Saturday, November 11, 2017

And So On and So Forth -- by Vladimir Konieczny

Vladimir Knoieczny, the Polish-Canadian author of Struggling for Perfection: The Story of Glenn Gould and Glenn Gould: A Musical Force, has allowed me to post his moving memoir about his relationship to his father, a Polish soldier who survived the war and came to Canada as a Displaced Person. 

“And So On and So Forth” by Vladimir Konieczny

(Excerpted from Nobody’s Father [TouchWood Editions, 2008] edited by Bruce Gillespie and Lynne Van Luven)

“But you would have made such a good father,” she said.
“Well, yes and no,” I replied.

My first-and-only-born died at the age of 52. His name was Andrezj, and in truth, he was my father, but our roles often felt reversed. The official cause of death was lung cancer, but if illness can serve as metaphor, then the crab that pinched his lungs was merely the symptom of a soul long drained of vitality by alcohol. I spied him many times as his lips clutched a bottle of wine as if it were a lifebuoy, while his Adam’s apple bobbed like a fisherman’s float with every swallow. When he jerked the bottle from his mouth, a plop echoed throughout the basement, followed by a death-rattle sigh grumbling deep in his barrel chest. He always screwed the cap back on with two or three quick precise flicks of his thumb and middle finger before secreting it away in one or another of his hiding places. He denied doing this, but I knew better, and for months after his death, I kept finding empty wine bottles in the house and the backyard.

Andrzej spoke five languages, played half a dozen instruments, danced like an Argentinean tango-meister, sang like a Venetian gondolier, sketched viciously funny caricatures, played poker with panache, entertained guests with stories all told in appropriate accents, slaved six days a week in a shoe factory, and still took the time to drink himself into an early grave. He was a model of decorum and industry by day, an incoherent drunk by night. Some days he was stalwart and brave; others, he was weak and whiny. Funny when sober, he could be verbally violent when drunk. Fortunately, for he was a strong man, Andrzej was unfailingly soft with his hands. I loved him one minute and loathed him the next.

The eldest in a family of three brothers and two sisters, Andrzej won a scholarship to university; instead, he went to work and later enlisted in the Polish army, determined to rout the Nazis. By war’s end, his entire family had been slaughtered, and he found himself stationed near a Displaced Persons camp in Germany. There he met Zenobia, a Belarus woman whose family had also been slaughtered, but who was lucky enough to survive as slave labour on a farm in Germany after she was first abused, to use the current euphemism. I’d like to say they fell in love, but love seems like such a luxury in a DP camp. Loneliness and humiliation, resin and catalyst, constituted the epoxy that bonded them to each other; once it had cured, they couldn’t pry themselves apart, even though they should have. I was born in that camp in Germany. And there I learned my first lessons about the fickleness of authority.

After the war the Canadian government, in a fit of generosity, liberalized its immigration laws and thousands of refugees came here. Andrzej felt he had little choice. He knew his country had been betrayed yet again, for the Allies, unwilling to risk yet another conflagration, had made their pact with a psychopath. Millions who only a minute earlier had been freed from one monster now found themselves held captive by yet another idiot savant whose single gift was for killing. Those who could get out, did.

Even though he was grateful for the opportunity to come to Canada, Andrzej made a tragic mistake in emigrating, because some temperaments, like certain plants, wither when transplanted in foreign soil. He arrived first with only the proverbial clothes on his back. Actually, he was wearing shorts when he disembarked in Halifax. Zenobia and I remained in the refugee camp—waiting. To fulfill his contractual obligations, he toiled for one year on a farm in southern Ontario before sending for my mother and me. I was four. All I had known until then was the camp. Now, the puppy had been released from its cage and was free to roam the wide-open spaces of the Ontario countryside.

Andrzej and Zenobia had their eyes on the future: mine. My glorious tomorrow was their bulwark against the ignorance and bigotry of Canada in the 1950s and ’60s. Zenobia’s roots took firm hold here, while Andrezj’s shrivelled. He grew addicted to drink; my mother to me. I was the little guy with the smart mouth who could make both parents laugh even in the heat of an argument, which happened daily. I became the buffer between two warring strangers, a Belarus and a Pole, whose only common bond besides their recent history of misery was me. And so I absorbed the dynamics of family interaction.

Like so many immigrants, my parents held jobs that were beneath their abilities and education. Still, they were grateful to have them. Zenobia traded slavery on a labour farm for servitude in a shoe factory. She even sewed moccasins at night for something like a penny per slipper. Later, she toiled for the Toronto school board as an aide in a kindergarten, a job that was close to her original dream to be a teacher, but again the pay was a pittance. My father worked in a tannery, where his skin soaked up dyes, and later in a shoe factory, where he inhaled glues all day long. Yet, no matter how drunk he got at night, he never missed a day of work. Zenobia rose first to make breakfast; by 7:00 am they were both gone, leaving me on my own to get ready for school—or not. I watched them both and picked up a few pointers about labour and economics, and especially the law of diminishing returns.

At some point in my teens, two words began to echo in my mind: “if” and “only.” Together, they form the most hollow phrase in English, a cavern in which lurk lost illusions, actions regretted, chances never taken. Most of all, the phrase reverberates with the hopeless wish that an idealized future would magically be the present and that the past were somehow different. If only Andrzej and Zenobia had been born later. If only Hitler had not, or Churchill had, or Stalin had not. If only this, if only that. A see-saw of disappointment and despair. But these were my if onlys; Andrzej’s simply rasped in his heart. He never gave them voice, at least not to me. He expressed only extremes: joy one day, anger the next. And for years, I caromed from one to the other.

