This essay appeared in Artful Dodge 46/47. Enjoy the preview, and look for more reviews in the future!
Wszystko lepiej w Polsce (Everything's Better in Poland)
Amber Necklace from Gdansk, Linda Nemec Foster, Louisiana State University Press, 2001. 56 pages.
Beyond the Velvet Curtain, Karen Kovacik, Kent State University Press, 1999. 66 pages.
The Good Wife, Georgia Scott, Poetry Salzburg, 2001. 65 pages.
1: Oh, Poland… so valued when lost…
POLISH LITERATURE, AS it has developed and thrived over the past 500 years, is essentially a literature of exile, a literature of longing, a literature of elegy and nostalgia. The great 19th century Romantic epic of Adam Mickiewicz. Pan Tadeusz, both encapsulates the poetry that preceded it and sets the standard for the next century and a half of poetry that flourished under its expansive shadow. It begins with an invocation,
Oh, Lithuania [Poland], my fatherland
Poles don't speak of waxing nostalgic of feeling nostalgic but of falling into nostalgia (wpadac w nostalgie). Nostalgia is a pit, a hole, a depression out of which one does not easily escape--even/especially in exile.
Louis Begley, a prominent New York lawyer, author of the several novels, most notably About Schmidt, and Holocaust survivor, writes of a visit to his grandparent's small property in a remote Polish countryside. "I discovered, however, thinking intensively about the image in my mind of the low, weather-beaten wood house, a connection between it and my reading, a year or two after World War II ended, Pan Tadeusz, Adam Mickiewicz's great verse epic, published in 1834, about the life of provincial Lithuanian gentry, as the poet remembered it from the time of Napoleon's Russian campaign….Something in Mickiewicz's elegy, which haunted me like a forgotten melody, was no more or less, I realized, than my recollection of the summer and early autumn at my grandparents' property. The feat of self-aggrandizement or empathy or imagination was prodigious: What possible resemblance could there be between the modest manor house of a well-to-do Polish Jew who bought and sold agricultural produce and that fictional house, the grand domain of Mickiewicz's aristocratic and superbly fashioned Judge Soplica? But inPan Tadeusz, how much is imagination and how much is specific recollection?…What were the shards from which he fashioned his gloriously detailed and textured description of the countryside and of a society that perished along with its hunts, balls, and quarrels? The answer is that for a poet or a novelist, the distinction between what was remembered and what was made up is shadowy and unimportant. What matters is the irresistible, magnetic force exerted by a place, by a language, and, I will add, by a literature."
Consider the ending of Pan Tadeusz:
And I was there among the guests and ate
2: Chopin weeps into his piano
Thus, a traditional fairy tale comes to a close. And thus, Mickiewicz ends his history of Lithuania/Poland during the Napoleonic Wars of 1811 and 1812. When we read this, there is a soundtrack, Chopin weeping into his piano, alone in Paris, longing for home. And speaking of Chopin-Franz Liszt, who took a special, seemingly avuncular interest in the young pianist/composer recalled the haunting tales of his Poland that Chopin would relate. As well as the questions put to him by fellow salon habituï¿½s--Do the roses in Poland still glow with so proud a flame? Do the trees there still sing so harmoniously in the moonlight? Yes, yes, of course, Chopin replied before falling silent in the "throes of nostalgia." Chopin, in one of his many letters, writes:
I don't think at all of a wife, but of home, of my Mother, my Sisters.
3: Not Paris but Cleveland
Where does all this leave Polish-American poets--, clearly Americans of Polish descent, like Karen Kovacik and Linda Nemec Foster who grew up in urban Polish neighborhoods? Or a poet like Georgia Scott, who has become an ex-pat American living in Poland for the past two decades. And what about Scott, whose relationship to Poland might seem to be essentially romantic--like Byron and Shelley rushing off to Greece in support the revolt, going to the heart of rebellion? Scott, who settled in Gdansk, the birthplace of the Solidarity Movement, the home of Lech Walesa, the shipyards, what does she have to add?
