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).

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