Thursday, September 23, 2010

Metropolis Burning by Karen Kovacik

I love the poems in this book.

In it, Karen Kovacik does almost the impossible. She writes about the tragic 20th-century history of Poland with a firm awareness of what happened in Warsaw and Auschwitz but she also manages to infuse the Polish landscape of lost lives and lost battles with a love for Poland and an excitement in writing about it that is infectious. And in doing so she gets at -- for me -- the very heart of Poland.

Here's one of my favorite poems.

Versions of Irena

for my aunt who grew up near Oświęcim [Auschwitz]


When she was five, her great delight was gooseberry juice.
At seven, she experienced the strangeness of books.
When she was ten, her beloved uncle expired at the table.
At eleven, she refused to leave the coal stove in the corner.
By twelve, she had forgotten her uncle’s bloody cough.
At thirteen, she chewed poppy leaves and hallucinated music.
When she turned fourteen, her dress grew tight in the bodice.
At fifteen, she scrubbed the parlor of a short Nazi sergeant,
and the night smelled of cognac and smoke.
At twenty, her mind declared war on her body.
For years, local doctors have regarded her case with gravity.


She could smell them burning, their forgotten
valises piled in a corner of the yard
along with topcoats and short pants, sheet music,
a book of French pictures. She hid the brittle pages
in her coat and learned what a man’s body
could do to a woman’s. Midnight was the hour
of gravity, when the sergeant swung the bell
on his table. He wanted his heart’s delight:
something milky to help him sleep, warmed cognac
to dull his dreams. Each night, she smelled them burning.


Having lost her uterus at 25, she feels the effects
of gravity, her lumpy body without music or delight.
She walks plates of white bacon from the table
to the sink, and rinses the grease in cool suds.
Behind her sits the American niece with a short book
of Polish phrases. The girl hardly ate her supper
and only sweetened her tea with one sugar.
Time to slide the featherbed into the starched cover
and make up the girl’s couch in the corner.
She wishes her niece untroubled dreams:
“What is forgotten,” she says, “will not harm us,
and only sleep can take the war out of night.”


Karen Kovacik directs the creative writing program at Indiana Univ. Purdue Univ. Indianapolis. She's currently at work on a new collection with the working title Vérité. Her poems and translations have appeared in APR, Boston Review, Crazyhorse, Massachusetts Review, West Branch, and elsewhere.

She is the recipient of a number of awards, including a guest fellowship at the University of Wisconsin’s Institute for Creative Writing and a Fulbright Research Grant to Poland. She is also the author of Beyond the Velvet Curtain, winner of the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize (Kent State University Press, 1999).

Been and Gone: Poems of Julian Kornhauser

Julian Kornhauser is a Polish poet, novelist, literary critic, and translator who, along with Adam Zagajewski, was one of the major figures of the New Wave poetry movement of the early 1970s. Although Kornhauser's work continues to be read and appreciated overseas (winnning the European Poetry Prize and the City of Krakow Prize), he's not very well known in this country.

This translation of his poems by Piotr Florczyk, therefore, is long overdue. Florczyk, a native of Krakow now teaching in the US, captures the stark clarity and mystery of Julian Kornhauser's Polish originals in this bilingual edition from Marick Press.

As poet Adam Zagajewski says of Kornhauser in his foreword to Been and Gone, "when I read Julian's poems now, I'm amazed by the continuity of his writing, by the honesty of his poetry, by his patient worship of the concreteness of the world. Poetry is for him like the origami he describes in the poem written while traveling from Karkow to Oswiecim, a small city whose German name was Auschwitz--an object both arbitrary and necessary:

We pass hills and forests,
a paper swan
looks sleepily on the burning


Here are two poems from Been and Gone I especially liked.

The first is dedicated to Ewa Kuryluk, an artist who left Poland in 1981 when martial law was imposed.


A search, an escape, death.
The search for languages, the escape
from a school desk, death of dear ones.
Eternal journey over clouds of smoke,
a swirling thin thread of life,
game of lands, gruff farewells, naked bodies
impressed on the cloth. Heart calls out no more
for help, it sinks its claws into a glacier
hung high above the sky. The smell of burning
skin weakens a step from the abyss, the fire
of native captivity, unexpressed happiness.
Ever further, so not to return to the Viennese
apocalypse, young rebels, a departing
mother. Ever closer to a tiny bit of a table
and a narrow window, beyond which one
sees only the happy eyes of a a little Jewess
and two raised wings of an apple pie.


are smarter than we are
know everything
even n o t h i n g to them has the hue of a chestnut
they see mountains where we don't see them
seas splash when nothing is heard
through their crooked teeth
words known to no one slip out
fear and an inexpressible adventure
lurk under dirty fingernails
when they run
their oversized shoes cackle
and their hair sticks to the wind
when they're silent
their eyes express so much adult longing
they stand on tiptoe
to touch what's forbidden
they try to wrestle with rules
to be able to tell the difference
between a joke and fear
sometimes they lie quietly on the floor
casting strange spells
and the the glass falls from the table
opportunity arises
a crayon moves slowly across the white-papered wall.