In fact, my father’s favourite expression was “and so on and so forth.” Whenever anyone asked about the war, for example, he would smile and take a thoughtful puff on his unfiltered Export A, “Oh, of course some difficult days, you see. Very difficult, you know, and so on and so forth.” Then he’d tell a joke or engage in debate about religion, politics, music, or the Toronto Maple Leafs versus the Montreal Canadiens, his charm and wit drawing friends into arguments that would shift terrain with a slippery word or two from his smiling lips. Like everyone else, I, his son, had to fashion Andrzej’s history from the motes of memory that occasionally floated into his conversations: a name here, a place there, a date, a farewell, a snippet of a song, a sketch of someone’s face, a story about a long-dead friend, or a village scene never to be repeated here. To this day, much of his life remains a mystery to me. Still, to his credit, he never dined out on his wartime experiences, and neither did Zenobia. I sat at his knee and studied human exchange.

He was my hero and nemesis rolled into one. No question of mine was too difficult for him to answer. He would sing arias or pop songs, conduct a symphony blasting on the Motorola radio and invite me to join in. He showed me how to bait a hook, cast a line, bluff at poker and milk a musical phrase. I read the newspaper over his shoulder and answered his questions. He taught me to read between the lines and to watch people’s eyes, faces and hands to understand what they really meant. He impressed my buddies and charmed my girlfriends. He bragged about me to his friends, but only rarely complimented me to my face. Even then, he praised me when I had done nothing to deserve it and ignored me when I had actually achieved something. I lost count of the number of times he embarrassed me when he was drunk, but I also treasured every fishing trip, music lesson, card game and discussion we had when he was sober. Eventually, like a dragonfly on a clothesline, I learned to stay on constant alert. After a while, I could gauge his mood and read his gestures accurately enough to make the necessary transpositions from one key to another by myself. But on occasion, like every alcoholic’s child, I wanted to ask him which he loved more, the bottle or me. But then you might as well ask which wing a hummingbird favours. And so I learned not to confuse need with love.

From about the age of eight, I worked to support my father. My job was simple but demanding. When he drank, I became the man of the house. This job was assigned by my mother, and there was no arguing. Even back then she already sensed that her son was like a hound on a porch, turning around and around, sniffing the air in search of that inviting blend of texture and scent which signals a safe place to rest or hide. She wanted to teach me self-discipline, but as Andrzej once presciently said, “Just leave him alone. It’s too late.”

My manly tasks were straightforward. I retrieved smouldering cigarette butts from his ashtrays and doused them in the kitchen sink. I made sure the stove was off after he went to bed, because he liked to light his cigarettes on the burner. I checked the doors and so on and so forth. As I grew older and he weaker, I on occasion followed him home from one or another of his favourite pubs. Like an apprenticing undercover cop, I shadowed my father from one side of the street while he walked up the other with those light, precise footsteps unique to the very drunk. Whistling or belting out a tune, he would pass rows of grim brick houses, his fedora neatly cocked, its front pinched just so, and his hands held straight by his sides as though he were on parade. Sometimes, I helped him to bed and watched as he fell asleep, drunk on wine and exhausted from work. I joked about these nights with friends who shared similar adventures.

My mother was a courageous woman who also feared the night at noon. She rarely spoke of the war years, the physical and mental abuse, the simple unfairness of it all, but her experience had inked her melancholy soul an even darker sepia, which no amount of sunlight could bleach. She had claimed to be Polish to ensure that she could emigrate. She also subtracted four years from her age in the hope that she would be more appealing as an immigrant if she were younger, a minor sleight of hand that postponed her retirement by an equal length of time. These deceptions were probably unnecessary, but in those days, who could be certain they weren’t? And so for the rest of her life, she not only suppressed her true identity, but also worried that her secret would be discovered. Yet, despite her fluttering misgivings, Zenobia refused to suffer fools and never thought of herself as a victim, even though she believed the other shoe would inevitably drop, and I had better be prepared for it. She loved me unconditionally, and that only heightened her fears for her son.

Zenobia worked harder than anyone I’ve ever known. She also managed the household. Every Friday, she would open her and my father’s brown pay packets and allocate money with the precision of a purchasing agent: mortgage, hydro and food, in that order. If anything was left over, it went into savings. This was my lesson in financial planning and long-term investment.
Then, suddenly, as these things always happen, my father became ill. He discussed it with the usual “and so ons and so forths.” Perhaps during the hour of the wolf, he probed death’s sacred side and fondled the dignified beauty of parting, but I’ll never know, for a short while later he died. I was not yet 21, cockier than a year-old Irish terrier, and completely oblivious to what Andrzej’s passing would eventually come to mean. The last words I heard him speak were, “This is my son.” These he said to the duty nurse who was administering painkillers. At the time, I had no idea how right he was, for by then I was already both particle and wave: a hard, bitter kernel of moral certitude one minute, an undulating non-localized wave of doubt and anxiety the next; a model of confidence, ambition and promise one day; a bundle of sloth, self-indulgence and anger the next. One week I wanted marriage and children; the next, I fantasized about emulating Jack Kerouac. One minute I felt compassion for all of humanity; the next I sneered at people’s weakness. One day I felt light with joy; the next I could have squashed butterflies. I despised authority, but argued fervently in favour of it. I vacillated between being a monk and being famous, for what I didn’t know, something, anything. If not this, then surely that. Just notice me, please and thank you. That was my motto for a long time.

