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