Monday, December 17, 2018


Danusha Goska is a writer, essayist, and memoirist who has written some of the most engaging prose I've read in the last 20 years.  Every book and every essay she writes draws me, gets me thinking, shakes me up in some way that always finally helps me see things with the clarity she brings to every topic.

In her most recent book, God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery (available at Amazon), she does it again as she writers about a spiritual quest she undertook.  The great books about such journeys never give you easy answers.  They don't say, "Do these 10 things and you will find peace or faith or salvation." Goska knows this truth.  She has lived this truth.  As you read this beautifully written, witty, and inspiring book, you will find yourself not only following her journey, you will find yourself living your own journey.  

Here is an except from Goska's powerful book.

The Dudh Kosi or River of Milk drains Mount Everest. It glimmers in its gorge, turquoise and silver. I once trekked along it, to a spot where it joined one of its seven sister rivers. The confluence of rivers is sacred in Hinduism. I encountered a sannyasi seated in lotus position in the sand and gravel at the place where the rivers joined. Sannyasis' renunciation of the world is so severe that they perform their own funerals before taking to the wilderness. This sannyasi was naked except for ashes. His limbs were as slim and slack as jute ropes. His dreadlocked hair was piled atop his head. Once he had taken his vow, that hair was never again combed or cut. There was nothing anywhere near him except for the fierce V of mountains rising up thousands of feet from the rushing river's bed.

The rise of those mountains was an act of aggression to me. As I trekked, I felt the mountains to be my enemies, eager to cause me pain, thwart and humiliate me. And yet I adored their beauty. The Himalayas are active; they grow a couple of inches every year, as the Indian subcontinent pushes into the Asian landmass. There were no people; I was the lone other. There were only the parrots down low in the gorge, winging, carefree, from river bank to river bank, their highway air; their concern with the pitch of the mountains minimal. Then, rising higher, there would be crows, then, still higher, lammergeier, vultures that eat bone. The mountains bullied even sunlight; it visited only in slants.

The sannyasi said nothing to me, and I said nothing to him. I thought of everything he had renounced, from peanut M&Ms to romantic comedies to the contents of the Encyclopedia Britannica to crying over a broken heart to worrying about the future to telling a friend about last night's dream. What did he receive in exchange? I wondered what he knew, if anything. I kept walking. I was on my way to a Peace Corps conference, the closest thing to a Roman orgy I'd ever know. We'd eat till sick, dance, flirt, copulate. That sannyasi would be with me, every moment. I'd be thinking of him. What does he know that I cannot access?

I just googled "Dudh Kosi" to revisit this river in photos. I see that now it hosts organized white-water rafters. I wonder what the sannyasi makes of them. I wonder if he ever thinks of me; no, not really; of course I know that he has never thought of me. I think of him often.

I have long had this question: are contemplatives, the Desert Fathers, the Desert Mothers, and all those who leave society and go off on their lonesome – Tibetan monks, Hindu sadhus, Buddha, John the Baptist – are they truly holy? Or are they merely crabby misfits who couldn't get laid and are too lazy or soul-dead to engage in conventional hygiene?

Entering the wilderness temporarily to contemplate a difficult question or to realign yourself when you are off track is a necessary thing. In the Bible, Elijah left society and slept under a juniper tree. There, Elijah was commanded, "Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire a still small voice."

That's where God was. God was not in the special effects: not in the wind, the broken rocks, or the earthquake. God was in the "still, small voice" that Elijah had to leave society, and enter the wilderness, to hear. A quote from the Desert Fathers and Mothers: "Stay in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything." I respect staying in one's cell for short stretches. It's the lifelong rejection of society that gives me pause.

We tend to stereotype urban life as stressful, and country living in wide-open spaces as healthy and stress-free. My mother grew up in a village in Slovakia. I visited Kovarce in the 1970s and it was postcard-perfect. Kovarce was surrounded by fields of blue rye and red poppies. Clouds of white butterflies rose into the sky. In the hills, wild boar announced their presence with heavy pants. And the cuckoo – such a tender punctuation to the drawn-out ripple of the breeze caressing leaves. Uncle John built an indoor toilet for our visit; before that, all he had was an outhouse. He didn't even have a refrigerator. When he wanted something to eat, he didn't stand in front of a cold, white light and stare at leftovers. He went into his backyard and dug up his meal, or picked it, or chopped off its head.
My mother grew up in that idyllic, rural setting. She told me that there was one guy in the village who didn't fit in. He hung himself. She and her brother Joe peeked in the window. She remembered the corpse's black tongue sticking out of its mouth. The entire village came out for his funeral, as they did for all funerals. They marched in the funeral procession. They sang loudly, as they always did – Slovaks do love to sing – and they wailed loudly, as they always did. She told me that if anyone had paid that kind of loving attention to this poor misfit before he died, he probably wouldn't have killed himself.

I grew up on stories like that. Village beatings, murders, feuds, conspiracies, and chicken thieves – and this was just our own family. I knew that the perfect rural image is not what urbanites want it to be.

Contrary to what we moderns want to believe about our "stressful" urban lives, and rural peace and tranquility, rural people are far more likely to commit suicide than urban ones. Young, rural Americans are almost twice as likely to kill themselves as young, urban Americans. It seems that there may be something salubrious about spending time around other people, and something stressful about being alone in the back of the beyond. 