Some of Piotr Florczyk's own poem are available online. Here are two published in InPosse Review.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Danuta Borchardt wins the 2010 Found in Translation Award

The Polish Cultural Institute in New York Press Release:


Found in Translation is an annual prize given for the best book-length translation of a work of Polish literature into English. This year's winner is Danuta Borchardt for her translation of Pornografia (Grove/Atlantic, 2009), by Polish literary giant Witold Gombrowicz (1904-69) - an underground classic since it was first published in the Polish émigré press in Paris in 1960 and subsequently rendered into several European languages, including English via the French and German versions. Borchardt provides the first translation of the book into English directly from the Polish original.

Robert Boyers, editor of Salmagundi, writes, ”Borchardt brings Gombrowicz's great novel to us with a force and beauty English-language readers have not felt before. Deception and illusion, savagery and high mindedness, fire and ice, desire and impotence are all captured in the crystalline sentences of a translator who is herself a masterful stylist.”

The award will be presented at the University of Illinois at Chicago during the ceremonial inauguration of The Stefan and Lucy Hejna Chair in Polish Language and Literature, to be assumed by Professor Michal Pawel Markowski. Prof. Markowski is one of Poland's leading public intellectuals with 12 books and over 150 essays to his name and winner of numerous awards. The bequest of Romuald Hejna to the University of Illinois at Chicago is the largest single gift to the university and will fund two chairs in Polish history as well as the chair in Language and Literature, representing a major expansion in the field of Polish studies in the U.S.

The winner of the Found in Translation Award, established in 2007 by the Polish Book Institute in Krakow, the Polish Cultural Institute in London, the Polish Cultural Institute in New York, and W.A.B. Publishers in Warsaw, receives a monetary prize and a three-month residency in Krakow funded by the Book Institute. The first Found in Translation Award, in 2008, was given to Bill Johnston for his translation of New Poems by Tadeusz Rozewicz (Archipelago Books, New York, 2007). In 2009 the award went to Antonia Lloyd-Jones for her translation of Pawel Huelle's The Last Supper. Candidates for the Award may be nominated by private individuals as well as institutions in Poland and abroad. Nominations should be sent with the subject-heading FOUND IN TRANSLATION to: The Polish Book Institute, 31-011 Krakow, ul. Szczepanska 1, Poland, e-mail:


To hear a podcast of an interview she gave Bill Marx, click here

Saturday, September 4, 2010


Recently, Polish-American poet Christina Pacosz found a box of copies of her highly acclaimed book This is Not a Place to Sing, a collection of poems about her visit to Poland. She wants to share these books with others and is offering to send them to interested readers for the price of postage: $2 for a copy, $3 for 2 copies.

The books can be purchased by contacting

Christina Pacosz
4238 Charlotte
Kansas City, MO 64110

When it was originally published in 1987, Choice, the official publication of the American Library Association, published a review that said the following:

"The Wind at the Wedding," the first poem in this unusual, moving collection, is intensely powerful and original. Written as a prose poem, it describes a wedding in Poland in which 'The wind lifts the hem of the birde's dress,' revealing her ankles. The scene is sharp and poignant as the poet weaves it, strand by strand, into Poland's terrible history. Pacosz states, 'In this country there is too much to remember,' and with each poem she adds to the picture of the devastation ... of the past that can never be forgoten, and a present in which life is difficult. "Matka Boska, Matka Polska" tells of the women who "are mothers with capable hands and patient feet" and of "an entire country criss-crossed with lines where women wait...." Other practically strong poems are "Auschwitz: Oswiecim" and "On the Propensity of the Human Species to Repeat Error." The poet employs daring technique and style; she does not hesitate to take risks. Highly recommended.

Here are the three poems from Christina's book mentioned in the above review:

The Wind at the Wedding

The wind lifts the hem of the bride's dress. She is wearing white shoes. Her feet look frail surrounded by the hard stones of the street, the raised hoop of her skirt. The bride is a bell for a moment, waiting to be rung.

Unlike the wind, who is a traveler, the bride is stationary and may never leave Lublin. Possibly she will visit the Black Sea on a holiday with her husband, but she will not be wearing her white dress. She will never be a bell again, all the notes wrung out of her, whether she remains in a flat in Lublin, or suns herself on the sand.