It's important to note that Poles, unlike many other ethnic groups who immigrated in huge numbers to America in the late 19th and early 20th century, were more likely to avoid putting down roots than other immigrants groups and more likely to view their sojourn to America as a temporary means of earning money to before returning to the homeland. Life in Polish neighborhoods--the Lower East Side of New York, Brooklyn, Hamtramck, Michigan, Detroit, the Southside of Chicago, even the smaller cities and patches in the coal mining regions of Pennsylvania revolved around the Polish parish, often a church built in the twin-spired, Gothic style of Saint Mary's Cathedral in Krakow. My own family, too, as well as my wife's, fit this model. My father's family emigrated from Warsaw as early as the late 1860s, settled in Brooklyn, opened up a waterfront tavern….and then headed back to Poland. The way my father explains it, they missed the homeland too much. Almost a hundred years later, my wife's family (all but her parents) came over after World War 2, almost displaced persons in their tiny villages near the Russian/Ukrainian border in southeast Poland, only to return. She recalls a constant stream of relatives, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, emigrating, even gaining American citizenship…and then shipping back to their native villages. My wife, who grew up in a Polish neighborhood in Philadelphia, a product of Polish parochial schools, and Polish fraternal organizations, and the three "P'--polkas, parades and pierogies--joked about the most common phrase that she heard among her parents and their fellow Poles: Wszystko lepiej w Polsce. (Everything is better in Poland.) The one time I heard her father, a retired machinist, who had left his village as a teenager and lived twenty years in Paris before becoming an American, wax poetic, it was about the pinewoods surrounding the home of one of their friends who had built a home in the Pine Barrens in southern New Jersey. Ach, sosnowe powietze, najlepsze na swiecie. (Oh, the pine air / the best in the word.) Little did it matter that everyone around him was smoking and that meat was singeing on the barbecue and that the beloved pines were dwarf or scrub pines, barely surviving the summer drought. (Or that they were located in an area that had long been well known as a dumping ground for successful mob hits.) He was in heaven, or at least back in the tiny village of Rudka he had left more than fifty years before. Wszystko lepiej w Polsce, he said, "everything better in Poland." Like Pan Tadeusz:
This memory of resurrection has stayed
4: Is everything better in Poland?
In many significant ways, the three poetry collections in this review article support and reiterate my father-in-law's sentiment that "everything is better in Poland." In doing this they also, though often not without irony, rehearse the Immigrant Experience in America (more accurately the white ethnic experience) and the second and third generation's response to that ambivalent and sometimes traumatic experience. This in itself is not particularly noteworthy or interesting or new. The narrative of return to the ancestral homeland predates the "Roots" movements of the 1960s. Not surprisingly, it began as soon as the first generations settled into some form of American life and began to think of themselves as Americans, albeit hyphenated ones. In some ways, it must have begun as a very personal quest for the truth-an attempt to verify whether or not there was any validity, any worth, to the stories and tales of one's parents and grandparents. Is it really better in Poland? Or Czechoslovakia or Ukraine or Romania? Let's find out for ourselves. It began as a refusal or unwillingness to see nostalgia as nostalgia-but rather to view the stories and tales and characters as some sort of truth-claim. On the other hand the desire to visit the "homeland" must have also contained elements of resentment: If it was so wonderful, then why did you leave? And it also must have contained strong and discomfiting critiques of parents and grandparents: Is it really so great here? The gold pavement that was promised you is certainly tarnished…if not, in fact, fools gold.
One of the earliest and most intriguing examples of "return" literature is Louis Adamic's best-seller of the 1930s, The native's return: An American immigrant visits Yugoslavia and discovers his old country. Adamic's return is partly fueled by his Marxist view of the America that lured his parents from their Slovenian village. Writing in various radical journals during the Great Depression, he tended to see America and American capitalism as
highly organized criminal terrorism….[which] has its roots deep in
5: The old neighborhood
Of the three collections of poetry, Amber Necklace from Gdansk fits the ethnic American immigrant paradigm most unapologetically and most uncritically. This title itself encourages this reading. An amber necklace seems to be the sort of trinket one might have purchased at one of these state-run folk gift shops (valuable, yes, but available for pennies on the dollar during the not-so-distant black-market socialist past.) And Gdansk was surely the most recognizable Polish city in the 1980s-the shipyard strikes, Solidarity, Lech Walesa, etc. What I find intriguing about Foster's recounting of the immigrant experience is how much the old neighborhood (in her case a Polish section of Cleveland) functions as a stand-in or go-between or intermediary for the old country. The immigrant experience is itself exotic and foreign, even if it is the world into which she was born. She writes of her father at age two learning to count in English-insisting on counting in English, against the will of his mother who is desperately trying to introduce Polish first:
He is barely two, pale and shy, this boy
….on the table, she places her day's wages and waits
with his one, two, three filling the room…..
