Saturday, February 21, 2009

Michael Czyzniejewski's Elephants in our Bedroom

Elephants in Our Bedroom is Michael Czyzniejewski's first collection of stories, and reading them you wonder why they haven't been gathered together sooner. They are wonderful. Michael, the editor of the Mid-American Review, has the true story-teller's gift. He can take the most mundane topic and put a magical spin on it that makes you realize that you and I -- even in our wildest moments -- aren't thinking half as imaginatively and wildly as Michael is.

Let me give you some examples from Elephants in our Bedroom:

His first story is called "Wind." Yeah, wind. We feel it every time we go out, we watch it moving the tree limbs or picking up a piece of paper and scooting it down the street, but what if suddenly people realized that they couldn't explain it, that all the old explanations didn't make sense?

And then there's the story "Green" where instead of proposing a typical summer vacation, the main character's husband invites her old lovers over for two weeks "just to clear the air."

Or how about the title story "Elephants in our Bedroom"? In it a guy wins an elephant in a card game and decides to keep it in the bedroom. That's wild. But what's wilder is that his wife doesn't say anything about it.

The stories in his collection have the sort of postmodern magic that we used to see in writers like Robert Coover or Donald Barthleme, but Michael makes that magic new again by spinning it in the everyday world, the familiar world, of children and husbands and wives, of city streets and schools and libraries, bedrooms and kitchens and backyards.

Michael's Polish-American background, for me, comes out in these stories. He's got the alien's gift for looking at what most of us take for granted and seeing it in a completely different way.

He's a second-generation Polish-American, and you get the sense reading his stories that he came from an area that was still tied to the old ways, tied to seeing the world outside the neighborhood as strange and foreign, alien even in a sort of comic way. And reading about his life bears this out. He grew up in the predominantly Polish-American Chicago suburb of Calumet City and attended St. Andrew the Apostle School and Church, where the nuns and priests all spoke Polish and Michael often served a Polish-language Sunday mass as an altar boy. In college, Michael studied Polish for two semesters before the language, as he says, "soundly defeated me, though I did expand my Polish vocabulary from 12 words to nearly 30."

But I think I've said enough. Here's an excerpt from one of his stories, "In My Lover’s Bedroom":

My lover is hiding old men in the recesses of her bedroom, but if you ask her about it, she’ll deny it every time. Despite what she claims, I discover men in her closet, men in her armoire, men skulking behind the vanity or crouched in the trunk at the foot of her bed. The men act pleasant, appear comfortable and content, and all of them seem to know my name, offering salutations and good words in abundance.

To pass the time, the men read newspapers, listen to transistor radios, and some of them, if it’s nice outside, fit in nine holes of golf. When I ask about my lover, they change the subject, remind me who won some game, ask if my career’s taking off. When I ask what they’re doing in my lover’s bedroom, reading and resting and recreating in general, they act like they can’t hear me, and if I press, they start speaking a foreign language, albeit very poorly. Aside from random pleasantries, the old men go about their business, keep to themselves, and at worst, tell good off-color jokes.

The problem with the old men is, I only find them when I’m alone, when my lover is in the kitchen, in the bathroom, home late from her job at the club. I’ve asked her many times why she keeps men in her dresser drawers, and her answer is the same, every time: Why are you going through my drawers? When I open said drawer to show her, the man has disappeared. The first time this happened, my lover thought it was funny, some sort of dry humor I’d never before demonstrated. On the second occasion, she was less amused. She assured me she had no other lover, she wasn’t married, and as far as she knew, she had no plans for that to change. On the third try, she suggested I leave, forcing me to apologize, to admit I’d taken a joke too far. Since then, I’ve decided to keep the men to myself, to go to them for answers. When I inquire as to why they won’t let my lover in on the joke, I get the What? treatment, the toggle of an imaginary microphone in their ears. It almost makes me think I’m onto something.


Currently, Michael Czyzniejewski teaches at Bowling Green State University. His website is at


Anonymous said...

You are right, John - there is something in Michael's writing that instantly reminds me of the Polish way of seeing things...that funny/serious expression of humour reminiscent of the poems in the books they had at Polish school..."Pan Twarowski" comes to mind, a funny witty eccentric man who was very active, always inventing things..and maybe even went to the moon (my memory is fuzzy here but smiling at the re-awakened sense of humour Michael's writing brings). Thank you for bringing him to our attention!


John Guzlowski said...

I got this from David Pierkarczyk in Poland (PS: visit his blog for a treat--he's an American who moved to Poland and writes about what that has been like!):

Interesting blog about Michael Czyzniejewski. I grew up in the Polish community of North Hammond, Indiana, just across the state line from Calumet City. My brother was baptized in the church Michael attended.

"Spieszmy się kochać ludzi, tak szybko odchodzą"