Friday, July 31, 2009

John Minczeski's A Letter to Serafin

John Minczeski’s A Letter to Serafin is an absolute original.

While he does share some common ground with other recent books that tell of immigrants’ descendants trying to reclaim their grandparents’ past, Minczeski’s book is finally more ambitious. He uses the search for the Polish past of his Grandfather (the Serafin of the book’s title) as a stepping stone to a wider search for our culture’s artistic, mythical, religious, historic past – the truths we all share.

What struck me most about this book was the way Minczeski handles this wider search. His feelings and thoughts are complex, but he doesn’t make a show of this complexity. In this way, he reminds me of the later W. B. Yeats, a poet who spent a long time watching and wondering.

Minczeski’s a smart and feeling person who has given a lot of himself to questions of time and art, belief and the past. His manuscript is not a young writer’s manuscript, and I mean that in the best way. In every poem, you feel that Minczeski has devoted a long time to wondering about questions like: “Why does something my grandfather touched touch me as it does?” and “Why does a great painting effect us as it does?” and “What is it that you and I and a farmer working the dirt in Poland or Darfur or Iraq share?”

The answers that Minczeski suggests in his poems show that he hasn’t been wasting his time.

His style is also thoughtful. It shows his careful consideration of his audience. Minczeski writes in a style that offers a subtle fusion of forthright plainspeak and a blend of near rhymes and soft cadences. You see this style clearly in the first four stanzas of his poem “Annunication”:

What is she reading at her stand-up desk—
The Psalms maybe, the Song of Songs—

The morning an angel, feathers trembling
Like aspen leaves, appears?

The fragrance of his lily so overwhelms her,
She can barely hear.

Golden rays penetrate
With none of the usual trickery--

That last stanza could easily be a gloss of the style Minczeski uses throughout this book of poems.

I think John Minczeski’s A Letter to Serafin is pretty terrific. I’ve read about 40 books of poetry since the beginning of this year, and this is among the best. It is really a fine work that addresses the most essential questions in a language that is always engaging.


Here’s the title poem, the final poem in the book:

A Letter to Serafin

Serafin, orphaned angel,
all that’s left is a few pigs,
some rutabagas, and winter wheat.
Your great-grandchildren,

heirs to your legacy of dirt,
cultivate dialects like snow.
I am speaking from a suburb of St. Paul.
It is October. I am not raking

or composting. Nothing remains the same—
a galvanized roof shines on top of your house;
nobody has time for thatching anymore—
yet everything is the same.

The family, having gathered beets,
came from hunting mushrooms
to set out sausage and relishes.

What was I doing there, they asked,
how old was I? More tea?
Vodka? And everything made by hand—
you’d feel at home.

They laid out inventories from the war—
a hand blown off by a land mine in the field,
a father who walked home from Germany
more bone than flesh.
Bankruptcies keep filtering down—
stifled inheritances,
a grimace mistaken for a smile.

The animals remain—pigs, a cow staked out
in a field to graze—descended from those
you fed, who adored you,
whoever you were, Serafin.


John Minczeski is also the author of several other collections of poems including Circle Routes (Univ. of Akron Press) and November (Finishing Line Press).

He is the editor also of Concert at Chopin's House: A Collection of Polish-American Writing, published by New Rivers Press in 1988.

His poems have appeared in journals around the US and abroad, including KRITYA, Poetry East, Quarterly West, Agni, Meridian, Pleiades, Free Lunch, and Nowa Okolica Poetow. His honors include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, Bush Foundation Artist's Fellowship, a LIN Grant, The 2000 Akron Poetry Prize, a Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowship.

John lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. His website is at

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Buffalo Expatriates Poetry Tour kickoff!

Elizabeth Swados - Bert Stern - Polish-American Mark Pawlak

These three distinguished poets were born and grew up in or near Buffalo, New York, but have pursued lives and careers elsewhere for many decades. Now they have teamed up for the Buffalo Expatriates Poetry Tour. Pierre Menard Gallery will host their kickoff for the reading tour that will culminate in Buffalo later this year.

Tuesday, July 21st

7:00 PM

Pierre Menard Gallery

10 Arrow Street, Harvard Square

Elizabeth Swados has just published her first poetry book, The One and Only Human Galaxy, a collection of poems about the life of Harry Houdini, with Hanging Loose Press. Perhaps best known for her Broadway and international smash hit Runaways, she has composed, written, and directed theater, music, and dance for over 30 years. Some of her works include the Obie Award-winning Trilogy at La Mama; Alice at the Palace, with Meryl Streep, at the New York Shakespeare Theater Festival; and Groundhog, which was optioned for a film by Milos Forman. Her work has been performed on Broadway, off Broadway, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Carnegie Hall, and venues all over the world. She has also composed highly acclaimed dance scores for well-known choreographers in the U.S., Europe and South America. Ms. Swados has published novels, non-fiction books, and children’s books to great acclaim, and has received the Ken Award as well as a New York Public Library Award for her book My Depression. Other distinctions include five Tony nominations, three Obie Awards, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Ford Grant, the Helen Hayes Award, the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Foundation Writer’s Award, a PEN Citation and others. She lives in Manhattan.