Danusha Goska's God Through Binoculars -- A Hitchhiker at a Monastery is available as a paperback or kindle at Amazon.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Landings by Andrena Zawinski

Image result for landings zawinski

Polish-American poet Andrena Zawinski has recently published a new book of poems entitled Landings.  The book was review by Joan Gelfand in the Los Angeles Review

It’s tempting to bury our pasts. Haunted by the ghosts of family dysfunction, financial strain and personal shame, Andrena Zawinski’s Landings is a collection of unflinching poems that confront personal and political violence, global upheaval and senseless loss, all the while remaining true to close observation and creating beauty from tragedy.
In “Rosie Times,” the poet plays loose with irony, recounting her mother’s story working as a “Liberty Girl” in Northeastern factories during WWII: “Draped in white overalls, hair wrapped in a red scarf / Under a hard hat, clear goggles shielding her amber eyes / She welded Pressed Steel’s box cars outside Pittsburgh.” Despite the no-nonsense work ethic and hard living her mother endured, she retained a love of a good time. But she also neglected to protect the daughter who loved her:
belted out the high notes / of Indian Love Call at a USO picnic.
She learned to love the night shift as a blackout warden
and became the woman who I would later blast
for not pulling me free from my father’s fierce grip.
From the safe distance of adulthood, Zawinski ventures a hard look into the psyche of a father who, apparently, faced his own demon. In “What About a Fight:”
They say my father loved a fight. Was it his old juvie record
trumping determination or hope, his annulled marriage
to a bigamist collecting veteran’s checks
or layoffs at the mills
before benefits kicked in, a monotony of existence?
Not a pleasant undertaking, the poem bears witness to working class ennui, malaise and brokenness.
Landings toggles between personal and world crises. In “Le crayon qui parle” we hear a lament for Paris after the attacks. To place the attack in historical context, we first hear of Picasso’s creation of the Guernica: “An arm raised with a lamp of light.” Fast forward to the current scene:
a wounded city mourning and left to do
what it must – to witness, to sing or to pray,
to hold vigil, to take up paints or dig hands in clay
to run fingers across keys, to put pen to paper
to let le crayon parle as dreary fearsome nights
begin to fade and chains of pain break and fall
By bringing in a scene where Gertrude Stein tells Picasso to “put down the pen and go home and paint” in the first stanza, the poet engenders empathy not only for the Paris of terrorist attacks, but also the city that survived a Nazi invasion and two world wars.
“Rafts,” mourns the immigrant crisis, juxtaposing a family picnic against refugees floating across a tumultuous sea from Aleppo: “A three-year-old washes up onto the beach, face down on the sand / Limp body leaden in his father’s arms / Water lapping the wounded shore.” When humanity suffers, the earth suffers: a truth we know but can afford to hear again and again.The body may be gone but the spirit lives on. The trope repeatedly acts as a through line in Landings. Life is unforgiving. Senseless violence pervades. People are hurt, injured and die for no reason. Still, we land, an indomitable spirit and will to survive intact.
The final section, “Civics Lessons,” employs the prose poem form to relate a story about the school days that informed the poet’s adult political leanings. In two flash-sized chapters, Zawinski recounts a Civics teacher who punished her for “not putting her hand to her heart to recite the national anthem” but then proceeded to bribe her father for his vote. The aforementioned teacher was later incarcerated. Chapter two brings us a new crisis: Martin Luther King’s assassination:
Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in a Memphis motel, the cashier barking: “It’s about time someone shut that nigger up.” Outside, business owners scrawled Soul Brother across their boarded-up shops under a sky thick with smoke layered like low flung storm clouds. Police in swat gear with crackling megaphones cleared streets and blocked bridges, while “All You Need Is Love” blasted from speakers propped in an apartment house window. Like so many before and so many after, I signed on, sat in, marched, protested, carried signs believing that raising my voice would make words matter. Civics lesson.
Ever the soldier for human rights and blessed with a fighting spirit, this poet possesses a healthy dose of empathy with which she processes the stranger’s pain. Without self-pity or regret Zawinski narrates the events that shaped her into the person and writer she is today. We are grateful that so deleterious a past delivered a lover of beauty and a citizen of the world.

To read some of Andrena's poems published here at Writing the Polish Diaspora, just click on the following links.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Circus of Trust by Mark Tardi

Image result for circus of trust mark tardi

Mark Tardi, one of my favorite Polish American poets, has a new book of poems.  If you've been following my blog, you'll know that this is the third time I'm featuring Mark's poems.  I wrote about him in 2012  and again in 2013 when his book Airport Music came out (click on the links here to see those pieces and poems).

He's got a new book out from the great Dalkey Archive Press called Circus of Trust (available at Amazon).  The poems are stronger and more moving than ever.

Here are a couple:


The roadsides favor promiscuity, snow
clenched to nights, hoarsely chromium,
forming a grin inside a crack. In sleep

Theyll pursue you: no bandit lapping the fence,
no slim digit hovering over the viewshed. I’m
waiting for my legs to catch up with my hand.

            Im waiting for that resigned way of Saturday.

An altered paradise, not epitome or ruminant,
a paradise born inside out, ceramic. Its a question of
polo or humanity, how technology is winning our hearts.

I know my bones and your hair, yes, how the eye
drowns in cold probability. The entire structure
must be subtracted from harms way. Folded

Among the constellations, ghost flat.

Youre right when you say the day continues
to torment me. I dont know whether to shit or go
blind, if sin were only a matter of physics.

That chalk village cut by amber nets, not an answer,
not a question. All tenses and inflections, bloodless,
buried in lead regardless of appetite.

