One of the great things about doing this blog is that I often hear from Polish Diaspora writers I don't know.
Mark Tardi is one of them. I came across some of his work at Seven Corners and tracked him down with the help of my friend Maja Trochimczyk, editor and publisher of Chopin with Cherries, who happened to have interviewed him about Chopin. Mark was one of the poets included in that volume. Small world.
Mark is a poet and translator who grew up on the southside of Chicago in the Garfield Ridge area and earned his MFA in creative writing from Brown University. His collections of poetry include the chapbooks Part First—Chopin’s Feet (2005) and Airport Music (2005), as well as the full length collection Euclid Shudders (2003).
Currently, he's living in Lodz, Poland, and teaching American literature and culture at the University of Lodz (Uniwersytet Lodzki).
I asked Mark to tell me what it's like being a Polish American in Poland and here's what he told me:
"In terms of the strangest thing (or things) about being a Polish American living in Poland, I'd have to say there's a pronounced emphasis on details that -- to an American -- lack any obvious explanation. Poles at the checkout counter at a supermarket or corner shop tend to expect you to produce exact change. It's kind of amazing to see somebody dig through a purse to find 87 grosze when there are a dozen people waiting in line, but it's pretty much the norm. It seems to suggest a kind of fastidious, like no amount is too small and no coins should be wasted, which is understandable within the context of the history of country, but can be a little trying when you only have a few items to buy and might be in a hurry. So I've simply learned to allow more time when going shopping.
"My dealings with bureaucracy here has nurtured a newfound appreciation for DMV employees and postal workers in the U.S. There are too many examples to enumerate here, but I've learned that no detail is too small, and that Kafka's writings could be mistaken for social realism.
"More generally, there's a pervasive feeling of displacement. On the one hand, every time I walk the streets I can't help but be aware of how many people share features with my grandparents; or how many of the foods I grew up eating, which I just thought of as ordinary food, were actually part of Polish cuisine. On the other hand, some things that I really enjoy and are a fabric of my experience like baseball have *zero* context here. So quite literally I have no one to talk to about that; even if I tried to discuss it, it wouldn't make any sense to a Pole (despite the fact that lots of young guys where Yankees and Dodgers caps). I suppose those aspects of myself become boxed in.
"Of course there are differences of degree too: the American understanding of doing something "soon" means this should become a major priority and done quickly; the Poles use the word "soon" to be something more like "soonish," i.e., a few weeks. Also, during summer break, on the whole, Polish academics do not answer email. So it's not uncommon to receive no replies for a few months. At first I thought it strange; now I really appreciate it. Sometimes you just have to take a step back and breathe.
"As for whether Poles are curious about me being there or not, I'd say maybe to some degree but not hugely so. The general assumption is that if a foreigner is in Poland it's for one of two reasons: 1) s/he has Polish roots; 2) s/he has married a Pole. Sometimes people do ask my opinion on a wide variety of issues 'as an American,' which is a mix of interesting and stressful. It's hard to be perceived as a spokesperson for 300 million people, and counterbalance a cascade of stereotypes of Americans. I don't know how many times I've been asked some version of 'Every time I see an American movie or TV show somebody is jogging, so why are so many Americans fat?'"
Now here are some of Mark's poems, a sequence called "The Songs of Dziobak":
Hook to Heel
Because you couldn’t tell the difference between a snowflake and a star
Because it’s a kiss, a continued fraction
the petty facts of time
sprawled in every attitude
Because I don’t seem to hang together properly
stitched among the constellations
a square piece of light
Because a dog, if you point at something, will look only at your finger
Because the only safety is in details
Because there’s at least three inexplicable phenomenon a day––four,
if you count my continued existence
in this way furniture
bumping into each other
Because you can either keep your credit card or your children
their oldest known relatives
the desert solution
the breathless insistence
Because here’s a shovel and a bag of lead
A door opens. A door goes on opening.
Sometimes I play volleyball in here.
With a balloon. [Inflated object appears.]
Sometimes I win.
Sometimes the steak knives do.
Your head once reminded me of a balloon.
Or maybe it was a Walloon. Or a waffle.
You probably aren’t any of these.
Sometimes I swim the 400-meter individual medley in here.
[Two right turns of the faucet.]
Sometimes I eat. Pork chop viniagrette. Apples of the earth.
Oatmeal. Almonds. Odd smelling cheeses.
Sometimes I suffer cramps.
Sometimes I dream my bones are made of grey granite.
I don’t swim well then.
Sometimes I sweat.
Sometimes the toilet-tank does.
with a mistake for a mouth, with the sum of the knowable, everything true
with blind metrics, with more than seven rooms, and a piano
the wrong coat, somebody else’s tail
with a shrunken house, interclavicle, and the balcony that hangs halfway
with the chances of selecting the winning card not very good
with the lack of air felt all day, the very idea of contest
without aviation, vertigo, an ancestral smile
somewhere between the hardness of straw and the hardness of rain
with no ritual significance, with a low growl when perturbed, a muffled question
every day a new collision once you step out the door
with no universally agreed upon plural, with otter’s feet, invisible ears
great patches of damp, old junk found in alleyways, the remains of a banquet
with no equivalents, the least likely to be confused for a hat
with the craning of clouds, with a shrug almost heard
as if simply mistaken for calcium, potassium
with the fact that having five fingers on one hand scares me, and I have the utmost
respect for facts
Sometimes I host parties in here.
Sometimes guests attend.
I move the plants to one side then.
To make room for the limbo contest.
[Production of a pole.]
Sometimes I lose.
Sometimes I ask the guests if they would like to lambada with me.
You are strong in limbo. Your mother probably loves you.
Sometimes I attempt to amuse my guests with witty banter.
I will say something like “Celery is the lettuce of the vegetable world,” or
“The only thing to be taken seriously is death.”
Sometimes they laugh.
Sometimes I play cards with my guests.
Poker usually. The plants tell me what hands my guests have.
Sometimes I win.
Sometimes my guests have hands.
Rock Paper Platypus
If he had a little more time, he could refine
his theology, could catch a falling knife.
With just a little more time, he could invent
teeth and three new dance moves. He could
tell you that he loved a turtle and there’d be
no doubt. With a bit more time, he could
explain electrolocation and the Continuum
Hypothesis, how bears cause all our weather.
With a few more seconds, he could defend
tax breaks for homeowners, how, when it
comes down to it, ailments generate one another.
If only there were time, he could thank you for
the Turkish sweater, dizziness, and all the times
the ankle spur came in handy.