Friday, December 19, 2014

London Manuscript by Anna Maria Mickiewicz

London manuscript cover for shop

The following is Tomas Niedokos' review of London Manuscript by Anna Maria Mickiewicz. The review originally appeared in Nowy Czas:

This is a new volume of verse by Anna Maria Mickiewicz, a Polish-English poet writing in Polish and English and living and publishing in England. Based in London, she is a keen observer of the natural (parks and gardens) and cultural life of the Metropolis, aware of centuries of history behind her and the cultural landscape around her.
Her poems are epiphanies in which an instant observation, always rooted in a particular locality, may lead to other worlds: to Ancient Greece, Middle Ages or to thePolandof the poet’s youth. Socrates can be spotted in a quietLondongarden and “What if the woman on the beach was a cousin of Virginia Woolf’s?” The Dead are always with us in the communion of culture.
Being a Pole, and a distant relative of the great Polish romantic poet, Mickiewicz cannot leave behind the turbulent history of her country and Eastern Europe (transportations toSiberia, Marshal Law), which was also the history of her family and herself. The memories of “a crumbling world order”, generations “tainted by the pain of parting with the unsettled soil” add certain sadness and discord to the tone of this poetry, which seems to be in quiet and resigned harmony with its space and time.
Other poems, by contrast, are “impressionist” pieces (“Summer inSeaford”), evoking a passing moment, mood or sight, which allow the reader to see things from an unexpected perspective, to discover the unfamiliar in the familiar thanks to a well-crafted and perceptive metaphor. The poet has a special penchant for capturing watery phenomena: fogs, mists, puddles, “droplets of water”, so typical of English landscape and cityscape, but in the end they are always seen through the filter of culture; nature and culture coalesce.
A love of England, its nature and culture transpire from these poems, the poet seems to be very well rooted in her adopted country, but the outlook, metaphors, similes are her own and refreshing, drawing from the experience of living in two cultures, two histories and, last but not least, two languages. And for the reader it is an interesting and pleasing journey through this very sensual, but also marked by history and culture, poetic world.
Tomasz Niedokos
Tomasz Niedokos is a Lublin-based academic. He  works on English literature. His PhD was on "The Concept of English Culture in the Cultural Biographies of Peter Ackroyd”

A London dream

Her mother’s voice:
Where will they send us?
We should pack the things we need.
Remember about the family silver, table cloths.
What else will we need?
What else will we need?
The Departure
The cattle train moves
The world has changed.

Where are we going?
Where are we going?

Arkhangelsk was just nearby.

This was not Siberia.
In Siberia
People were able to exchange clothes
For food.
In Arkhangelsk
It was not possible.

A frozen childhood picture
Is kept like in a crystal ball:
Muddy fields, a big forest
Someone is singing  
Somewhere in Belarus.

I am only dreaming at night
I worry, if I will visit the place now

The dream will disappear                            


Summer in Seaford

The sun sheds its golden drops.
The sea devours them instantly. 
The sky shimmers. 

The day is snatched from another story. 
We’re arriving, here at the end of the line. 
We convince ourselves that infinite space is an illusion…

We walk through the small English town.
A tiny station, plaster falling unevenly off the wooden beams.
Before us the Channel gleams threateningly. 

In the distance a cliff plunges sharply into the sea.
No chips, no ice cream, no candy floss. 
Dead jellyfish glitter on the pebbles. 
The day passes lazily by 
A ship silhouetted in grey against its face.

On the beach a couple unfold deckchairs
Wrinkled skin 
They read the papers. 
They seem unreal 
Postimpressionist faces
All nonchalant 

We’re heading back. 
The cafes and restaurants are closed. 
Who lives here at the end of the world?

Looking through photographs of the scandalous Bloomsbury set, 
An old snapshot. 
A gaunt young woman and a man in deckchairs.
They are reading the papers. 

What if the woman on the beach was a cousin of Virginia Woolf's? 
Who was the man? 
A poet? 
Or one of her scandalous friends?

Anna Maria Mickiewicz

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

With Blood and Scars by B. E. Andre

A note by Danusha Goska from Bieganski the Blog

"With Blood and Scars" by BE Andre

"With Blood and Scars" is a new Polish-themed book by B. E. Andre.