("Portrait of My Father, Learning to Count")
Of course, as every immigrant child and parent knows, having learned the hard way, the child will eagerly learn his new language first and only reluctantly, usually out of some sense of guilt or pity, learn to understand the parent's language, speaking it only with great reticence and reluctance and often too shy or self-conscious to use it herself. (My wife, who was raised in such an environment many decades back still hears out her mother who speaks in Polish and then answers in English. Even now, when my wife does speak Polish, she often assumes the sweet and deferential tone of a first-communion child, not at all like her usual nuanced, irony-drenched banter.)
As I drifted of to sleep at night, I often heard
("The Old Neighborhood")
Whereas Polish is the language of grand passion, English is, at best, a translation of that passion, something at least once removed, watered-down, negligible. In the same way, an old country activity such as hiking in search of mushrooms in one of the few remaining forests of northern Ohio becomes a highly charged rite-of-passage, some sort of primal reenactment when the poet at five gets temporarily separated from the group.
…my luck was they came back
This experience of going for mushrooms in fall in Ohio is in itself a contemporary, less florid and Americanized version of the ancient custom, here described in Book 3 of Pan Tadeusz:
He spied a multitude of forms dancing about
Who could not fall in love
("The Two Rivers of My Story")
No more burning sludge, no more rusting or crumbling mills, no more urban blight and school-board battles over mascots-here, or rather there, in the old country: mystery, desire, love, the erotic.
6: The Cold War and Nixon
If the America of Foster's Amber Necklace from Gdansk, consists primarily of childhood memories of city neighborhoods with names like "Ducktown, Slavic Village, the Flats," and people who speak a macaronic language that consists of sentences like, "Look, Leenda, ladna dziewczyna, pretty girl…," then the childhood America of Kovacik's Beyond the Velvet Curtain is consumed with the Cold War, the threat of it heating up, the unlikely prosperity it created, and the comically ambiguous figure of Richard Nixon. However, Kovacik's take on the America of the 1950s and 1960s is far from the Cold War that was reported in Life Magazine. Consider the iconic middle-American coffee-klatch meeting between Nixon and Krushchev. Kovacik avoids the media-moment with all of its kitschy overtones peace and American superiority and domesticity--the notion that the farm wife in her kitchen might single-handedly overpower their nukes with her state of the art rotisserie and Bundt cake. Instead she lets Nikita have the last word:
But how can he persuade this slender American,
afraid of everything he can't admit he fears.
("Nixon and Nikita in the Kitchen")
The immigrant America that Kovacik writes about is highly nuanced and complex. The immigrant experience that she describes (but doesn't dwell on) does not consist of catalogs of tasty ethnic treats and fond remembrances of grandparents; even her own family seems anything but quaint:
….Then all glided up
This is a world in which "sad adults/echoed like children" the words of the priest who was "Sweating like a calf in his purple dress." It is also the world of hardship and degradation, worse even than the Romanticized realism of the Great Depression of the 1930s.
….I wonder if
And then there is Nixon. In the first section of her book, slyly called "Statecraft," surely a nod to the Machiavellian aspects of the man, Kovacik features Nixon in no less than seven poems. We have Nixon undressing a woman, Nixon snoring, Nixon, Nixon having a nightmare, Nixon tossing a Frisbee, Nixon with his dog Checkers, and Nixon's briefcase as an assemblage of junk and refuse and personal object--as if it were a one of Joseph Cornell's drawers.
Nixon makes sure that all is in place:
The world Tocqueville once imagined,
("Nixon's Briefcase by Joseph Cornell")
Nixon, the American exceptionalist, the sweating-like-a-pig wannabe monarch with five-o'clock shadow. Always for Kovacik, in these poems that display longing for the old country, the desire is highly mediated. Poland and Eastern Europe are viewed through the mock-terrifying lenses of the Cold War, distorted and distant as the tiniest Russian stacking doll, "absolutely empty/but for silence, longing, a residue of perfume." The destination, not for some second or third generation American on a student visa, but for "B-52s with heavy payloads…"
For Kovacik, the Eastern Bloc is not only mediated--primarily through media images (that kitchen meeting between Nixon and Khrushchev)--but also through language and desire. This is most clearly evident in a short poem called "As My Husband Translates from the Polish," where the two are neatly conflated.
Unconscious as a statue,
He translates poetry in the nude,
in the raw…..
Even poems in the collection (and there are many) that avoid the new world/old world model seem more highly charged when some part of Poland or Eastern Europe enters the picture. In a cycle of four sonnets, "Sapphic Sonnets," the gloriously stormy relationship between the poet and the woman she is attempting to "gild…in this form," Russia and Eastern and Central Europe are never far from the charged narrative in each of the four sonnets.