I’m glad there are no rules, just the extent to which
we can describe what is lean or not lean. The tumult
and pulse, the interior light of things, from which

                                                Most of us would shrink.

from Attribution Error                                                                                                                    

Sometimes you have to start with a series of misunderstandings
brief stain to dark clarity
a jab, a simple burst of air
toward the invisible middle
like tripping between the pigeons and the cats
like demolished logic
because its always winter in Chicago
it’ll be dark in forty-five minutes
youre here to enjoy the contradictions
the continuous and familiar fact
like how economists have predicted seven of
the last three downturns
like trading a claw hammer for a kiss

For the oldest cinema in the world, for its secrets

whatever variable distances, itinerant longings
more guano for my artifacting


There are no harmless motives, thinking
detached from all consequence,
it was guttered and channeled and sluices
like a gnarled moccasin or
some squat ungainly bird

the ligaments could have been flypaper revolving in slow spirals

Gone are quinsy, glanders, and farcy
menstrual blood prettied with rosewater


You dont have to step on a body to carry
death on your shoes, gesticulant and aimless,
each day a relentless emptying out
the whorl expanding in itself
as if a tickle of electricity in mute chorus
as if left trembling with success

a skin of persuasion and habit, weather-worn
bound to a different set of restrictions

folding again into the murk beyond

                        between a gulf and a toilet


Mark Tardi is originally from Chicago and he earned his MFA from Brown University. His publications include the books The Circus of Trust (just out from Dalkey Archive Press), Airport music, and Euclid Shudders. He guest-edited an issue of the literary journal Aufgabe  devoted to contemporary Polish poetry and poetics and has translated poetry from the Polish by Kacper Bartczak, Miron Białoszewski, Monika Mosiewicz, and Przemysław Owczarek. A former Fulbright scholar, he lives with his family in a village in central Poland and is on faculty at the University of Łódź.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Polish Mushrooms

Polish Mushrooms

I remember my mom once opening a plastic bag with dried mushrooms that came all the way from Poland. She put them in a broth, and while it was heating she talked about how Polish mushrooms were like no other food on earth.

I was a kid, maybe 7 years old, and I expected them to taste like the greatest chocolate cake in the world.

You can imagine I was disappointed.

But when my mother finally poured the mushrooms and broth into our bowls, she smiled first and then she started to cry.


Years later, when she was in her 70s and I was in my 40s, she told me about what her home in Poland was like before the war, the woods around the house, and the things she loved about those woods.

I wrote a poem about it.

Like any poem, it doesn't capture the truth of what she remembers, but now that my mom is gone, it's all I have.

My Mother Before the War

She loved picking mushrooms in the spring
and even when she was little she could tell
the ones that were safe from the ones that weren’t.

She loved climbing the tall white birch trees
in the summer when her chores in the garden
and the kitchen were done. She loved to ride
her pet pig Caroline in the woods too
or sit with her and watch the leaves fall
in the autumn. She felt that Caroline
was smarter than her brothers Wladyu and Jan,
but not as smart as Genja, her sister
who was married and had a beautiful baby girl.

My mother also loved to sing.
There was a song about a chimney sweep
that she would sing over and over;
and when her father heard it, he sometimes
laughed and said, “Tekla, you’re going to grow up
to marry a chimney sweep, and your cheeks
will always be dusty from his dusty kisses.”
But she didn’t care if he teased her so.

She loved that song and another one,
about a deep well. She loved to sing
about the young girl who stood by the well
waiting for her lover, a young soldier,
to come back from the wars far away.

She had never had a boy friend, and her mom
said she was too young to think of boys,
but Tekla didn’t care. She loved the song
and imagined she was the girl waiting
for the soldier to come back from the war.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

And So On and So Forth -- by Vladimir Konieczny

Vladimir Knoieczny, the Polish-Canadian author of Struggling for Perfection: The Story of Glenn Gould and Glenn Gould: A Musical Force, has allowed me to post his moving memoir about his relationship to his father, a Polish soldier who survived the war and came to Canada as a Displaced Person. 

“And So On and So Forth” by Vladimir Konieczny

(Excerpted from Nobody’s Father [TouchWood Editions, 2008] edited by Bruce Gillespie and Lynne Van Luven)

“But you would have made such a good father,” she said.
“Well, yes and no,” I replied.

My first-and-only-born died at the age of 52. His name was Andrezj, and in truth, he was my father, but our roles often felt reversed. The official cause of death was lung cancer, but if illness can serve as metaphor, then the crab that pinched his lungs was merely the symptom of a soul long drained of vitality by alcohol. I spied him many times as his lips clutched a bottle of wine as if it were a lifebuoy, while his Adam’s apple bobbed like a fisherman’s float with every swallow. When he jerked the bottle from his mouth, a plop echoed throughout the basement, followed by a death-rattle sigh grumbling deep in his barrel chest. He always screwed the cap back on with two or three quick precise flicks of his thumb and middle finger before secreting it away in one or another of his hiding places. He denied doing this, but I knew better, and for months after his death, I kept finding empty wine bottles in the house and the backyard.

Andrzej spoke five languages, played half a dozen instruments, danced like an Argentinean tango-meister, sang like a Venetian gondolier, sketched viciously funny caricatures, played poker with panache, entertained guests with stories all told in appropriate accents, slaved six days a week in a shoe factory, and still took the time to drink himself into an early grave. He was a model of decorum and industry by day, an incoherent drunk by night. Some days he was stalwart and brave; others, he was weak and whiny. Funny when sober, he could be verbally violent when drunk. Fortunately, for he was a strong man, Andrzej was unfailingly soft with his hands. I loved him one minute and loathed him the next.

