

Georgia Scott

The Place Where You Live


IT IS SUCH an ordinary thing to write about the place where you live. Yet, I'd be lying to say I ever looked at Poland as anything but extraordinary. I came here when Le Carre novels still featured spies, when James Bond still fought the Cold War. My first impression was from a train on the way up to Gdansk from Warsaw in January 1985. Looking out of the windows, I remember thinking I had been transported to the set of Doctor Zhivago, the forbidden film of my childhood my mother claimed was "too sad" for me to see. But it was all here: the expanses of snow, the fur hats and, yes, an alluring sadness that somehow underscored everything, like the sepia circles around the eyes of unnaturally quiet child in my compartment.

Maybe my mother was right. But this sadness at least had me seduced. It became my muse, though I knew it was not only mine. Bewitching, ball breaking, always begging for more. Communist Poland was in some ways a writer's dream. Like a magic line of coke that kept replenishing itself. But the downside, as with most things that good, was that it did bad things to your body (anemia for example) and your head (why, when I actually feel happy, do I sound so depressed when talking about Poland to anyone living west of Berlin?).

Writing has always been a means of communicating the uncommunicable for me. The poems that follow are my attempt at capturing in pictures and voices a place and a time which no one back in 1988 imagined would so soon be a part of the past. Yet they are meant to be more than museum pieces. For there is no possible way of understanding this part of Europe today without knowing what it was then. The poems also might explain people, like me, who choose to live in Gdansk or Prague rather than London or New York.

As for the ex-pat "Lost Generation" tradition of Americans living abroad, I don't paint or play jazz, I am not Black, and I landed in Poland (and stayed), not in Paris, so there is no use in making any comparison there anyway. And, being from a Greek family, the "myth" I'm challenging is in fact completely different. Short of world war, total bankruptcy, or the severest of economic depression, what could justify my undoing all that my parents underwent to assimilate-not to mention the seasickness which nearly killed my grandmother to get here and made the motion even of a rocking chair unbearable for years afterwards?

Still, I might try to explain that being an American abroad is oftentimes easier than being a hyphenated one at home, that I no longer have to dread the finger pointing to a puffed out chest, calling itself "a real American," though I had two great uncles and two uncles who fought in world wars and one brother-in-law wounded in Korea-that it was in America, not here in Poland, whree I have heard "kike" called in the direction of my Jewish friends. (Yes, there are Jews living here in Poland.)

But I do not mean to idealize the place. My poem "What Survives" should make that clear. Suffering alone does not give worth, not to a tea cup any more than a nation. My childhood, too, was spent hearing "the histories they never taught in school:" the women taken into the mountains by the guerillas during the Greek civil war, the Kosher butcher made to slaughter the pig by Cossack soldiers, the bullet marks covered by eyeliner, the twisted thumb nail after a stint with the Caracas police, the prison term for writing the wrong kind of poetry. . . . I grew up in a multi-cultural family long before the term became fashionable. One of my sisters married a Jew from a Russian family. Another married a Spaniard whose parents fled Franco's regime for Venezuela. Besides these relatives were friends as close as family-Armenian, Black-and even those who had the bad luck to get involved with the mafia. No, suffering didn't make you "good" any more than my own bout with childhood arthritis and back surgery did. At best it only taught you the joy of coming back to life once again-like Poland since the changes.

There is no getting around it. A choice is involved. But it has nothing, at least for me, to do with idealism-least of all masochism. I moved here because this place captured my imagination once and, like all great love affairs, the romance still lingers. I stay here because I like it, because I experience withdrawal if I am away too long. My kids are happy. My husband is happy. I am never bored. Ever.

To explain what living in Poland means to me as a writer, I have to go back to the 1980's again. What first struck me was the silence. Under Communism, the roads were almost as empty as the shops. The few bars were like badly run parties where the drink runs out faster than the beer nuts. The only time lots of people were out and about was for a May Day parade, a strike, or the Pope's visit. What you did instead was meet indoors around low tables aching with cakes (cheesecake, coffeecake, babkas, black poppyseed strudels, layered torts, and so on). You drank tea out of glasses that burned the first layer of skin off your thumb. And you talked. And talked-until suddenly you remembered you lived somewhere else and the streetcars had all stopped running for the night. Which brings me back to the silence. Being slow at picking up languages and my head still swimming with squint-making ideograms from two years of living in Tokyo, I took a while to learn Polish.

So, I watched. At first I appreciated anything I could understand, an embrace between lovers, a dog's warning bark. There was safety in the familiar. But it was all an illusion. Only later did I realize that such epiphanies created no safety net.