One day a few years after Andrzej died, my new girlfriend announ-ced that she was pregnant. She also hinted it might be her ex-boyfriend’s. Timelines were loose in the early 1970s. I tried to convince her that I didn’t care if it was his or mine. “We’ll get married and everything will be fine,” I said. I’m sure I added an “I love you” for good measure. I was determined to do my duty. She listened and nodded, but her sloe eyes suggested an ancient understanding. For the next few days, I talked to myself in the mirror. “Asshole. Fool. Idiot. How could you do this? Your life is ruined.” Then, I would imagine myself strutting down the street with my baby, a proud father determined not to make the same mistakes his parents had.

A week or so later, she called to tell me that she intended to have an abortion. I was outraged. “It’s wrong!” I yelled. “It’s murder. You can’t do it!” She had the presence of mind to hang up. When she called back a few days later and told me she had gone through with it, a huge wave of gratitude and relief made my knees tremble. Shortly afterwards, we split up. Only years later could I admit that I had been indignant not because of the abortion, for even back then I had no philosophical objections to abortion, but because I wasn’t the one who got to make the decision.

There followed years of education, more than a few menial jobs, and marriage. I played with my friends’ children, made cooing noises, and tickled their chins. While I held them, I longed for one or two of my own. One girl, now a lovely young woman, especially captured my heart and made me wish that I had been her father. But inevitably when I put others’ children down, I was glad I didn’t have any. I had my reasons, and they were sufficient to keep me childless. What were they? Legion. By this time, for example, I had taught in secondary school for several years, and had experienced, although admittedly second-hand, the results of broken homes, the fallout from bitter divorces and the battles waged by parents who used their children as missiles. This could happen to me, I reasoned. Why take a chance? I’m happy to be married. But kids? I’ll pass. Then again maybe I should? And that sly inner voice would shift poles, and I would yet again spend an hour or two fingering my regrets. In short, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I wanted a family, but not on the rest of the days. I had also learned that to love a child is easy, but to be consistent as a parent is hard, and for some us, impossible.

More years passed. Much to my horror, I became middle-aged, the time in life when there’s still some light left at the end of the tunnel, but you now realize it’s battery-powered. My mother finally gave up hope she would ever have grandchildren. Then, like my father, she died a horrible and unfair death. A few years later there was, for what seemed like only a fraction of a minute, a second chance for a child, but then came some difficult days, yes, very difficult, you see, and so on and so forth.


Vladimir Konieczny was born in a refugee camp in Germany in 1946 and emigrated in 1950 to join his father in Canada. A former teacher of English and music for the Vancouver School Board, he now works as a freelance writer and an instructor in Simon Fraser University’s Writing and Publishing Program. He is the author of two books: Struggling for Perfection: The Story of Glenn Gould, which was nominated for the Red Cedar Book Award, and Glenn Gould: A Musical Force.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Reversing the River by Leslie Pietrzyk

If you haven’t read the fiction of Leslie Pietryzk, you really should.  She’s one of my favorite Polish-American writers.

She’s the award-winning author of Pears on a Willow Tree and A Year and a Day, two great novels.  Her fiction has been published in the some of the greatest American literary journals, and her recent book This Angel on My Chest was chosen by the Kirkus Review as one of the best collections of short stories this year.

Her most recent novel Reversing the River is currently being serialized in Medium, an internet site that can be accessed online or through the Great Jones Street literary app (available through the iTunes store). 

Here’s a brief note that Leslie sent me describing Reversing the River:

REVERSING THE RIVER, a historical novel, is set on one day in Chicago at the turn of the (previous) century, when the citizens of Chicago completed their massive engineering project to literally reverse the flow of the Chicago River to ensure safe drinking water.

We meet Jozef, a Polish immigrant who is struggling to care for his newborn son and understand his complex relationship with love and family, and Lucy, an affluent young woman who is learning the secrets behind her recent, hasty marriage. How will the course of their lives be reversed on this momentous day?

You can start reading the serialization when you join Medium.  Here's a link to it, and there's info there about joining.  Just click here:

And now here’s the first chapter:

            Sitting on the cold stoop as snow flurried around him, Jozef felt as useless as a third boot. Upstairs, his wife was huddled deep in Ludwika’s bed, in the front room where the window was. When any of them were sick, that’s where they lay to get better or to die: little Janka with the fever was the last one, and she had passed on after a long, terrible week; mass was being said at St. Casimir’s in two Sundays. Now his wife, Krystyna—not sick, but with a baby that had been coming for too many hours, so it was her turn in Ludwika’s bed, her turn to lie in the front room.
            He had resisted, wanting her to stay in the back bedroom; yes, it was on the airshaft, dark and dank, crowded with the bedding for the little girls, but wasn’t it better for Krystyna to be in a place she knew—the faded wallpaper with the roses, the cracks in the ceiling zigzagging like summer lightning?—“she’ll be fine back here,” he had said, but the women ignored him, lifting Krystyna, pulling her, prodding her into the front, into the bed where people died. How Ludwika could sleep with those ghosts, but she did.
            “Go,” they told him. “We’ll take care of her.”
            “Go,” and he was nudged out the front door, and one of them even stood there, arms folded like a sentry, watching him clump down the four flights of stairs to be sure he was gone.
            He walked to the saloon on the corner, had a beer and a pickle, watched the card game, complained about the ward boss, didn’t mention the baby. No one sent for him. At midnight, he walked the two blocks back, thinking of nothing except the sound of his footsteps, the flickers of light in the streetlamps and how different their dance was from the way flames twisted off handmade candles on the table in Poland. That smell of sputtering wax, a single drip sliding inexorably downward. Thoughts he wouldn’t usually allow in his mind.
            Upstairs, the women wouldn’t stop moving: pouring water from a pitcher, soaking rags, fanning Krystyna’s damp face, stroking back her heavy hair, rubbing her wrists. There was a dark, indescribable odor seeping throughout the rooms, and he sensed something lingering, waiting to settle in: he couldn’t describe what he smelled, or he didn’t want to, but it was as if the air had turned itself inside out.
            He couldn’t sleep: the children were restless and whimpering, the men snoring, the air impossible to breathe. There was a hush, but no silence, only anxiety and that odor. Not stench, but worse. The blanket on, the blanket off. On his side, on his back. Two punches to the pillow, three more.
            Her cries—Matka!—begging for her mother. Matka! Strong, then weaker.
            He tiptoed around the children, tumbled like a nest of mice in their pallets, and on into the first bedroom, making his way around the crooked line of sleeping men—lodgers, down-on-their-luck cousins, someone’s uncle—then through the dim kitchen to stand in the doorway to the front room. Through the flat’s only window on the opposite wall, Jozef saw a swirl of new snow through the window and felt an odd moment of panic: so many flakes…too many, too much, more flakes than could be contained in this one night.
            Crazy thoughts. He shook his head. Just snow, same as the snow in Poland.
            Ludwika stood over Krystyna in the yellow lamplight; the others were tucked into the dark, edged in with the shadows. “It will be fine,” Ludwika murmured in Polish. “God will take care. You’ll see. Trust God.”
            “Trust God,” one of the others echoed.
            “Of course,” Jozef said. “Trust God.” He didn’t; he couldn’t. He understood God had stopped listening to him long ago.
            “Go,” Ludwika said. “You won’t help here. Nothing to do but wait.”
            He stood in the doorway for a moment. The doctor, he thought, but it was useless. There was no doctor who would come here. The money. What he had must go for rent, with Ludwika already behind. Ludwika’s eyes did not waver from his, as if she drew his gaze directly to her and held onto it for a reason.
            “I have faith enough for both of us,” Ludwika said. Janka had been her favorite daughter, named for a sister back in Poland. In the end, Janka’s skin had crackled like paper. In the end, two flies had sailed freely along the ceiling, buzzing, not landing, and then another, another. Ludwika’s sobs, choked too-tight, an animal’s cry. That smell. That was how he knew it.
            “Trust God,” someone murmured, and Jozef turned and left before he would have to hear the words again.
            There was nowhere to go, but because he had to go, he grabbed his coat and trudged down the stairs to sit on the stoop, brushing aside a light layer of snow with one hand, pulling his cap down hard over his head.
            Krystyna was seventeen and more delicate than she should be, and of course he shouldn’t have married someone so delicate, but her shy, crooked smile had softened his heart, her small hands that drew pictures in the air as she spoke, how she bit her bottom lip when she was embarrassed, how her cheeks turned pink whenever he looked too long at her. Someone had to take care of her. Like the way each spring he saw the first ducklings on the pond, their clumsy paddling, unable to keep a straight path through the water, and he would chase off the hungry herons and hawks. That didn’t stop him from shooting those same ducks come summer, bringing them home for dinner. In the end, a man had to be practical.
            Coming to Chicago had been practical. Coming to work hard and earn money, coming to avoid being conscripted into the czar’s army…practical, and practical. A man would go far, assessing a situation and understanding the need to choose the practical course.
            Jozef yanked his cap down harder, so the brim almost covered his eyes. Marrying Krystyna, who was the first girl he had met in America, had not been practical. What had been his father’s last words to him, almost two years ago before he left for America: “Don’t believe in love. Don’t let yourself think you’re in love.”
            Jozef had met his father’s steady gaze, had shaken his head no. “I won’t.” Why would he? The girls in the village were dazzling, but Jozef knew the deadening endlessness that followed: the worrisome cycle of either too much weather or not enough ravaging the fields; taxes always due; stubborn, unyielding land; hunger’s bite; the hollow words of the priest; exhausted silence; the children left to trudge the same path, and then their children, too. No chance of escape. For proof, he could look at his father and his third wife; Jozef’s own mother had died when he was a baby, and the wife his father had married next died after about ten years. Now, this new wife, once filled with generous smiles and a quick, pretty laugh, was two years into the marriage—with the fussy baby and another coming along—and she might as well be any wizened old lady grubbing with the chickens, her smiles now shriveled.
            “You say this,” his father had said. “But—”
            “No buts,” Jozef said.
            His father said, “I think I know some things.”
            “Of course, Father,” Jozef said. “But not this. I’ll follow your advice.” He shoved his hands in his pockets, nodded his head for emphasis. I’m not you, he thought, though he couldn’t imagine his father in love, whatever that meant. His father, too, was a practical man, and to find a wife to handle the house and children and chores was scarcely a matter of “love,” not with seven little ones running about. So that was one thing Jozef, the oldest, had done: gotten himself out from underfoot and come to America. Where had his father found money for the passage? He didn’t ask. Would he see any of them again? Something else he didn’t ask. When he boarded the ship, he hung over the rail and looked back, wanting to wave, but his father had already melted through the crowd. Jozef waved anyway, as if his father were still standing there to see him. And so he came to America.
            And, foolishly, had not fallen in love, but had come as close as one could while not.
            He huffed his breath into his gloveless hands to keep them warm. He stood on the step and stamped his feet several times, then sat down again. The church would be open most likely, but he’d choose freezing to death first.
            Back on that summer afternoon when he had arrived in Chicago, the churn of people at the train platform was like the sea, heaving and terrifying, overwhelming and endless. Trunks swinging, men pushing, women and children linked arm in arm, strung five and six across, fighting their way in directions opposite everyone else, elegant men and women coming off the fancy Pullmans. Horses and wagons plowing through the crowds, the roads rutted and confusing. Languages spinning like loose marbles and only occasionally a word that sounded familiar, a word that was home. The sun a mallet pounding the breezeless air. Jozef—like the others, wearing three layers of clothing, money pinned to the inside of his waistband—stood in the midst of that mess, still as a rock in a stream, letting it flow around him as he breathed in lungfuls of the black packinghouse stench of blood and guts—breathed it all in: pushing and shoving and jostling, the shifting swells of panic, a shout of, “Brother!” and even with the clench of terror knotting his stomach and throat—even with that, he relished the sensation of being first somehow, even amidst all these others. He, Jozef Nowak, was somewhere no one else had been; he was first. Yes, his father’s plan was to send over others when Jozef sent enough money—brothers, sisters, uncles, cousins. But being first was perhaps the grandest thing he could expect to happen in his life: his two feet on soil where no member of his family had been.