The eldest in a family of three brothers and two sisters, Andrzej won a scholarship to university; instead, he went to work and later enlisted in the Polish army, determined to rout the Nazis. By war’s end, his entire family had been slaughtered, and he found himself stationed near a Displaced Persons camp in Germany. There he met Zenobia, a Belarus woman whose family had also been slaughtered, but who was lucky enough to survive as slave labour on a farm in Germany after she was first abused, to use the current euphemism. I’d like to say they fell in love, but love seems like such a luxury in a DP camp. Loneliness and humiliation, resin and catalyst, constituted the epoxy that bonded them to each other; once it had cured, they couldn’t pry themselves apart, even though they should have. I was born in that camp in Germany. And there I learned my first lessons about the fickleness of authority.

After the war the Canadian government, in a fit of generosity, liberalized its immigration laws and thousands of refugees came here. Andrzej felt he had little choice. He knew his country had been betrayed yet again, for the Allies, unwilling to risk yet another conflagration, had made their pact with a psychopath. Millions who only a minute earlier had been freed from one monster now found themselves held captive by yet another idiot savant whose single gift was for killing. Those who could get out, did.

Even though he was grateful for the opportunity to come to Canada, Andrzej made a tragic mistake in emigrating, because some temperaments, like certain plants, wither when transplanted in foreign soil. He arrived first with only the proverbial clothes on his back. Actually, he was wearing shorts when he disembarked in Halifax. Zenobia and I remained in the refugee camp—waiting. To fulfill his contractual obligations, he toiled for one year on a farm in southern Ontario before sending for my mother and me. I was four. All I had known until then was the camp. Now, the puppy had been released from its cage and was free to roam the wide-open spaces of the Ontario countryside.

Andrzej and Zenobia had their eyes on the future: mine. My glorious tomorrow was their bulwark against the ignorance and bigotry of Canada in the 1950s and ’60s. Zenobia’s roots took firm hold here, while Andrezj’s shrivelled. He grew addicted to drink; my mother to me. I was the little guy with the smart mouth who could make both parents laugh even in the heat of an argument, which happened daily. I became the buffer between two warring strangers, a Belarus and a Pole, whose only common bond besides their recent history of misery was me. And so I absorbed the dynamics of family interaction.

Like so many immigrants, my parents held jobs that were beneath their abilities and education. Still, they were grateful to have them. Zenobia traded slavery on a labour farm for servitude in a shoe factory. She even sewed moccasins at night for something like a penny per slipper. Later, she toiled for the Toronto school board as an aide in a kindergarten, a job that was close to her original dream to be a teacher, but again the pay was a pittance. My father worked in a tannery, where his skin soaked up dyes, and later in a shoe factory, where he inhaled glues all day long. Yet, no matter how drunk he got at night, he never missed a day of work. Zenobia rose first to make breakfast; by 7:00 am they were both gone, leaving me on my own to get ready for school—or not. I watched them both and picked up a few pointers about labour and economics, and especially the law of diminishing returns.

At some point in my teens, two words began to echo in my mind: “if” and “only.” Together, they form the most hollow phrase in English, a cavern in which lurk lost illusions, actions regretted, chances never taken. Most of all, the phrase reverberates with the hopeless wish that an idealized future would magically be the present and that the past were somehow different. If only Andrzej and Zenobia had been born later. If only Hitler had not, or Churchill had, or Stalin had not. If only this, if only that. A see-saw of disappointment and despair. But these were my if onlys; Andrzej’s simply rasped in his heart. He never gave them voice, at least not to me. He expressed only extremes: joy one day, anger the next. And for years, I caromed from one to the other.

In fact, my father’s favourite expression was “and so on and so forth.” Whenever anyone asked about the war, for example, he would smile and take a thoughtful puff on his unfiltered Export A, “Oh, of course some difficult days, you see. Very difficult, you know, and so on and so forth.” Then he’d tell a joke or engage in debate about religion, politics, music, or the Toronto Maple Leafs versus the Montreal Canadiens, his charm and wit drawing friends into arguments that would shift terrain with a slippery word or two from his smiling lips. Like everyone else, I, his son, had to fashion Andrzej’s history from the motes of memory that occasionally floated into his conversations: a name here, a place there, a date, a farewell, a snippet of a song, a sketch of someone’s face, a story about a long-dead friend, or a village scene never to be repeated here. To this day, much of his life remains a mystery to me. Still, to his credit, he never dined out on his wartime experiences, and neither did Zenobia. I sat at his knee and studied human exchange.

He was my hero and nemesis rolled into one. No question of mine was too difficult for him to answer. He would sing arias or pop songs, conduct a symphony blasting on the Motorola radio and invite me to join in. He showed me how to bait a hook, cast a line, bluff at poker and milk a musical phrase. I read the newspaper over his shoulder and answered his questions. He taught me to read between the lines and to watch people’s eyes, faces and hands to understand what they really meant. He impressed my buddies and charmed my girlfriends. He bragged about me to his friends, but only rarely complimented me to my face. Even then, he praised me when I had done nothing to deserve it and ignored me when I had actually achieved something. I lost count of the number of times he embarrassed me when he was drunk, but I also treasured every fishing trip, music lesson, card game and discussion we had when he was sober. Eventually, like a dragonfly on a clothesline, I learned to stay on constant alert. After a while, I could gauge his mood and read his gestures accurately enough to make the necessary transpositions from one key to another by myself. But on occasion, like every alcoholic’s child, I wanted to ask him which he loved more, the bottle or me. But then you might as well ask which wing a hummingbird favours. And so I learned not to confuse need with love.

From about the age of eight, I worked to support my father. My job was simple but demanding. When he drank, I became the man of the house. This job was assigned by my mother, and there was no arguing. Even back then she already sensed that her son was like a hound on a porch, turning around and around, sniffing the air in search of that inviting blend of texture and scent which signals a safe place to rest or hide. She wanted to teach me self-discipline, but as Andrzej once presciently said, “Just leave him alone. It’s too late.”