The book has two plotlines. One involves children, and is from the past. One involves a Polish father dying of cancer in modern day England, and his adult child hoping to learn the full facts of his life before he dies.

The book's intriguing title comes from a passage written for Polish children about their own country. How was Poland born? "With blood and scars." 

Here's the book description from Amazon:

"Time is running out for Ania. She needs to ask her dying father a vital question; his answer is the key to how she will lead the rest of her life. She must force him to revisit his childhood in Poland in 1944, a time when decisions about survival were made on the spur of the moment, a place where chaos undermined all previous morality. Who is her father really? Can she bear to find out? 

Another secret also torments her: an incident she filed in her memory store. Now the police have found the remains of a child in Whalley Range. Should she try to find the gang of friends from her own childhood days? Or should she keep the secret of what happened then? This coming-of-age novel is a tale of heroic survival against all odds: a life-affirming story of courage and hope set against harrowing circumstances. It celebrates the goodness that can be found in all nations." 


The book is available from Amazon.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Arpil Snow by Oriana Ivy

Oriana Ivy’s book of poems April Snow won the New Women’s Voices Prize in Poetry in 2011.

She deserved that prize, and plenty of others as well. 

Re-reading it the book this morning, I was again touched by her gifts.

Here’s the blurb I wrote for her book when it first came out:

Oriana Ivy is the best kind of poet.  She writes about things that matter – family and work, love and the past, nature and history – in a way that always sounds honest, never tired or familiar.  Read her.  She’s got an ear for language and an eye for image that make her poems as irresistible as joy and kindness.

Every word is still true.  Maybe truer.

Here are a couple of the poems from her book that I especially liked.


One day in the street my grandmother
stops before another grandmother.
Both stammer: “It’s you –
you – in Auschwitz – ”

Turning to me: “She and I shared
the same blanket. Every night she said,
‘You’ve got more than I’
and pulled, and I pulled back,

and so we’d tug across the bunk – ”
And the two grandmothers laugh.
In the middle of a crowded
sidewalk, in old women’s dusk,

widows’ browns and grays,
they are laughing like two schoolgirls –
tears rain down the cracked
winter of their cheeks.

On Piotrkowska Avenue,
on the busiest street,
they are tugging that thin blanket.
They are pulling back.


It’s not the country I miss.
I miss the poplars
lining the long avenue,
leafy perspective I loved to trace

from my fourth-story window,
past Cemetery of the Russian Soldiers
all the way to the airport.
The avenue was named

after the first aviators.
uncle Gienio, killed in air battle
over france, was an aviator,
smiling from his biplane,

fading in a sepia photograph.
To his little sister, my mother,
he said, “We’ll fly around the world.”
I stood in each window,

walked out every door –
daydreamed on all bridges, dazed
with departure’s nets of light. I too
wanted to fly around the world.

At seventeen, you don’t ask
the price. In a sepia October,
I left. Behind me swayed
Warsaw poplars,

tree by tree bowing back.
Shadows laced my hands,
the passing leaves
rustled warnings I didn’t hear –

long perspective of poplars,
upward arms burned to gold –
behind me an endless
avenue of gold wind. 


The book is available from Amazon.  

She blogs about art, writing, psychology, God, myth, and poetry at her blog Oriana-Poetry.  

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Interview with Leszek Szymanski

This posting of Writing the Polish Diaspora features Bozena Helena Mazur-Nowak’s interview with Polish writer leszek szymanski*:

leszek szymanski

Bozena Helena Mazur-Nowak: I would like to present to our readers an unusual figure in leszek szymanski* (aka Dr. Leslie Shyman), a writer, journalist, historian, traveler, politolog, philosopher, and a leading figure among  Polish Emigre writers.  He is the author of many works of fiction and nonfiction, mostly in English, and has his place in the literatures of Poland, Australia and the USA.  He is also a recipient of the Joseph Conrad (Korzeniowski) Award of Miasto Literatow (City of Writers).  In Poland he is known in literary circles as the legendary founder of "wspolczesnosc" (the Contemporary), an amazing small magazine with a circulation of 55,000!  In 1956, that was the only private and independent publication behind the Iron Curtain.