The wind is an old wind, full of understanding, but, like the bride's feet, it has no strength against the stones of the street. No strength to lift the people's hearts, even for a moment. The wind has only enough strength to lift the white hem of the dress of the bride who is wearing white shoes with high heels to match her high hopes.

The groom has white gloves on his hands. The stones at his feet are gray. The stones are gray and as old as the wind, maybe older.

In Krakow there are fossils embedded in the paving stones around St. Mary's Church. There, the brides and grooms step on ancient animals without thinking. There, when the trumpeter plays his notes from the steeple, he imagines he is flinging his song to the sky, which is like the sea, blue and roiled, but by swallows, not fish. What does it matter: fist, fowl, human flesh? We all share the same fate.

The bride and groom are waiting for the bells to ring, for permission to become one flesh. The wind lifts her dress and the bride does not blush when the groom stares at her feet. Why should she?

The wind blowing its way through the old city is a kind wind. Wise and kind and old like a grandfather or grandmother. The bride and groom may be thinking that one day this day will lead them to a garden and grandchildren climbing on their laps in the sun. Peace.

The bride and groom are young. They have never known war, but the wind cannot forget how it blows over the eyelids of the dead in all directions. Today the wind wants to play a simple joke and lift a bride's dress, showing her shoes, her ankles to the world.

The wind harbors no illusions. To lift a dress is not to lift a heart, except maybe his, the groom's, who is staring at the bride's ankles, thinking how they will be his soon. He wants to kiss the blue vein under the strap of her shoe. He wants to begin there.

The wind knows the hearts of the people are hungry, but for what? Meat lines, milk lines, bread lines, lines for vodka. Lines on the palms of his hands, the map of his life lost to a grenade in the Warsaw Uprising.

What is the soldier doing here? Isn't this a wedding, not a war?

In this country there is too much to remember. Better to watch the wind lift the hem of the bride's white dress like a cloud moving across the gray stones into the church.

On the Propensity of the Human Species to Repeat Error

And if they kill others for being who they are
or where they are Is this a law of history
or simply, what must change?
Your Native Land, Your Life Adrienne Rich

The world is round
This should tell us
something, this should
have been our first clue.

what goes around
comes around

Scientists are studying
a rent in the roof of sky
over the South Pole
right now, but poets
need not adhere
to the caution
of the scientific method.

The message is simple:

what goes around
comes around

The battery acid of
Plato's Republic
has finally reached
the ozone layer,
a membrane, protective
like skin or an amniotic sac,
permeable and destructible.

what we take
for granted
will get us
in the end

The Sioux woman's breast
severed from her body
dried into a pouch
for tobacco,
what book was that?

Or a chosen people's skin
stretched across the heavens,
shade for us to more easily
read the harsh lesson
of history.

Message from the Past to the Present

A looming mound
of empty zyklon B canisters
behind glass: to open death
like canned peaches

Behind the tins:
corporate profit.

Are there no new tales
we can tell each other?

Artifacts of the age,
the waning twentieth century
on parade, naked
and exhausted.

Each time capusule
should include
one of these.

Such eloquent

Auschwitz: Oswiecim

Los Nas Dla Was Prestroga
Let Our Loss Be Your Warning
Majdanek Monument

We are leaving
flowers like messages
in this awful place:

what else to do
except fall down
with weeping
into a grieving
that will never
be done.

And how to live
int the world then?

So it is calendula
for memory, here
with the children's
clothing they never

And here before
hundreds of neatly
lettered suticases
with addresses from
every country in Europe
never claimed
by their owners
we leave
our innocence
in the form
of a single
white daisy.

We should haul
larkspur by
the truckload
and fill every
exhibit room
from floor to ceiling
with levity
with light.

We must airdrop
hyacinth purple
sorrow raining down
until this place
of the awful name
is smothered in

We should be weaving
miles of rosemary garlands
for remembrance
and planting olive
for peace.

The lilac leaves
are waving, try
to imagine
them blooming.

The poplar trees
are voices
in the wind:

We did not
that our bodies
be used
as weapons.

Remember the ash
how it sifts down
to the desks
where the bureaucrats
are stamping papers.


The books may be purchased by contacting

Christina Pacosz
4238 Charlotte
Kansas City, MO 64110

“The Wind at the Wedding” appears in St. Andrews Review, Issue No. 37, Laurinburg, North Carolina, 1989.

“On the Propensity of the Human Species to Repeat Error,” “A Message from the Past for the Present,” appeared in Beyond Lament, Poets of the World Bearing Witness to the Holocaust, edited by Marguerite M. Striar, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Illinois 1998.

“Auschwitz: Oswiecim,” Blood to Remember, American Poets on the Holocaust, revised, second edition, edited by Charles Ades Fishman, Time Being Books, St. Louis Missouri, 2007.