My poem "History" illustrates how a landscape, which elsewhere might constitute a pastoral ideal, in Poland is pure Kafka. Everything has to do with how the images are assembled. In fact, apart from the signs displaying crosses on fire which designate the sites of WWII massacres, none of the other images in "History" are particularly Polish. Nonetheless, "something bleeding in the road" gives a political and historical context to the poem that conjures up the long, painful human history here. We are not talking about roadkill in rural Michigan.

Then the Polish language started to resemble more than the sound of my high school boyfriend blowing in my ear at dances to try and turn me on. I moved from poems principally of image to those of voice, incorporating, especially, the voices of women I knew-friends, neighbors, acquaintances. I still took notes of the things I saw and made countless photographs, often walking for whole days or riding rickety old buses to villages, where the stork nests really are big enough to hold babies. But now my muse could talk. And, as in "The Witness," the last poem in this group, she could even laugh.

The poem "Muddied Feet" first came to me when I saw a young woman washing bedsheets in a tub outdoors. I then incorporated a story I had heard of a country woman being spurned by the staff at a city hospital. The more intimate images came from my own experiences of giving birth to my first child (pain makes its own images-and they knock hell out of those sunny islands women are supposed to envisage between screams). My intent in threading together image, anecdote and personal experience into this voice poem was to evoke the oral tradition of women passing on their personal histories to each other. In this way, I was challenging the icon that the media in the States had created for Poland: a silent old woman with a kerchief, standing endlessly in line. My poems "about" women were indeed meant to disrupt that stereotype as well as all the simplifications and misconceptions arising from it. All of my poems, but particularly those that feature the voices of women, can be regarded as a series of dispatches, my ongoing attempt to get the real story out.

"The Good Wife" is the most obviously intimate poem here-but also, to my mind, the most political. The problem with Communism is it did not work. Not economically, not spiritually. It corrupted people with every compromise they had to make. And they had to compromise often.

Most Poles made the most of what was a difficult situation. Like the "good wife," Poland during these years was not "all bad." No more than she is any saint now. But Poland does have another chance to get it right. Even before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Poland in 1989 was holding its first free elections, experiencing its first baby steps into the new ironies and complexities of democracy and the free market, the old Communist strongman Wojciech Jaruzelski and the Solidarity leader Lech Walesa walking arm in arm, at least in political cartoons.

So here I am. It's a new beginning for me, too. --Gdansk, Poland, October 12, 1999

 



Georgia Scott

History


Rye colored sky. A confetti of slim white birds. 
The family of potato pickers, eyes on the ground, move 
through swells of dust and sun 
leaving the cow chained to the grass 
beside the road, a cart horse like a shop girl 
droops its head, chewing slow, 
the Virgin in an arch of multicolored bulbs 
awaits in the shadows for the evening to come on 
a police car watches from the trees 
something bleeding on the road 
the mother pulls the child closer 
in the bus shelter, the couple press 
together like an envelope without glue 
a pond glistens 
dogs bark from the village 
signs like mushrooms appear 
offering forks, beds, crosses on fire 
the last to mark the massacre 
in the woods outside 
that village that on on maps 
is nothing but empty space.

 



Georgia Scott

Small Islands


What can you say? Beyond the words 
for children and for tired, 
the scars on our bellies tell as much. 
The circles around our eyes tell even more.

So many small islands of women.

Standing in the playground between our homes 
we heard the news of the shipyard strikes 
from a woman in an apron who came running 
from sandbox to sandbox. We cleared the shovels.

We took the children inside.

 



Georgia Scott

Muddied Feet


The pain was great, so great
I didn't care that it rained
and the mud splashed into the wagon
onto my legs.
                    Whose legs?
I was all belly now
and one dull claw trying to cut me in half.

By the time I reached the hospital
I could barely stand
but they made me wait. So many doors
and they made me wait.

Oh I could tell
they didn't want me in.
The doctor saw my muddied feet and yelled.
The nurse asked if I brought my soap
and when I said "no" left me
with only my hands to cover myself,

hands smelling of horse.

Afterwards, I had no bribes for the nurses,
nothing to make them come.
I wore the red gown they gave to all the mothers.
I stood at the window and looked out
for a husband with apples in his arms.

 



Georgia Scott

Ripening in the Dark


A formation of neon birds comes down 
stopping just short of the curb 
caught it seems by a searchlight or the girl 
who holds up the chicken for you to nod 
then delivers the guts before your eyes, 
bouquets and knotted scarves from a sleeve 
into her hand.


A switch flips on. 
The Baltic sky darkens and eyes pale. 
A fish leaps from a building into a tub of air 
it can't escape.