The Interview

Bozena Helena Mazur-Nowak: Why did you leave Poland, I believe, in 1959, and what was your first destination abroad?

leszek.szymanski. To answer this question, I must move backward to 1956---the year of the so called "Polish October (peaceful) Revolution."  The birth of Wspolczesnosc was possible only because of pre- revolutionary ferment which started after Stalin's death, and it reached its apogee in Poland in October 1956.

 We were reasonably independent in literary matters and completely independent in financial matters.  But once Comrade Wieslaw (Wladyslaw Gomulka) was established in power, even quasi literary  autonomy could not be tolerated by the monopolistic Party.  Only the Roman Catholic Church was allowed semi-independence. 

Thus, we were soon taken by the government conglomerate of RSWP.  No personnel changes were made to the editorial board, but I was given a deputy chief editor named JOZEF LENART.

Lenart was a youth activist of the Union of Polish Youth (ZMP), an ex co-editor of its daily Banner of Youth (Sztandar Mlodych), and a trusted party man.  He was also antagonistic towards us, a group of independent young writers.

 I remember once, when I was waiting in the corridors of power of the Central Committee of Z.M.P., Lenart approached me.  Smiling, with one hand pointed toward the palm of his other hand, he said, "Sooner the hair will grow on the palm of my hand, than you will publish ''wspolczesnosc.''  Now, still with a bold palm, he became my deputy.

 I never had any illusions about Gomulka's liberalism and it was obvious to me that the days of our semi-independence were ending and we would have to follow the Party line through all its zigzags, while it pretending to be following a straight line. That Party line was the equivalent of today's political correctness---no matter how stupid and contradictory it was, you had to follow it.

Those in our group who were not submissive enough would be eliminated.  I was right, though not about the timing.  It took much longer to dissolve our group than I thought it would.  Jan Zbigniew Slojewski was treated especially badly---for a long time, he was not allowed to print anything.  Andrzej Chacinski was moved from the secretary of the editorial board to an equivalent position in some small cooperative magazine.  Zbigniew Irzyk found shelter in Pax press.  

 In 1959, Teodor Parnicki (then still in Mexico), the author of  End of the Peace of Nation, granted me an award for continuing his novel.  And off I went with my then first wife Jadwiga de domo Ornowska to India, to do historic research for that book.  While in India, I was wondering why my "reportages" from that country were not printed.  Then I heard that I was to be arrested and that the Polish embassy wanted me to return.  At the time I was in Himalayas, at Rishikes  xxx    with Shri Shivananda Guru, thanks to Wanda Dynowska, in his ashram. (The words "guru" and "ashram" did not have the present currency---again, I happened to be a pioneer.)

 Previously, in New Delhi, I had met two people---an Indian writer and a member of the Congress from Cultural Freedom, Prabhagar Padhye, and Arthur Koestler, a then very well known  anti-communist writer.

In hindsight, the news about my imminent arrest was grossly exaggerated, or perhaps purposely made to push me to ask for asylum, which would have gotten rid of a now awkward person.  The Marek Hlasko incident was still fresh, and if I remember correctly, Jozef Lenart asked us to discuss "casus Hlasko", i.e. condemn him.

Anyway, my wife and I requested de facto asylum to the Australian High Commission, the British High Commission, and the US. Embassy.  The British and the Americans promised to consider the matter.  Sir Robert Menzies, the Prime Minister of Australia, granted us immigrant visas in I believe three days.  And with that, my wife and I flew to Sydney with a long layover in Manila.

BH:  Who paid the tickets?  And why the immigrant visas?

l.s: Congress for Cultural Freedom.  And immigrant, because I did not want to give my friends and colleagues any trouble, as well as my mother since my father had just died.  I did not want to make a political gesture as Marek Hlasko, Andrzej Brycht and many others did, regardless of the consequences for those left behind.

BH:  I have heard that you have already knew English. How was that?

l.s: In or about 1953, I met at the Warsaw Youth Festival an Indian Writer, KEDAR NATH, who became one of my best friends.  I invited him to Poland and he stayed with me till I left that country. 

From him, I learned how to speak English.  Previously, I had a passive knowledge of the language---

I could read and translate, but not talk.  I had English in school (gimnazium i liceum im, Stefana Batorego).  My father Kazimierz spoke and wrote English.  And Edward Simmons of the American Embassy (a mysterious figure) helped me with spoken English and invited me for movies and parties at the embassy.  Now that friendship could really be a pretext for an arrest.