My manly tasks were straightforward. I retrieved smouldering cigarette butts from his ashtrays and doused them in the kitchen sink. I made sure the stove was off after he went to bed, because he liked to light his cigarettes on the burner. I checked the doors and so on and so forth. As I grew older and he weaker, I on occasion followed him home from one or another of his favourite pubs. Like an apprenticing undercover cop, I shadowed my father from one side of the street while he walked up the other with those light, precise footsteps unique to the very drunk. Whistling or belting out a tune, he would pass rows of grim brick houses, his fedora neatly cocked, its front pinched just so, and his hands held straight by his sides as though he were on parade. Sometimes, I helped him to bed and watched as he fell asleep, drunk on wine and exhausted from work. I joked about these nights with friends who shared similar adventures.

My mother was a courageous woman who also feared the night at noon. She rarely spoke of the war years, the physical and mental abuse, the simple unfairness of it all, but her experience had inked her melancholy soul an even darker sepia, which no amount of sunlight could bleach. She had claimed to be Polish to ensure that she could emigrate. She also subtracted four years from her age in the hope that she would be more appealing as an immigrant if she were younger, a minor sleight of hand that postponed her retirement by an equal length of time. These deceptions were probably unnecessary, but in those days, who could be certain they weren’t? And so for the rest of her life, she not only suppressed her true identity, but also worried that her secret would be discovered. Yet, despite her fluttering misgivings, Zenobia refused to suffer fools and never thought of herself as a victim, even though she believed the other shoe would inevitably drop, and I had better be prepared for it. She loved me unconditionally, and that only heightened her fears for her son.

Zenobia worked harder than anyone I’ve ever known. She also managed the household. Every Friday, she would open her and my father’s brown pay packets and allocate money with the precision of a purchasing agent: mortgage, hydro and food, in that order. If anything was left over, it went into savings. This was my lesson in financial planning and long-term investment.
Then, suddenly, as these things always happen, my father became ill. He discussed it with the usual “and so ons and so forths.” Perhaps during the hour of the wolf, he probed death’s sacred side and fondled the dignified beauty of parting, but I’ll never know, for a short while later he died. I was not yet 21, cockier than a year-old Irish terrier, and completely oblivious to what Andrzej’s passing would eventually come to mean. The last words I heard him speak were, “This is my son.” These he said to the duty nurse who was administering painkillers. At the time, I had no idea how right he was, for by then I was already both particle and wave: a hard, bitter kernel of moral certitude one minute, an undulating non-localized wave of doubt and anxiety the next; a model of confidence, ambition and promise one day; a bundle of sloth, self-indulgence and anger the next. One week I wanted marriage and children; the next, I fantasized about emulating Jack Kerouac. One minute I felt compassion for all of humanity; the next I sneered at people’s weakness. One day I felt light with joy; the next I could have squashed butterflies. I despised authority, but argued fervently in favour of it. I vacillated between being a monk and being famous, for what I didn’t know, something, anything. If not this, then surely that. Just notice me, please and thank you. That was my motto for a long time.

One day a few years after Andrzej died, my new girlfriend announ-ced that she was pregnant. She also hinted it might be her ex-boyfriend’s. Timelines were loose in the early 1970s. I tried to convince her that I didn’t care if it was his or mine. “We’ll get married and everything will be fine,” I said. I’m sure I added an “I love you” for good measure. I was determined to do my duty. She listened and nodded, but her sloe eyes suggested an ancient understanding. For the next few days, I talked to myself in the mirror. “Asshole. Fool. Idiot. How could you do this? Your life is ruined.” Then, I would imagine myself strutting down the street with my baby, a proud father determined not to make the same mistakes his parents had.

A week or so later, she called to tell me that she intended to have an abortion. I was outraged. “It’s wrong!” I yelled. “It’s murder. You can’t do it!” She had the presence of mind to hang up. When she called back a few days later and told me she had gone through with it, a huge wave of gratitude and relief made my knees tremble. Shortly afterwards, we split up. Only years later could I admit that I had been indignant not because of the abortion, for even back then I had no philosophical objections to abortion, but because I wasn’t the one who got to make the decision.

There followed years of education, more than a few menial jobs, and marriage. I played with my friends’ children, made cooing noises, and tickled their chins. While I held them, I longed for one or two of my own. One girl, now a lovely young woman, especially captured my heart and made me wish that I had been her father. But inevitably when I put others’ children down, I was glad I didn’t have any. I had my reasons, and they were sufficient to keep me childless. What were they? Legion. By this time, for example, I had taught in secondary school for several years, and had experienced, although admittedly second-hand, the results of broken homes, the fallout from bitter divorces and the battles waged by parents who used their children as missiles. This could happen to me, I reasoned. Why take a chance? I’m happy to be married. But kids? I’ll pass. Then again maybe I should? And that sly inner voice would shift poles, and I would yet again spend an hour or two fingering my regrets. In short, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I wanted a family, but not on the rest of the days. I had also learned that to love a child is easy, but to be consistent as a parent is hard, and for some us, impossible.

More years passed. Much to my horror, I became middle-aged, the time in life when there’s still some light left at the end of the tunnel, but you now realize it’s battery-powered. My mother finally gave up hope she would ever have grandchildren. Then, like my father, she died a horrible and unfair death. A few years later there was, for what seemed like only a fraction of a minute, a second chance for a child, but then came some difficult days, yes, very difficult, you see, and so on and so forth.