            Where he had come from, there was a feeling of tiredness in the same meal of potatoes and bread night after night. Or his father’s shirt that would be made over for him, and then made over for the baby, then made over into rags, so that the same scrap of cloth existed for years—becoming the landscape, same as any tall tree or immoveable hill. Something that had always been there. “You think too much,” his father would say. You don’t think enough, but Jozef would not dare speak the words. Many words there remained unspoken, so that what was said was like that piece of fabric: cycled round, endlessly reused until bleached of all meaning, until limp. Nothing stayed new. The new brothers and sisters grew to look like the brothers and sisters he already had. The pretty girls in the village became their hunched, sour mothers. The sun, the night, the hot, the cold, and all of it around again. Everything got ground down into dust. That was the future: becoming the dust under someone else’s boots.
            But here, America, Chicago, was fresh, was new. The land hadn’t been used up; the land had barely been touched. There was so much of it, endless. Like the sky. And here he stood exactly in the middle of it all.
            Then she knocked into him, shoved by someone else who kept moving, a burly man with hamfists swinging at his sides, his back as wide as a stable. Jozef righted her, trying not to notice the sensation of his hand on her sleeve, the warmth of her body radiating into his. He folded his arms across his chest, tried to focus his eyes only on the scrap of torn paper pinned to her shoulder: Chicago. One word he recognized.
            “Sorry,” she mumbled in Polish. “Excuse me, please.” Her voice was shy but when she looked at him, there was something lively in her blue eyes, as if she knew what it was to be always thinking thoughts that the others told her to forget. She smiled. “I’m afraid I’ve lost my brother,” she said. “He told me to wait, but how can anyone stand still in this crowd?” Then she slid her eyes away from his face, as if surprised she had said so much to a stranger, and the smile was gone.
            He wanted it back. It had been a long time since someone had looked at him with such kindness. So Jozef spoke quickly, “We can find him. What does he look like? Like you?” This was the excuse to study her face: those far-apart blue eyes; firm, high cheekbones, like stone; a sweep of wheat-colored hair peeking from her dark shawl; her skin unlined, unfurrowed, looking soft and cool, despite the hot day, despite the layers of clothes she wore and the thick coat. It would be a relief to rest a hand on her cheek. She wasn’t pretty, but because she was the first person who had spoken specifically to him in Chicago, he wanted to remember her, so he stared harder, memorizing her features. Sun freckles across her nose. Flat, brown eyebrows. A tinge of pink across both cheeks, deepening now into a steady flush, and she ducked her head.
            “I scarcely know what he looks like,” she said. “He’s been away for three years, so none of us have seen him. Indeed, I barely recognized him when he first approached, because he was so much taller than I’d seen him last, and dressed like a city man with such a fine hat. He’s gotten on well here, but no one should be surprised because he was always a good worker, and sweet, too. I’d been waiting for him; I arrived in the morning, and he was late, or I think maybe he didn’t know me either. When he left Poland I was a girl, only twelve or thirteen. Following him around the fields too much, ‘his little shadow,’ he teased.”
            Her sudden chatter confused him, as if she wasn’t the shy girl he’d painted in his mind, but someone else entirely, someone to be wary of. Hearing so many words was like a thirsty man drowning in too much water. But then she bit her bottom lip hard, and shook her head, as she spoke, “It’s such a world isn’t it, where the ones you love go halfway around it?” and he understood that all this talk was there to cover her fear, just as he slipped into silence to cover his.
            He glanced about, then asked, “Where’s your trunk?”
            “He took it,” she said. “Strong as ever, it was nothing for him to sling it on his back.”
            “Then he won’t be far from here,” he said. “Weighted by a trunk.”
            She looked around, lifted her arms in the air in a fast shrug, and there was that smile again. “It seems I’ve been waiting quite a long time since I saw him,” she said. “He went to find a wagon and said he’d come back for me. Three years we’ve waited, so I would say more waiting is nothing. But you. You must be meeting someone. On your way somewhere?”
            Jozef shook his head. “I’m the oldest. I’m first in my family to come to America.” To speak the words sounded impossibly grand; how dare he feel so important? His face turned hot. She made him say the things that should stay locked inside.
            But she reached out and set one hand on his arm, squeezed gently. “My brother, too. Such a lonely place, being first.”
            Again, he felt the heat of her touch through his sleeve, burning into his skin, into his bones. But he shifted so that her hand slipped aside. “There are others from my village,” he said. He had memorized the addresses he’d been given by his father who had gotten them from the priest. At night, trapped in the tight darkness of the rocking ship, while others snored or puked or prayed, he had recited the strange words over and over, imagining himself understanding the odd English someday, imagining what these Chicago streets might look like, what the words might mean and how one day they would jump off the piece of paper and into this new life that was his.
            “He has others, too,” she said. “From the village and two cousins. Now me. But to be the only one, first…. Nothing is like family, like blood. Yet I’ll never understand the things he’s known here, what one has to…swallow to get by. It’s a distant place he came to, not America, not Chicago, but a place farther than that. You can’t return from here, not when you’re first…you’ll….” She trailed off. “I’m sorry. I should find him.” But she didn’t move.
            To hear her talk, this journey was all so spectacular. But she had been on the stinking boat as he had, packed in like chickens to a coop—no, worse; chickens treated so badly wouldn’t lay—the dry bread, the never-enough water, the air breathed out a thousand times already. Now this: swarms of people here after the same jobs; what city contained enough jobs for this multitude? All after the same rooms to rent, the same bit of space to stand on the sidewalk. Coming here, being first, was only being practical. Someone had to, and as the oldest, it had to be him. If anything terrible happened to his father, there would be the children left behind, beggars or worse. He immediately shook the image clear, the little ones starving. He was here, and now no one would starve. It was what a man did—what her brother did, no doubt. What was expected.
            But she was just a woman, a girl really. What would she know of “practical”? If she walked away, he would feel more alone than ever, so he said, “And now you’ve come, too, joining your brother.” He had wanted to sound friendly, but she simply shrugged, as if she barely heard him, and he had a frantic tumbling inside fearing she might turn to leave and be swallowed up by Chicago.
             “We planned it would be my brother Andrzej coming here, but he’s not right in the head now,” she said. “He sits all day in the corner of the barn, winding straw around his thumbs. So it was me. I can work just as hard here, I would guess.”
            He shielded his eyes from the sun with one hand. “Your other brother. The Chicago brother. What’s his name? I can call for him.”
            “Jozef,” she said.
            “Why, that’s my name, too!” he said, startled. Though why would this be so remarkable; the name was common enough. Whatever she said seemed unsettling, yet he wasn’t willing to see her go. He had to help her find her brother at least. So he shouted, “Jozef.” The crowd was large, gobbling up the sound, and he felt uneasy at the way it was his own name that seemed to disappear. He called louder, and though several men turned to glance at them, no one responded beyond a prolonged, curious stare. He jumped on top of his own trunk, raising himself above everyone’s shoulders, and bellowed, “JOZEF!”
The rest of the first chapter and the other chapters can be found at Medium.
Just click HERE.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Enemy by Elisabeth Murawski

