Thursday, March 31, 2011

Poems of Beauty and Wisdom

A Review of Talking Diamonds, Linda Nemec Foster's new collection of poems.

By Oriana Ivy

The typical poem in this beautiful collection by Linda Nemec Foster, her eighth book, is quiet, elegant, and wise. These poems do not shout; they whisper - about aging and dying, a mother's frightful dementia (the mother no longer recognizes her daughter and calls her "Mom"), deformed children who are nevertheless a gift, and dead stars whose light still travels to us. They are filled with small, uncanny observations, for instance the demented mother saying "What a glorious burden" to the living room wall.

It is the poet's gift of compassion that makes such poems not only bearable, but a pleasure to read. For instance, we learn that the mother's own mother died when her daughter was only fifteen.

But me, I heard my mother calling
my name every day long after
we buried her . . . Always
the same voice from that dark place.
`Helen, Helen.' Her voice so clear
as if she was in the basement
calling me down to help her fold
clean, white sheets.

This is heartbreak presented in the most intimate, quiet voice. In a later poem, just as quietly, we are told her mother was conceived to take the place of two daughters who previously died. It's all muted colors and gray sky. A new kind of trinity presides over this volume: Mother, Daughter, and the Spirit "where everything begins and nothing ends."

Linda Nemec Foster's other great gift is her sensitivity to the astonishing in unlikely settings.

. . . nothing prepares you for this vision:
Our Lady of Guadalupe on Waikiki.
A blue ocean away from where she
first appeared to that dirt-poor
Indian peasant on Tepeyac Hill,
you can't miss her shape of glorious
colors coming toward you: deep teal,
bright vermilion, bronzed gold tattooed
on the chest of a huge Mexican from Baja.
Even his back is emblazoned with her back
and you're stunned by the accuracy
of detail; the little angel at her feet
holding a sliver of the crescent moon
as if she were a living, breathing icon.
. . .
This ocean, this beach at your feet
as if she were Boticelli's Venus
washed ashore with the sea foam,
washed ashore for your approval.
And you tell yourself this isn't a miracle,
only a tattoo; this isn't anything
extraordinary, only your life

Here is a poet who is always prepared for miracles, and who recognizes the deep affinity between Venus on her shell and Our Lady on the Crescent, typical of the icons of the Black Madonna. In another unforgettable poem, "The Blind and the Lame Swim at the Y," the transformation is even more startling:

But it's the crippled girl
with a slash for a mouth
that amazes the water. Tiny
deformed feet that curl
like tender shells forgotten
on some deserted beach,
become the shining, sleek fins
of a mermaid's tail.

The poem ends with a stanza of skillfully wrought wisdom: mothers will accept their handicapped children "without regret" -

Because the secret heart of every
fairy tale is locked deep within
these children. Because this heart
beats in goodness which is rarer
than perfection. Because this heart
is like water: uncaring yet
kind, transparent yet full.

Among my favorite poems is "Red Amaryllis, 1937," honoring an art lover, a man who even in a strip joint behaves in a courtly manner:

When a black girl
with erect nipples came to dance inches from your face,
you stood up, took her hand, and began to waltz.
. . . After the waltz, you kissed her hand.
She said her name was Jasmine. Flower of night air
and moonlight, you replied.

Another favorite is "The Nature of the Beast," with these lines about a cat bringing its offering of a nestling it killed:

But remember how it holds the gift
tenderly in its mouth, approaching
you like a child, a lover who wants
to give you the gift of its wildness.

Poetry is not the things themselves, it is in how we respond to them - quietly, lovingly, without judgment or bitterness, only with compassion and understanding, Linda Nemec Foster teaches us. In spite of heartbreak, there is beauty and grace in life. Everything can be transformed, transfigured into brilliance. In the title poem of the collection, she imagines diamonds talking

about their lives underground.
Never are they bitter or angry. Nor do they
even curse those dark
memories of suffocating black. They know
every facet of their brilliance began as mere
coal - a mere dark fist waiting
for a chance to be something
other than ordinary.

But then it turns out that nothing is merely ordinary. Simply to wake up to another day is already extraordinary, if we have the eyes to see. Linda Nemec Foster certainly has the eyes that are always ready for miracles, and the words with which to describe them. Through her, we see that life is indeed a glorious burden - with equal emphasis on "burden" and "glorious."


The book is available from Amazon and New Issues Press. To see more about Linda Nemec Foster, I encourage readers to checkout her website.

Poet Oriana Ivy blogs about poetry at Oriana-Poetry. Her translations of Zbigniew Herbert are available at Scream Online. Some of her poems are also available. online. A powerful sequence about her Polish grandmother appears here. Her poem "My America" about discovering America for herself is available at her blog.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Poems about the Warsaw Uprising, 1944

Anna Swir (Świrszczyńska) was a woman who fought with the Polish resistance during World War II. When the Germans decided to destroy Warsaw in 1944, she became a front-line nurse in a battle that saw the city leveled and 250,000 Poles die.

