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.
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—
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 http://johnminczeski.com/default.aspx