Elisabeth Murawski has allowed me to republish her poem "The Enemy" here at Writing the Polish Diaspora.  The poem originally appeared in The Hudson Review.

Ms. Murawski is the author of Zorba’s Daughter, which received the May Swenson Poetry Award, Moon and Mercury, and two chapbooks. Her poems have appeared in The Yale Review, FIELD, The Alaska Quarterly Review, The Hudson Review, et al. A native of Chicago, she currently resides in Alexandria, VA.

The title poem from Zorba's Daughter was reprinted here.  To read it, just click here.

The Enemy

Pogo warned, brave as an astronaut, the enemy’s
us. Promptly, we forgot the enemy.

Swayed by the Sousa band, Daddy lied about
his age, proudly fought the enemy.

The abused dissociate, fly high above
the pervert’s touch. Unsought, the enemy.

The little girl feared her body. An occasion
of sin, she was taught. The enemy.

Without David’s star, there’s no way of knowing
who’s the enemy, thought the enemy.

Survivors of wars often die in cars that swerve,
on narrow stairs. Like dry-rot, the enemy.

Today’s feudal lords pull their dark strings
in boardrooms. Gordian, their knot: the enemy.

Booth took a bullet in the neck, no summer
patriot, having shot the enemy.

Happy they who carpet bomb and barrel bomb
to bring to nought the enemy.

They hung Matt Shepard on a barbed wire fence,
draped like an afterthought: the enemy.

The poet dived deeply into the swamp,                     
in terza rima wrought the enemy.

Train joyride: flying yellow rape fields;
wolves. The wolves are not the enemy.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

John Grabski's Sugar to Rust

If you haven't read John Grabski's short and flash fiction you're in for a treat.

His voice is pure, straightforward, and filled with magic combinations of words that will stop you and keep you reading at the same time.  And reading his stories, you'll wonder why no one has ever written about the things he writes about.  If you have a couple of hours, check out his website GRABSKI.  It's filled with stories that will keep you reading and looking for more.  

His work has appeared in Boston Accents, Change-Seven Magazine, The Tishman Review, Boston Literary Magazine, Unbroken Journal, Eclectica Literary Mag, Animal Literary Mag, The Harpoon Review, Ash & Bones, Crack the Spine, Rope & Wire, Frontier Tales, Cyclamens & Swords, Foliate Oak Literary Mag, Rocky Mountain Revival and a host of others. He holds an MBA with distinction from the University of Liverpool and is an alum of Harvard Business School. 