Thirty years after the war, she published a book of poems about her experiences in that slaughter. It was called Building the Barricade. Gifted poet and translator Piotr Florczyk has produced the present volume, Building the Barricade and Other Poems. It combines the best poems from that earlier book along with Anna Swir's later poems, poems which focus on the human body and her experiences of love and family. This bi-lingual collection, starting with her writing about the war and ending with the last poem she wrote, "Tomorrow They'll Cut Me Open," gives the reader an overall sense of her career and her strengths as a poet.

I could quote from what readers like Czeslaw Milosz, Edward Hirsch, Eva Hoffman, and Sandra Alcosser say about these powerful poems, but I won't. The poems don't need it. They speak clearly and powerfully on their own.


I worked as an orderly at the hospital
without medicine and water.
I carried bedpans
filled with pus, blood and feces.

I loved pus, blood and feces—
they were alive like life,
and there was less and less
life around.

When the world was dying,
I was only two hands, handing
the wounded a bedpan.


If all the bullets in the world
hit me,
then they couldn’t hit anybody else.

And let me die as many times
as there are people in the world,
so that they wouldn’t have to die,
even the Germans.

And let nobody know
that I died for them,
so that they wouldn’t be sad.


In this city
there are no more people. Sometimes a cat
with burnt eyes
crawls out from an alley
to die.

Or a rat
scuttles to the other side of the street.

Or the wind moves
a page in a book on the pavement
and knocks the window
with the glinting shard of glass.


Anna Swir's book Building the Barricades and Other Poems can be purchased from Calypso Editions (free shipping included).

Translator Piotr Florczyk previously translated Julian Kornhauser's Been and Gone. I posted a blog about it recently.

"The Rats Remain" and "Thoughts of a Fourteen-Year Old Nurse" were originally published in the online journal Little Star.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Celebrating the Poetry and Life of Czeslaw Milosz

This is the year of Czeslaw Milosz, and a number of celebrations in his honor are scheduled across the country.

Cecilia Woloch and I will be doing one in Los Angeles for the Modjeska Club on April 16, 2011, 6:30 p.m. The presentation is entitled "Milosz in My Life, conversation with poets John Guzlowski and Cecilia Woloch." It will be given at The Ruskin Art Club, Los Angeles. For further information, please go to Maja Trochimczyk's Modjeska Club blog

Here's one of my favorite poems by the Nobel Laureate:


We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.

And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.


I also received a notice about a celebration from the Polish Cultural Institute of New York. Here is their announcement:

The Unterberg Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y together with the Polish Cultural Institute in New York present


Monday, March 21, 2011, 8:00 PM

The Unterberg Poetry Center
1395 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY
Admission: $19//$10 age 35 and under Tel: 212.415.5550

Czeslaw Milosz's "trust in the delicious joy-bringing potential of art and intellect was protected by strong bulwarks built from the knowledge and experience that he had gained at first hand and at great cost."
- Seamus Heaney, 2004

The Polish Cultural Institute in New York is honored to announce the first event in the United States in a year-long international celebration of the centennial of the birth of Nobel Prize winning poet, essayist, translator, and scholar, Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004). The Polish parliament has declared 2011 the Milosz Year in honor of one of Poland's greatest cultural figures.

The Unterberg Poetry Center, which hosted six readings by Czeslaw Milosz during his lifetime, in collaboration with the Polish Cultural Institute in New York have invited Milosz's friend and Berkeley colleague, poet Robert Hass, translator and Milosz biographer Clare Cavanagh, and one of the most important contemporary Polish poets who has also been dividing his time between Poland and the US, Adam Zagajewski, to read and reflect upon the life and work of Czeslaw Milosz at the 92nd Street Y.

One hundred years after his birth, fifty-seven years after the publication of his seminal essay [The Captive Mind], Milosz's indictment of the servile intellectual rings truer than ever: "his chief characteristic is his fear of thinking for himself." - Tony Judt, New York Review of Books, 2010

Branded a "catastrophist" by critics of his early poetry in the 1930s, publishing underground at great risk during the Second World War, challenged by leftist intellectuals in Paris in the 1950s for seeking asylum from the Polish Communist government, criticized by Polish emigres for having served as a diplomat in the same government, joining the anti-war movement at Berkeley in the 1960s, and questioned by conservative Catholics as a heretic at his burial, Czeslaw Milosz lived a full life as an independent thinker and as an inspiration to others struggling against the prevailing forces in their own contexts. Milosz spent over 40 years in the United States, becoming an important figure in the West Coast poetry scene, across the country, and throughout the world, and many of the Milosz Year events in the United States in 2011 will focus on his time in America and his American legacy.


One of the best sources for Milosz's poems online is the Poetry Foundation site.

For more information about events in the US celebrating Milosz's writing, please click here.

Jolanta W. Best has written a very good summary of the events scheduled in Poland to celebrate Milosz. Please click here.