Thursday, June 17, 2010

Barney and Gienka by John Surowiecki

Part Dante’s Virgil and part Groucho Marx, John Surowiecki writes about his Polish-American parents, aunts, and uncles with seriousness and humor, elegance and wit. The narrative of his peoms begins as his father wakes after a stroke and weaves back and forth across the years, taking the reader to pre-war movie theaters, army staging areas in England, a ball-bearing factory in the States, and the small-town Connecticut world his parents lived in after the war.

Where other writers would treat the lives of such working-class people with pointless nostalgia or sentimentality, Mr. Surowiecki reveals real lives in all their cluttered and touching complexity.

This book adds to Mr. Surowiecki considerable achievements which include winning the Poetry Foundation's first Pegasus Award for Verse Drama, the 2006 Washington Prize for Poetry, and the 2007 Pablo Neruda Prize, also for poetry.

Originally, I was going to post "Barney and Gienka," the title poem, but I think "Mr. Szmykleszczwladeczeryniecki’s Funeral [June 13, 1965]" offers a sense of the Polish-American community that is very powerful. There's death and rebirth and joy and suffering in the poem that speaks of the continuity of that community even as the old members pass on.

Mr. Szmykleszczwladeczeryniecki’s Funeral [June 13, 1965]

The foundry workers, who were so loud
and tearful at his wake, sit quietly
in back of the church, stepping
outside now and then to smoke cigarettes
and to hear the shouts and cries
of children playing in the street.

A few people from the St. Casimir Society
remember the time he played Santa Claus,
handing out bright fragrant oranges to children
who handed them back saying they wanted PEZ
dispensers and comic books, not something their
parents brought home every week from the store.

The stained-glass windows of the church
feature portraits of the Holy Family:
Lazarus the uncle, cousins James and Jude,
Martha the worrying aunt, grandmother Ann,
Joseph teaching carpentry to toddler Jesus
and Mary, pained, thinking of what’s to come.

And the glass is so thin it admits the shouts
of the children outside and it shudders and rattles
with the organ’s every throb. It groans as the priest
explains that death ought to be an occasion for joy
and celebration, then sighs, finally, at the squeak
of Mrs. Jablonski’s thin soprano voice.


Barney and Gienka is available at Amazon.

To read more about Mr. Surowiecki please click here.

You can also visit his website.

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