You can find his published work at or reach him on twitter @GrabskiJohn when he's not writing or riding his horse​.

Sugar to Rust
(First Published in Jan 2017 edition of The Harpoon Review)

Winter. You are eighty-four:
I call you a bastard but long after your gentle side had disappeared, owing to two decades of vodka. Now you sit, surrounded by pillows and stare through the only window that matters. That single pane that faces the bird feeder, empty and swinging alone. It’s the only sign of life in this long forsaken place. This pine board box where you spent your childhood—your beloved sugar shack.
A mirror hangs, smudged and crooked, on the adjacent wall and reflects your shrunken face—your beard, tangled and gray. On the floor lies this week’s USA Today. Its curled pages marred with burns—a yellow, ashen hue. The day is empty. No news worth reading and the birds have come and gone. In a surly voice you instruct me to cancel the subscription. There won’t be unpaid bills when your day comes.
Autumn, a decade before:
You smile from your wheelchair but only when you feel there is no other choice. At your granddaughter’s wedding, you ask the groom between shots of whisky, “What kind of man starts a family with a part time job?” You worked two shifts and weekends to boot and that was before you had married—hauling booze from Long Island to New Bedford, under straw in a cabbage truck.
Six months prior, sometime in May, Dorothy, your wife of fifty-four years collapses at breakfast without warning—her death, followed by your brother and son. After her funeral, two months pass before you utter a word. When you call for a meeting over dinner, your children breathe a sigh of relief—a sign that you’re coming around. But it’s only to declare your decision to sell the house, and your intentions to move to the sugar shack just out of town. You close with instructions for a weekly delivery of bologna, cigarettes and booze. When you finish, you depart without saying goodbye.

Autumn, the year you turn sixty-four:
Halloween, 1960, the year the doctor took your leg. “Have you read Moby Dick?” you ask. You stare out the hospital window and watch children in costumes skip down the street. A tear wanders down your cheek. “My babies, my babies, my world,” you say.

Summer. You are fifty-four:
It is early evening in June and there is a party in the house that you bought for your aging Mother. You are surrounded by sons, daughters, grandchildren and sisters. With coffee in hand, you interrupt with your usual toast. “Look to each other, my beautiful children. Be true and kind and gentle. And when hardships come, and they inevitably will, when waves are cresting the bow, rise up and declare together, I am the whale, I am Ishmael, and this is my sea.”

Fall. You are forty-six:
You work two jobs and bring fish home from the cannery on Fridays. You promise Dorothy that a raise is around the bend. She smiles, and says it was never about money. A loving home is all she needs. You bite your lip and nod. For love you supply in abundance, expecting nothing but her smile in return.

Winter. You are thirty-nine:
Christmas Eve you insist upon the role of Santa. Just before midnight, you dance in the snow and shake bells beneath the children’s windows. You lob snow balls that land with a thump on the roof—no doubt Donner and Blitzen. Afterwards you wolf down a tray of cookies, have a nightcap and go to bed. But not before spending time on your knees, giving thanks for your blessings and the day ahead.

October. You are twenty-nine:
The last leaves of autumn float down from the trees as you return home from the cannery astride a beat up 1200cc Indian motorcycle. The low rumble of the engine brings Dorothy to the porch and when you tell her the price she pelts you with a dozen potatoes. A volley of banter ensues and you are ashamed but lost for the reason why. It was the first time you’d ever bought a gift for yourself.
After dinner in silence, with your eyes aglow, you unbutton your shirt. Dorothy casts a confounded look. On your chest, above your heart, you uncover a tattoo. The word, ‘DOT’ beneath the arc of a rising sun. Dorothy smiles and shakes her head. It marks the end of the only cross words that you’ll ever have between you.

Spring. You are twenty:
You twitch and there is a pit in your stomach but you summon the courage to lift her veil. There is the scent of hyacinths as you kiss her hand, and then her lips. You honeymoon at the Seaport Hotel a mile down the road, and spend the next two days making plans for a home, your first Thanksgiving and names of children to come.

Summer. You are nineteen:
You arrive at the beach six hours early. You gather driftwood and dried leaves to build a fire to steam clams that you dug from the sand the morning before. You reach to feel for the silver band that pricks your thigh through the pocket of your dungarees. When Dorothy arrives, you slip off your shoes and walk to the edge of the sea, hand in hand. The froth encircles your ankles in rhythm with the ebbing tide. With the sun behind you, you ask her to marry.
You cannot blame her for the moment it takes to decide. She, a young woman of eighteen, bears the weight of your dubious ways: the untoward liquor runs, the unintended scuffle with neighbors on the fourth of July, and the time you took the ill-witted swipe at your father. But you raise your chin, bright with promise—confident any bad days in life were long since left behind you.

Monday, July 3, 2017

On the Road, Hijacked by Memory

If you've been reading my poems, you'll know that so much of what I'm interested in is what's in our memories and how we can use what's there in our poetry and fiction and essay.

Andrena Zawinski, one of my favorite poets, has been thinking about memory too, and I'm pleased to be able to post one of her recent poems here.

It's called "On the Road, Hijacked by Memory," and it originally appeared in Bloodroot Literary Magazine.