Like snow, the streets clear of people 
under the plow of buses in red convoys, scatter 
with the shots of bolting doors and step of boots. 
The police close in, winding a gray bandage 
over the city.

The millions who fell into line all day, 
waiting for a door to open and someone to appear 
from behind a desk or a counter and say yes, 
I am listening, are silent. Their eyes 
slip through the iron bars 
to the boxes lying open on the floor. 
Just this one time 
to see the oranges ripen in the dark 
and the face in the passport 
that calls itself theirs

to smile.

 



Georgia Scott

What Survives


We drink tea 
from her grandmother's cups. Buried in the garden 
they outlasted the war.

Tea made cool 
by too shallow cups.

I remember my Smyrna aunt 
three days with a bone sack over her head 
barely breathing for the smell, 
fearing she'd be found 
by the Turks

and made no nicer for it. 
A petty woman with a nervous dog.

What survives 
isn't always good.

 



Georgia Scott

World War II; or, The English Lesson


It's just too much to say. 
The "w's" make a comedy of her mouth.

The lips, so lush in Polish, 
wobble back and forth,

do a Marilyn Monroe walk 
in skirts so tight

every step is a pain.

 



Georgia Scott

The Good Wife


I smoke, though I do not smoke. 
I stroke his head, though the hair is thin.

I show him the full length of my legs, 
raise them up like a bridge.

And I let him make love, 
spurting, into my hand.

In this I am faithful to my husband.

 



Georgia Scott

Anna D. Moves Into a New Apartment


You can't begin to understand 
how wonderful it is. 
For years I have waited. 
I shared lavatories. 
I had no washing machine of my own. 
My mother-in-law's cats ate from the counters. 
Everywhere their bowls of rotting food. 
It's a wonder we weren't all ill.

When friends came to visit I hid them 
in my room. I served tea on trays 
and shut the door quickly behind me 
so they wouldn't see the filth.

It was impossible to have a party. 
Only once, when his parents were away, 
we called the few friends we had left 
and acted like teenagers. We drank and danced 
and took color pictures of ourselves 
sprawled on their best chairs.

The next day we returned to our whispers, 
for his parents took to napping 
long into the afternoon. We hushed 
the cries of "stop" which mean "go on," 
the time I'd later say I'd fallen, 
our children's first sounds. 
All of us so nervous.

It was terrible. 
I became repulsed by my husband's body. 
The whiteness of it. The smell.

I took myself a lover. 
Three whole days. Then he left for London. 
A friend of mine also had a lover 
but only once. She said 
it was like brushing her teeth. 
As things go, I was lucky.

Wasn't that what I always heard? 
Marrying into such a family?

 



Georgia Scott

Polish Television 1989


The candidates sit in shirt sleeves 
patting dogs.

In the lesser towns outside Warsaw, 
where the lilacs grow wild in old gardens 
and the mothers are tyrannical to their sons' wives 
(girls in pointed boots who speak other languages, 
work in embassy offices, 
and would leave for Glasgow given half the chance), 
the sun circles overhead 
making good pictures.

They hunch over fishing rods. 
They talk with their hands.

In the street outside, two policemen watch 
the legs of a woman scissor past, their hats 
in their laps.

The candidates smile. 
They pat horses. 
They nod.

Fetal on the couch, we later watch 
the sun from the balconies above 
slip down and go lost, 
while in a cartoon Jaruzelski walks 
on Lech Walesa's bridegroom arm.

 



Georgia Scott

The Witness


It's been awful. Haven't you heard? 
For the past two weeks they've been calling. 
My God I haven't slept.

They keep calling 
late at night. The first time 
they said there'd been an accident. 
I should go to the station and give a report. 
I said I'd seen no accident. 
And they said come down 
or we'll come for you ourselves.

So I went. 
They said I was a witness. 
I said to what? And they laughed. 
They said did I ever want a passport, 
did I ever want to go abroad again.

Then I laughed.

You know 
(she said, taking a sip from her glass) 
the little things can matter- 
when a colleague goes to lunch 
or takes a break. 
The littlest things.

More coffee? Or was yours tea?

