Wednesday, March 6, 2013

"Everything's Better in Poland:" Three books of poetry


Linda Nemec Foster
In America it's easier to anticipate what's coming next rather than to appreciate what came before. The rapidity of our collective memory loss means that history becomes a timeline not only of ideas but of images (the American Revolution, say, is a painting of three beat-up soldiers we imagine playing "Yankee Doodle": a piper, a drummer, and a flag.)

As fast as we learn to forget, the past takes a long time to remember. As simple as we like to pretend "the good old days" really weren't, imagine in fifty years (all right, make that one hundred) how obvious the present will seem in all its current calamity and distress.

Many families came from other countries to the United States in their own times of need and opportunity. My own great-times-2, Stanislaw, decided in 1905 that the Russians next door were making too much noise -- a minor revolution was in progress, threatening to once again prove the truth of the old Polish proverb "Trouble comes from the east": Zmartwienie przyjechał z wschód.

He himself went west across the Atlantic to the U.S., to Pittsburgh, and brought the rest of his family over, one by one, in the next twelve years. Twelve years! Imagine that kind of patience these days. My father was born in Pittsburgh in 1919 and went to a primary school where Polish was the first language.

Leonard Kress's essay in Artful Dodge 46/47 "Wszystko lepiej w Polsce (Everything's Better in Poland)" reviews three books of poetry that echo the immigrant experience as it deepened into American cities -- Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, New York -- and became the new story for generations born in the 20th century. Even as the Polish language progressively became a memory of the old country, it functioned almost as a lullaby that resonated with time:

As I drifted of to sleep at night, I often heard
my parents talk about the neighbors in hushed whispers.
Kosmarek the Drunk,
Polumski the Wise Guy and the Barking Dog.
Horvath the Creep.
This litany in English would ultimately drift
into one in Polish: dzika, swinia, brudna swinia,
dziki Amerykanin. Wild Pig, dirty pig, Wild American.

("The Old Neighborhood", Linda Nemec Foster,

As Kress notes, many poems are filled with "the three P's" -- polkas, parades, and pierogies --hallmarks of the Polish pride that first generations felt in their new homeland and shared with their children. Yet there's more than just sweet memory of nostalgia here in Kress' review of these poems. There is also the sharp edge of politics, the sardonic view of the politically displaced for whom life had to be better here than back home, even as the scrub pines of New Jersey were stand-ins for those on the banks of the Vistula: Ach, sosnowe powietze, najlepsze na swiecie. ("Oh, the pine air / the best in the world.")

Karen Kovacik

This idea of a better life regardless of other hardships and deprivations was passed on as the immigrant generation raised their families, and as the household appliances multiplied in their kitchens. By the 1960s the Cold War brought the sons and daughters political realities unimagined by their parents. For a while it seemed possible that electric blenders and built-in dishwashers could conquer the Soviet empire, although Nikita Khruschev has the final word here when East meets West:

But how can he persuade this slender American,
this shy stranger who probably has never laughed at a party,
except when a camera is pointed his way?
Nikita waves his arms but no sound comes out.
He imagines Nixon late at night, lonely under a circle
of kitchen light, with a wife and appliances
spinning in the background. He sees Nixon
hunched over a pink teacup, blowing on his fingers,

afraid of everything he can't admit he fears.
Lev Tolstoy had it right, he thinks: It is difficult
to tell the truth and the young are rarely capable of it.

("Nixon and Nikita in the Kitchen," Karen Kovacik,
Georgia Scott

And there is the poetry of Georgia Scott, who teaches at the University in Gdansk, in which the immigrant generation seems to have come full circle. The insistent longing for home that provided immigrants with their memories, here gets turned on its head: Scott, living in Poland, writes poems like telegrams back to the adopted country. Twenty years after the shipyard revolutions of Solidarity, with its sweeping political possibilities, the cultural reality seems an echo of the country that Scott left behind:

I am not in prison
I have no cause to lie awake
refurnishing rooms as I remember them
the positions of cushions and toothbrushes
smells of sink cleaner, sausages, flowers
the graffiti in the hall
"Dead Kennedys" and "1984"
schoolboys singing soccer and Solidarity songs
roller skates whirring behind the rag 'n bone man's cart
the bows on the little girls' heads like the blades of helicopters
a tank left in the park, children swinging from the gun
the cries of mothers to come home

("In America," Georgia Scott, in The Good Wife)

Memory has a powerful pull no matter what the culture holds; it's in the images that we imagine we remember, more so than the long-gone and often painful reality we choose to forget. In the meantime, I'm wondering the cost of a new subscription to my father's weekly and regular delivery of the Narod Polski newspaper.

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