We draw our strength from the very despair 
in which we have been forced to live...”––Cesar Chavez

Riding another lazy Sunday afternoon 
along the sun-drenched blacktop stretch 
coasting through California’s Central Valley, 
its pastures peppered by slaughterhouse steer, 
its fields dense with migrants––some sporting 
United Farm Worker eagles on caps, all of them
packed into growers’ whitewashed school buses,
all of them off to bend and hoe, chop and prune,
pick and haul Ag Giants nuts and roots and fruits
for the Walmart Super Centers and Taco Bells.

In the car’s backseat, church onion domes
crop up inside my head, their rows of candles
flickering again for all my dead:
            For the Ukrainian grandfather, face reddened
            from the heat of hot steel, muscles knotted
            and clothes grimy, who choked to death 
            struggling with words in a strange tongue, 
            lungs dense in smoke and soot, air and water fouled 
            forging Pittsburgh steel for the Carnegies.
            For the Slovak one who carried United Mine Worker     
            protest pickets to the coal bosses instead of pick and shovel 
            down into the pitch dark shafts of the Windber mine,     
            who survived a cave-in, but not being robbed 
            by the company store and a black lung death.
            For my mother, after the assembly line night shift 
            at Federal Enamel inspecting pots and pans 
            for dimples and blisters, one hand at the small of her      
            aching back bent over the Amana. the other
            scrambling eggs then scooting my brother and me
            off to school neatly dressed with full bellies.

            For my father at Pressed Steel welding railroad cars 
            in the McKees Rocks Bottoms, tagged Cossack 
            and taunted to jump and spin and kick,  
            who got lost in a bottle of vodka and thorazine, 
             another blue collar chasing a middle-class dream.

But the range here today along this California stretch
runs ragged in rain shadow and a watery-eyed sky
looming above tract homes and trailer camp estates, 
flashy billboards boasting sprouting condos,
commercial real estate for Nestles’ Purina works,
another Chrysler-Jeep dealership, new strip mall
saddling up to wheat and oats and alfalfa,
the Delta’s humpback hills carpeted green in spring––
everything predictable, unlike this day trip, hijacked
by memory to detour along a bumpy backroad,
my own breath now so heavy-laden,
my every muscle aching.


Andrena Zawinski’s latest poetry collection, Landings, is from Kelsay Books (Hemet, CA). She has published two previous full collections of poetry: Something About (Blue Light Press, San Francisco, CA), a PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award recipient, and Traveling in Reflected Light (Pig Iron Press, Youngstown, O), a Kenneth Patchen competition winner. She has also authored four chapbooks and is editor of Turning a Train of Thought Upside Down: An Anthology of Women’s Poetry. Her poems have received accolades for free verse, form, lyricism, spirituality, and social concern. She founded and runs the San Francisco Bay Area Women’s Poetry Salon and is Features Editor at

In LandingsZawinski presents poems that embrace, in original ways and with deep-rooted emotional power, the worldwide condition of women, immigrants, and the working class alongside an abiding reverence for the natural world. 

Of this work, Jan Beatty says Zawinski is the necessary voice of the truth teller, speaking trouble among the beauty. Rebecca Foust lauds the collection as a book that offers wisdom and solace and one you will take comfort in reading again and again. Carolyne Wright goes on to say in these Landings, she embraces the richness of human experience and praises the courage of those who go on ‘living as if they could do anything.

If you want to read some other poems by Andrena Zawinski that have appeared here at Writing the Polish Diaspora, please click on the following titles: Something About and Triptych of Three Pines.

Landings is available at Amazon, and through Andrena Zawinski at

Monday, June 5, 2017

Poems by Casimir Wojciech

I first met Casimir Wojciech on twitter and was immediately taken by his poetry.  He's a third generation Polish-American whose work has been featured at the Library of Congress and in various magazines here and abroad.
He currently resides in the Arizona desert where he works as a contracted painter. 

You can find him on Twitter at @caswojciech.

Here are some of his poems:

(I became a poet because the night,
wine, women and the eyes always
say it first)

what is more beautiful than
this desert at night?
window open, this warm air
purines the parts of me
I hide from my tongue.

I can sit here with the night, a radio,
a bottle of wine and watch
the stars do what we try.

wish dreams: as often as you can without going insane.


if someone should ask you about
the mind of this man, tell them
i felt most alive next to rivers

we sweat on bus stop bnches discussing 
the science of walking mountains and

tell your god to remind my god that we are all tired

the sun is a kenneled hound, just
another star that will explode like a
heart too near to what it cannot take back

time slowly becomes a promise we break
with that piece of the Self
we talk to
on the other side


what time has gleaned from our faces, that
you canot get it back provides
the greatest relief.  (stoke
the other side
our music pouring
softly without us)
the rose falling to its seed
again, will you tell me
with smoke --
who could disagree with
10,000 monarchs flopping
from rootstalk to milkweek

shall i draw my face a flooded basement, a sawdust moon 
an empty bus stop

this music of daylight holding mountains

it looks like rain in your hair


poetry is the ashes of midnight i kiss
with the blade of sorrow

poetry is a prophetic river

poetry is the burning city asking at what bus stop
did you laughing cathedrals leave their body

poetry is the ocean's wave titled upon your deserted breath

poetry is the stilts you use to look at forever with hush'd lips

poetry is an IOU from humming birds who forgot you are 
great at making love

poetry is the aura of your shoe laces

poetry is the mask of past lives' lovers
telling your heart to ripple every morning
you awaken wearing a stranger's skin

poetry is the universe's flippant response to realizing
there's no distance between love and letting go