Vladimir Konieczny was born in a refugee camp in Germany in 1946 and emigrated in 1950 to join his father in Canada. A former teacher of English and music for the Vancouver School Board, he now works as a freelance writer and an instructor in Simon Fraser University’s Writing and Publishing Program. He is the author of two books: Struggling for Perfection: The Story of Glenn Gould, which was nominated for the Red Cedar Book Award, and Glenn Gould: A Musical Force.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Reversing the River by Leslie Pietrzyk

If you haven’t read the fiction of Leslie Pietryzk, you really should.  She’s one of my favorite Polish-American writers.

She’s the award-winning author of Pears on a Willow Tree and A Year and a Day, two great novels.  Her fiction has been published in the some of the greatest American literary journals, and her recent book This Angel on My Chest was chosen by the Kirkus Review as one of the best collections of short stories this year.

Her most recent novel Reversing the River is currently being serialized in Medium, an internet site that can be accessed online or through the Great Jones Street literary app (available through the iTunes store). 

Here’s a brief note that Leslie sent me describing Reversing the River:

REVERSING THE RIVER, a historical novel, is set on one day in Chicago at the turn of the (previous) century, when the citizens of Chicago completed their massive engineering project to literally reverse the flow of the Chicago River to ensure safe drinking water.

We meet Jozef, a Polish immigrant who is struggling to care for his newborn son and understand his complex relationship with love and family, and Lucy, an affluent young woman who is learning the secrets behind her recent, hasty marriage. How will the course of their lives be reversed on this momentous day?

You can start reading the serialization when you join Medium.  Here's a link to it, and there's info there about joining.  Just click here:

And now here’s the first chapter:

            Sitting on the cold stoop as snow flurried around him, Jozef felt as useless as a third boot. Upstairs, his wife was huddled deep in Ludwika’s bed, in the front room where the window was. When any of them were sick, that’s where they lay to get better or to die: little Janka with the fever was the last one, and she had passed on after a long, terrible week; mass was being said at St. Casimir’s in two Sundays. Now his wife, Krystyna—not sick, but with a baby that had been coming for too many hours, so it was her turn in Ludwika’s bed, her turn to lie in the front room.
            He had resisted, wanting her to stay in the back bedroom; yes, it was on the airshaft, dark and dank, crowded with the bedding for the little girls, but wasn’t it better for Krystyna to be in a place she knew—the faded wallpaper with the roses, the cracks in the ceiling zigzagging like summer lightning?—“she’ll be fine back here,” he had said, but the women ignored him, lifting Krystyna, pulling her, prodding her into the front, into the bed where people died. How Ludwika could sleep with those ghosts, but she did.
            “Go,” they told him. “We’ll take care of her.”
            “Go,” and he was nudged out the front door, and one of them even stood there, arms folded like a sentry, watching him clump down the four flights of stairs to be sure he was gone.
            He walked to the saloon on the corner, had a beer and a pickle, watched the card game, complained about the ward boss, didn’t mention the baby. No one sent for him. At midnight, he walked the two blocks back, thinking of nothing except the sound of his footsteps, the flickers of light in the streetlamps and how different their dance was from the way flames twisted off handmade candles on the table in Poland. That smell of sputtering wax, a single drip sliding inexorably downward. Thoughts he wouldn’t usually allow in his mind.
            Upstairs, the women wouldn’t stop moving: pouring water from a pitcher, soaking rags, fanning Krystyna’s damp face, stroking back her heavy hair, rubbing her wrists. There was a dark, indescribable odor seeping throughout the rooms, and he sensed something lingering, waiting to settle in: he couldn’t describe what he smelled, or he didn’t want to, but it was as if the air had turned itself inside out.
            He couldn’t sleep: the children were restless and whimpering, the men snoring, the air impossible to breathe. There was a hush, but no silence, only anxiety and that odor. Not stench, but worse. The blanket on, the blanket off. On his side, on his back. Two punches to the pillow, three more.
            Her cries—Matka!—begging for her mother. Matka! Strong, then weaker.
            He tiptoed around the children, tumbled like a nest of mice in their pallets, and on into the first bedroom, making his way around the crooked line of sleeping men—lodgers, down-on-their-luck cousins, someone’s uncle—then through the dim kitchen to stand in the doorway to the front room. Through the flat’s only window on the opposite wall, Jozef saw a swirl of new snow through the window and felt an odd moment of panic: so many flakes…too many, too much, more flakes than could be contained in this one night.
            Crazy thoughts. He shook his head. Just snow, same as the snow in Poland.
            Ludwika stood over Krystyna in the yellow lamplight; the others were tucked into the dark, edged in with the shadows. “It will be fine,” Ludwika murmured in Polish. “God will take care. You’ll see. Trust God.”
            “Trust God,” one of the others echoed.
            “Of course,” Jozef said. “Trust God.” He didn’t; he couldn’t. He understood God had stopped listening to him long ago.
            “Go,” Ludwika said. “You won’t help here. Nothing to do but wait.”
            He stood in the doorway for a moment. The doctor, he thought, but it was useless. There was no doctor who would come here. The money. What he had must go for rent, with Ludwika already behind. Ludwika’s eyes did not waver from his, as if she drew his gaze directly to her and held onto it for a reason.
            “I have faith enough for both of us,” Ludwika said. Janka had been her favorite daughter, named for a sister back in Poland. In the end, Janka’s skin had crackled like paper. In the end, two flies had sailed freely along the ceiling, buzzing, not landing, and then another, another. Ludwika’s sobs, choked too-tight, an animal’s cry. That smell. That was how he knew it.
            “Trust God,” someone murmured, and Jozef turned and left before he would have to hear the words again.
            There was nowhere to go, but because he had to go, he grabbed his coat and trudged down the stairs to sit on the stoop, brushing aside a light layer of snow with one hand, pulling his cap down hard over his head.
            Krystyna was seventeen and more delicate than she should be, and of course he shouldn’t have married someone so delicate, but her shy, crooked smile had softened his heart, her small hands that drew pictures in the air as she spoke, how she bit her bottom lip when she was embarrassed, how her cheeks turned pink whenever he looked too long at her. Someone had to take care of her. Like the way each spring he saw the first ducklings on the pond, their clumsy paddling, unable to keep a straight path through the water, and he would chase off the hungry herons and hawks. That didn’t stop him from shooting those same ducks come summer, bringing them home for dinner. In the end, a man had to be practical.
            Coming to Chicago had been practical. Coming to work hard and earn money, coming to avoid being conscripted into the czar’s army…practical, and practical. A man would go far, assessing a situation and understanding the need to choose the practical course.
            Jozef yanked his cap down harder, so the brim almost covered his eyes. Marrying Krystyna, who was the first girl he had met in America, had not been practical. What had been his father’s last words to him, almost two years ago before he left for America: “Don’t believe in love. Don’t let yourself think you’re in love.”
            Jozef had met his father’s steady gaze, had shaken his head no. “I won’t.” Why would he? The girls in the village were dazzling, but Jozef knew the deadening endlessness that followed: the worrisome cycle of either too much weather or not enough ravaging the fields; taxes always due; stubborn, unyielding land; hunger’s bite; the hollow words of the priest; exhausted silence; the children left to trudge the same path, and then their children, too. No chance of escape. For proof, he could look at his father and his third wife; Jozef’s own mother had died when he was a baby, and the wife his father had married next died after about ten years. Now, this new wife, once filled with generous smiles and a quick, pretty laugh, was two years into the marriage—with the fussy baby and another coming along—and she might as well be any wizened old lady grubbing with the chickens, her smiles now shriveled.
            “You say this,” his father had said. “But—”
            “No buts,” Jozef said.
            His father said, “I think I know some things.”
            “Of course, Father,” Jozef said. “But not this. I’ll follow your advice.” He shoved his hands in his pockets, nodded his head for emphasis. I’m not you, he thought, though he couldn’t imagine his father in love, whatever that meant. His father, too, was a practical man, and to find a wife to handle the house and children and chores was scarcely a matter of “love,” not with seven little ones running about. So that was one thing Jozef, the oldest, had done: gotten himself out from underfoot and come to America. Where had his father found money for the passage? He didn’t ask. Would he see any of them again? Something else he didn’t ask. When he boarded the ship, he hung over the rail and looked back, wanting to wave, but his father had already melted through the crowd. Jozef waved anyway, as if his father were still standing there to see him. And so he came to America.
            And, foolishly, had not fallen in love, but had come as close as one could while not.
            He huffed his breath into his gloveless hands to keep them warm. He stood on the step and stamped his feet several times, then sat down again. The church would be open most likely, but he’d choose freezing to death first.
            Back on that summer afternoon when he had arrived in Chicago, the churn of people at the train platform was like the sea, heaving and terrifying, overwhelming and endless. Trunks swinging, men pushing, women and children linked arm in arm, strung five and six across, fighting their way in directions opposite everyone else, elegant men and women coming off the fancy Pullmans. Horses and wagons plowing through the crowds, the roads rutted and confusing. Languages spinning like loose marbles and only occasionally a word that sounded familiar, a word that was home. The sun a mallet pounding the breezeless air. Jozef—like the others, wearing three layers of clothing, money pinned to the inside of his waistband—stood in the midst of that mess, still as a rock in a stream, letting it flow around him as he breathed in lungfuls of the black packinghouse stench of blood and guts—breathed it all in: pushing and shoving and jostling, the shifting swells of panic, a shout of, “Brother!” and even with the clench of terror knotting his stomach and throat—even with that, he relished the sensation of being first somehow, even amidst all these others. He, Jozef Nowak, was somewhere no one else had been; he was first. Yes, his father’s plan was to send over others when Jozef sent enough money—brothers, sisters, uncles, cousins. But being first was perhaps the grandest thing he could expect to happen in his life: his two feet on soil where no member of his family had been.