….pink otter with sleek arms
even though I have broken in a new wife--
7: From Amber to Velvet to Ration Cards
The common destination for all three collections of poetry is, of course, Poland. They vary only to the extent that the ultimate pilgrimage is prepared for, delayed, or dreamed about. In this sense, their titles are especially intriguing. For Foster, Poland is the amber strand, both precious and precious, elegant, dramatic, traditional, and beautiful. Kovacik's Poland is cloaked in some sort of velvet curtain( no longer iron), much more sensuous and perhaps decadent, something that also recalls the "Bloodless Revolution" in neighboring Czechoslovakia, also known as the "Velvet Divorce." When I was searching for more insight into the exact meaning of velvet curtain, the first hits were those advertising a baby-sitting service for swingers in Texas. The word velvet seems to carry with it a very complex set of meanings and associations for Americans (more so, I suspect, than it does for eastern Europeans): one can't help but thinking about the song, Blue Velvet, as well as the David Lynch film. Kovacik's poems certainly expand this range of meaning. The title of Georgia Scott's collection, The Good Wife, seems baffling at first. After all, the poems are almost exclusively about life in Poland after the War and before the fall of Communism. And yet, for Scott, who is living as an ï¿½migrï¿½ in Poland (Gdansk), unlike the other two whose grandparents emigrated from Poland, everyday Poland isthe good wife. No longer viewed nostalgically, no longer the quaint vestigial remains in midwestern industrial centers, no longer the object of erotic desire-Scott's Poland is, simply, Poland. It's theme could easily be summed up by the character in Stanislaw Wyspianksi's highly fantastic and patriotic and modernist drama, The Wedding (Wesele), who in the midst of a mad orgy of drunken nostalgia, longs for the day when a Polish village will simply be a village where people live and work and die--and not a training ground for permanent insurgency and spiritual meaning.
I show him the full length of my legs,
And I let him make love,
In this I am faithful to my husband.
("The Good Wife")
This sort of bleak realism and honesty pervades the entire collection-decidedly anti-Romantic, in spite of the fact that many of the poems take place during the time of Solidarity, and many of them take place in Gdansk, the very birthplace and home of the movement. Even the amber in Scott's world seems to come from a different world--a world a smuggling and desperate attempts to raise cash, displayed not at a dollar store but in some grimy flea market along with the sellers other pathetic wares. Ultimately, though, the amber is not precious, even as some sort of repository of prehistoric life, but turns out to be something troubling and dangerous, an albatross strung around one's neck.
The amber sellers shut their doors
In Scott's world, Poland under Communism, the good wife does what she needs to do--to keep going, to remain alive, to feed her family, to find toilet paper and batteries. She views the Polish society from the perspective of an insider avoiding the secret police, scowling disdainfully at the peasant/workers' paradise presented in so many banners and billboards and festivals ("the ribboned dancers"), the lines for food and other necessities, the twenty-year waiting list of a studio apartment in a poorly constructed concrete block building. Her stance is decidedly anti-Romantic-she is no Byron or Shelley, posing, then rushing off to liberate a captive country. These poems are fierce packets of stoic disillusionment, what Philip Hobsbaum calls in his foreword to the collection, poems that are "black and white, apparently straightforward in imagery, but in fact, shrewdly angled to allow for emotion." They are poems that during an earlier period of Communist rule, throughout the Eastern Bloc, would lead straight to a re-education camp.
More coffee? Or was yours tea?
And always, the sardonic humor necessary for survival.
Watching the official marches,
This time, police charged the sidewalks.
We did not put the TV on.
Jaruzelski is, of course, the Polish Prime Minister, the General with the impenetrably dark sunglasses, who declared Martial Law in 1981, claiming as justification, that he was saving the country from an imminent Soviet reprisal.
Jaruzelski makes several appearances in these poems, as does the Lech Walesa, the Solidarity hero. Their competing views of Polish society are both steeped in the same whistling kettle of Polish Romanticism--old Romantic Poland, the failed workers' paradise, the fate of Poles in exile, whether that exile is Siberia or 19th century Paris or modern Europe.
In the lesser towns outside Warsaw,
("Polish Television 1989")
Although Scott's perspective is decidedly different from that of Foster and Kovacik. Her longing is not for the Poland where she currently lives (teaching at the University in Gdansk), and not for the Poland of nostalgia (there are no Slavic Babcias andDziadzios in her poems telling her tales of the glorious old country), and not even for the America that she left behind. If, in fact, there is any longing in Scott's poems, it is to provide witness and solidarity.
I am not in prison
Everything is better in Poland!