 



Zbigniew Machej

The Road North


We were driving north, to the sea, 
through a land of dry lips and useless sweat. 
All around were empty fields. Forests burned. 
The sun stripped the ashen riverbeds, 
the stones on the bottom white like bones. 
Our hands stuck to the steering wheel, tar 
to the car's tires. The wrinkled air 
throbbed with heat. Ahead and behind 
the horizon blurred. On the radio 
just news, ads, and songs 
by Michael Jackson. By now almost everywhere 
democracy had triumphed, but no one was 
happy. The great furnaces had gone out. 
Tankers brought water to the cities. Gas 
had gone up again. Courage, of course, cost the same. 
The authorities were patiently questioning 
citizens. Doctors had discovered new, mysterious 
infections. The bazaars were hopping, corruption 
blossomed, there was an increase in assaults with a deadly 
weapon, people told tales of the games 
the mafia played. Olympic champions 
were eliminated in the first round. In the stadiums 
new messiahs worked cures, crowds sang. 
Peasant prophecies of the world's end 
spread, not just among tourists. 
The idolatry of computers compacted 
with the superstition of satellite disks. Black icons 
wept red tears and mice 
fed on the epidermis of the faithful 
who miaowed in the churches a miaow 
of their own which wearied their God...


We were driving north. 
And in the south the wars went on, 
states fell apart...


When we got to the sea, 
a hundred sailboats under a cloudless sky 
sailed into the bay and from the forest onto the shore 
the wild boar came 
to lap, lap, lap 
the salt water.

(Translated from the Polish by Georgia Scott and David Malcolm)

 



Krzysztof Piechowicz

Leaves


How they are tricked out 
In that cool palace 
Of opened

Wide-opened arms 
Of fragile larynxes 
Of aortas

With what seriousness they practice their bows 
In front of the mirror consumed 
By the blaze

How proudly they rustle 
Their lace of colors 
Little daughters of the king

Verily 
The Wise Virgins

Readied in their death throes by the fire 
Of their own fingers

By the veil of their first blood 
To send forth the message

For the Bridegroom's arrival 
In the whiteness of ice.

(Translated from the Polish by Georgia Scott and David Malcolm)

 



Grzegorz Musial

With Sadness and Precision


at last I've stopped believing 
I fell into sleep as into a dry seed 
the morning's shovel will dig me up 
the bang of the sun on the window, the highway's throb

so I lie in silence, I look at the rectangle of sky 
like the shroud in Lazarus's bed I do not rise up 
and deeper and deeper I crumble 
into myself

without You

down into myself

(Translated from the Polish by Georgia Scott and David Malcolm)

 



Katarzyna Borun-Jagodzinska

Song from behind the wall


Pigs should be 
slaughtered mornings, 
don't they take the condemned 
to the scaffold at dawn. 
The cigarette butt stamped out, 
the glass knocked back. 
They got up early. He gave away, 
he took away a life.

It hurts more in the evening. 
It's mistier at dawn 
when the day shoves through 
the windows of the eye-lids. 
We wind the prisoners' path 
like in the famous picture, 
for us dawn is resurrection 
and dusk the ages' sleep

O Lord, give me peace. 
The golden mean, I suppose, 
but don't leave me 
in sterile calm. 
Let me no longer fear 
the turnings of your planets, 
give me space and breadth, 
deep after toil

Give me a blue notebook 
and an oak desk. 
The changeless glow beyond the sea, 
beyond the high mountains. 
I'm floating away--bring me back 
with one kind word. 
Give me a blue notebook 
and a gilded pen.

(Translated from the Polish by Georgia Scott and David Malcolm)

 



Katarzyna Borun-Jagodzinska

Domestic Song


You'll have as much happiness
     as you have string in your hand,
you'll have as much warmth
     as coal in your cellar,
you'll have as much light
     as windows in your wall,
you'll have as many enemies
     as you're able to obtain.

You'll have as much heart
     as the kind you were born with,
you'll have as much taste
     as gall on your lips,
the same amount of freedom
     you can walk from wall to wall,
the same hope
     as you can hold there in your hands.

Your house is as high
     as you can reach your fingers,
the fields as wide
     as your eyes can glean.
And you yourself are your own judge and jury,
you yourself your own prize and pain.

(Translated from the Polish by Georgia Scott and David Malcolm)

 


 

Georgia Scott's The Good Wife (2002) and The Penny Bride (2004) are available from Poetry Salzburg. Dreams of Fires: 100 Polish Poems 1970-1989, translated & edited by Zbigniew Joachimiak, David Malcolm & Georgia Scott (Salzburg: Poetry Salzburg, 2004) is also available.

To purchase a copy or for more information, please e-mail the editor ateditor@poetrysalzburg.com or visit http://www.poetrysalzburg.com. Or send $9.50 plus $1.50 for shipping and handling to: Wolfgang Goertschacher, Institut fur Anglistik und Amerikanistik, University of Salzburg, Akademiestr 24, A-5020 Salzburg, Austria. Please send cash, not checks.

 

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