            Where he had come from, there was a feeling of tiredness in the same meal of potatoes and bread night after night. Or his father’s shirt that would be made over for him, and then made over for the baby, then made over into rags, so that the same scrap of cloth existed for years—becoming the landscape, same as any tall tree or immoveable hill. Something that had always been there. “You think too much,” his father would say. You don’t think enough, but Jozef would not dare speak the words. Many words there remained unspoken, so that what was said was like that piece of fabric: cycled round, endlessly reused until bleached of all meaning, until limp. Nothing stayed new. The new brothers and sisters grew to look like the brothers and sisters he already had. The pretty girls in the village became their hunched, sour mothers. The sun, the night, the hot, the cold, and all of it around again. Everything got ground down into dust. That was the future: becoming the dust under someone else’s boots.
            But here, America, Chicago, was fresh, was new. The land hadn’t been used up; the land had barely been touched. There was so much of it, endless. Like the sky. And here he stood exactly in the middle of it all.
            Then she knocked into him, shoved by someone else who kept moving, a burly man with hamfists swinging at his sides, his back as wide as a stable. Jozef righted her, trying not to notice the sensation of his hand on her sleeve, the warmth of her body radiating into his. He folded his arms across his chest, tried to focus his eyes only on the scrap of torn paper pinned to her shoulder: Chicago. One word he recognized.
            “Sorry,” she mumbled in Polish. “Excuse me, please.” Her voice was shy but when she looked at him, there was something lively in her blue eyes, as if she knew what it was to be always thinking thoughts that the others told her to forget. She smiled. “I’m afraid I’ve lost my brother,” she said. “He told me to wait, but how can anyone stand still in this crowd?” Then she slid her eyes away from his face, as if surprised she had said so much to a stranger, and the smile was gone.
            He wanted it back. It had been a long time since someone had looked at him with such kindness. So Jozef spoke quickly, “We can find him. What does he look like? Like you?” This was the excuse to study her face: those far-apart blue eyes; firm, high cheekbones, like stone; a sweep of wheat-colored hair peeking from her dark shawl; her skin unlined, unfurrowed, looking soft and cool, despite the hot day, despite the layers of clothes she wore and the thick coat. It would be a relief to rest a hand on her cheek. She wasn’t pretty, but because she was the first person who had spoken specifically to him in Chicago, he wanted to remember her, so he stared harder, memorizing her features. Sun freckles across her nose. Flat, brown eyebrows. A tinge of pink across both cheeks, deepening now into a steady flush, and she ducked her head.
            “I scarcely know what he looks like,” she said. “He’s been away for three years, so none of us have seen him. Indeed, I barely recognized him when he first approached, because he was so much taller than I’d seen him last, and dressed like a city man with such a fine hat. He’s gotten on well here, but no one should be surprised because he was always a good worker, and sweet, too. I’d been waiting for him; I arrived in the morning, and he was late, or I think maybe he didn’t know me either. When he left Poland I was a girl, only twelve or thirteen. Following him around the fields too much, ‘his little shadow,’ he teased.”
            Her sudden chatter confused him, as if she wasn’t the shy girl he’d painted in his mind, but someone else entirely, someone to be wary of. Hearing so many words was like a thirsty man drowning in too much water. But then she bit her bottom lip hard, and shook her head, as she spoke, “It’s such a world isn’t it, where the ones you love go halfway around it?” and he understood that all this talk was there to cover her fear, just as he slipped into silence to cover his.
            He glanced about, then asked, “Where’s your trunk?”
            “He took it,” she said. “Strong as ever, it was nothing for him to sling it on his back.”
            “Then he won’t be far from here,” he said. “Weighted by a trunk.”
            She looked around, lifted her arms in the air in a fast shrug, and there was that smile again. “It seems I’ve been waiting quite a long time since I saw him,” she said. “He went to find a wagon and said he’d come back for me. Three years we’ve waited, so I would say more waiting is nothing. But you. You must be meeting someone. On your way somewhere?”
            Jozef shook his head. “I’m the oldest. I’m first in my family to come to America.” To speak the words sounded impossibly grand; how dare he feel so important? His face turned hot. She made him say the things that should stay locked inside.
            But she reached out and set one hand on his arm, squeezed gently. “My brother, too. Such a lonely place, being first.”
            Again, he felt the heat of her touch through his sleeve, burning into his skin, into his bones. But he shifted so that her hand slipped aside. “There are others from my village,” he said. He had memorized the addresses he’d been given by his father who had gotten them from the priest. At night, trapped in the tight darkness of the rocking ship, while others snored or puked or prayed, he had recited the strange words over and over, imagining himself understanding the odd English someday, imagining what these Chicago streets might look like, what the words might mean and how one day they would jump off the piece of paper and into this new life that was his.
            “He has others, too,” she said. “From the village and two cousins. Now me. But to be the only one, first…. Nothing is like family, like blood. Yet I’ll never understand the things he’s known here, what one has to…swallow to get by. It’s a distant place he came to, not America, not Chicago, but a place farther than that. You can’t return from here, not when you’re first…you’ll….” She trailed off. “I’m sorry. I should find him.” But she didn’t move.
            To hear her talk, this journey was all so spectacular. But she had been on the stinking boat as he had, packed in like chickens to a coop—no, worse; chickens treated so badly wouldn’t lay—the dry bread, the never-enough water, the air breathed out a thousand times already. Now this: swarms of people here after the same jobs; what city contained enough jobs for this multitude? All after the same rooms to rent, the same bit of space to stand on the sidewalk. Coming here, being first, was only being practical. Someone had to, and as the oldest, it had to be him. If anything terrible happened to his father, there would be the children left behind, beggars or worse. He immediately shook the image clear, the little ones starving. He was here, and now no one would starve. It was what a man did—what her brother did, no doubt. What was expected.
            But she was just a woman, a girl really. What would she know of “practical”? If she walked away, he would feel more alone than ever, so he said, “And now you’ve come, too, joining your brother.” He had wanted to sound friendly, but she simply shrugged, as if she barely heard him, and he had a frantic tumbling inside fearing she might turn to leave and be swallowed up by Chicago.
             “We planned it would be my brother Andrzej coming here, but he’s not right in the head now,” she said. “He sits all day in the corner of the barn, winding straw around his thumbs. So it was me. I can work just as hard here, I would guess.”
            He shielded his eyes from the sun with one hand. “Your other brother. The Chicago brother. What’s his name? I can call for him.”
            “Jozef,” she said.
            “Why, that’s my name, too!” he said, startled. Though why would this be so remarkable; the name was common enough. Whatever she said seemed unsettling, yet he wasn’t willing to see her go. He had to help her find her brother at least. So he shouted, “Jozef.” The crowd was large, gobbling up the sound, and he felt uneasy at the way it was his own name that seemed to disappear. He called louder, and though several men turned to glance at them, no one responded beyond a prolonged, curious stare. He jumped on top of his own trunk, raising himself above everyone’s shoulders, and bellowed, “JOZEF!”
The rest of the first chapter and the other chapters can be found at Medium.
Just click HERE.