Bert Stern’s chapbook, Silk/The Ragpicker’s Grandson, was published by Red Dust, and his new, full-length collection, Steerage, has just been published by the Ibbetson Press. His poems have appeared in numerous journals, including New Letters, Beloit Poetry Review, Hungry Mind, Poetry, and the American Poetry Review, and also in half a dozen anthologies. Presently, he teaches men on probation in a national program called Changing Lives Through Literature, and he and his wife co-edit a small press dedicated to the work of poets over 60. He lives in Somerville.

Mark Pawlak
is the author of five poetry collections, of which Official Versions is his most recent. Another collection, Jefferson’s New Age Salon, will be published in fall 2009 by Cervena Barva Press. His poetry and prose have appeared in The Best American Poetry, New American Writing, Mother Jones, Pemmican, and The Saint Ann’s Review, among other places. Pawlak supports his poetry habit by teaching mathematics at UMass Boston. He is coeditor/publisher of the Brooklyn-based literary press and magazine Hanging Loose. He lives in Cambridge.


Here's one of the poems from Mark's powerful work The Buffalo Sequence:

"Buffalo Sequence .ix."

who is this?
attends with his murky agitated waters
the reunion,
where the whole familiar generation
of settled and settling silts
picnics in the tall sweet grass
growing along the cheekbone of grandfather's grave;
and can't hold back, not with four hands,
what took him so long to tame:
who is this?

what a necklace of polished stones they make
around his grandpa's crude stone,
then rips boards off the attic door
from behind which his childhood cries:
who is this ?

who is this ?
attends the table once again, prodigal and starving;
all of his absence come as a pained larynx to sit
beside mother and dearly loved; and,
kiss kiss, she tugs the roots of his anguish
by its combed strands
asking what her son's losing so much hair about;

after the meal, more hungry than before
and dumbfounded with talk,
whose feet lead him into exile again,
the arid climate of speechlessness;
artificial orchards beside the river of slag
and the oranges a desperate cry:
who is this ?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Poems of Grzegorz Wróblewski

Since April, when I first came across Grzegorz Wróblewski, I've been reading and enjoying his poems and his paintings. He's a Pole, born in Gdansk and raised in Warsaw, who's been living and writing in Copenhagen since 1985. His poems have appeared in a number of terrific journals both here and overseas (Chicago Review, Common Knowledge, and Poetry London), and I'm really not sure why I haven't read him before this. I've been missing out.

His poems are like the best Polish poems. They are ironic and serious, quick and probing, nailed to place and character but soaring in imagination.

Here are a few from his latest collection Our Flying Objects:


In a moment something bad will happen,
something I’ll be forced to forget quickly.
Or just the opposite.

Who knows their fate? An old washerwoman
hangs bed-clothes on lines between the trees.
When she sees the clear sky she is happy again.


In the beginning we observe bumble-bees and colourful petals
We are still small and fascinated by the flies
enjoying themselves in the sugar-bowl

After them are sparrows which we shoot with a catapult
Later on we keep canaries and this way
we learn to love the animals

The first sexual act we associate rightly with the nightingale
and maturity with the regular
feeding of the pigeons

Finally there are only eagle owls
We sit offended by the window and everything alive
brings on a rabid fury


12 hours daily for 50 years, without even seeing the sun,
in meat factories and mines, repairing other peoples trousers,
only to drink himself unconscious every Saturday,
and later getting sober during Sunday mass at St. Patricks,
and on Monday working again, without seeing the sun,
trying to convince himself that one day everything will change,
and in the end taking apart an old chest of drawers,
and taking out a bundle of bank-notes and giving them
to his surprised wife, who will say, that one could travel to Honolulu
for that money or at least buy two pigs, but now there’s no reason
to do that, she could have married the local doctor, but made
a mistake and chose, how stupid, this rascal, slow-witted Robin
and wasted her life instead of buying two pigs, and now he will
desert her, and did such a life have any meaning at all?


Our Flying Object is available from Equipage Books as part of its Cartalia Poetry Series. You can contact the press at,or by mail at

c/o Rod Mengham
Jesus College
CB5 8BL, U.K.


You can see more of Grzegorz's poetry at









Thursday, July 9, 2009

Adam Lizakowski Reads in Poland

Polish-American poet Adam Lizakowski will be reading this coming July 25 in the city of Kazimierz nad Wisla, a famous small Polish town of painters and poets. He'll be staying there as a guest of the Nadwislanskie Museum in Kazimierz.