BH:  Tell us about your connections with Jerzy Giedroyc, Mieczyslaw Grydzewski and Marek Hlasko.

l.s.In Poland i had a contract signed for the publication of the collection of my short stories ESCAPE TO THE TROPICS. It had a foreword by Stanislaw Rembek. The contract was signed with a quasi independent and quasi Roman Catholic organisation PAX. When the Party took us over, the Pax declined to honour the agreement (they [Pax] were after us, and displeased with me), but our new publisher RSW Prasa, did signed a new publishing contract.
I had a number of short stories published in the various magazines, and even won a III Prize in the competition by Union of Polish Writers  for a story about Adam Mickiewicz. But I was not as well known as Marek Hlasko, and maybe, a book publication would change the situation. I felt i was not worse writer than him.

BH:  Pardon me, but what it has to do with Giedroyc and  Grydzewski ? Also I'd like to know more about your connection with PAX. Did you know Boleslaw Piasecki?

leszek szymanski smiling: Yes, my book has a lot to do or rather not to do with Giedroyc,  while in Manila I sent MS to Giedroyc, who by now became the third prospective publisher and promised to print it. I think he sent  me $100. But for a budding author having his first book published was more important than that money, not too small in those times. Now, to answer your question I must move forward chronologically.

I met Giedroyc much later in the editorial office of Kultura in Paris. drunk tea though when I visited Poland first time after 50 years I saw over the roof of Muzeum Literatury an advertisement to the sense "DRINK GIEDROYC"S VODKA.

I met the really legendary founder of Wiadomosci Literackie, Mieczyslaw Grydzewski(Grydz) relatively often in his editorial office opposite to the British Museum. His unofficial office was in the Press reading room of that ancient and famous institution, the newspaper Reading Room being still at the old address. As to Marek Hlasko I met him much, much later in Los Angeles. 

We spent almost a year collaborating on a novel "Devils in the Rain or Rice Eaters" Danuta Blaszak writes about that, and times of 'wspolczesnosc". She intends to write the Doctorial Theses on the subject. How indeed! from the marginal literary magazine in the shadow of PO PROSTU, we landed in the history of the Polish Literature, and even perhaps became a footnote to the Political History of 1956.

BH:  But what about Pax?It played diversive role towards the Church being "rezymowi Katolicy", the government Catholics. Especially doubtful was the role of the "fuhrer" Boleslaw Piasecki.And his "State Instinct" in 1956. How close you were to him?

l.sNot close at all. I met him perhaps three times, for some short and non consequential  polite conversations. I met more often his deputy Mieczyslaw Kurzyna and the director of PAX Publishing House; Teresa Englert,Krzyszton, Dolecki, Lichanski, Dobraczynski? and some other literary people, Stanislaw Rembek included.

I met all of them through Bohdan Slezkin. 

Slezkin after being released from prison (He was of course "political" ) found shelter in Pax who used his illustrations and graphic works in their publications.

Pax helped a number of ex political prisoners and also those writers who were not accepted by the monopolistic government publishers.

Also Pax openly allowed us not to love and admire, worship the elder brother Soviet Union, saying we have to tolerate them and make the best of the dependency situation as Margrabia Wielopolski did.

Well,they were oasis of common sense in the sands of idiotic boot lickers, pardon the awkwardness of this mixed metaphor.

And how successful was that first book of yours, published by Jerzy Giedroyc?  I assume it was in Polish? He had ways to smuggle his books and the magazine into Poland.

l.s:   Of course, but it was never published by Giedroyc.It was printed about six years later as ESCAPE TO THE TROPICS with about half of the stories with the Australian background.Then, and NOW, looking retrospectively it was very bad thing this breaking contract. My book did not became known in Poland nor abroad on emigration, and when came the great return of Demiurges, emigre writers, I had been completely forgotten in Poland.

BH: What has happened?

l.s.:Jerzy Giedroyc who was financed for his work; grew into a saintly figure in Poland. In the counter distinction to Mieczyslaw Grydzewski who was paid by nobody but who tried to pay his authors though he himself, was wearing the same old pants and jacket all those times I met him.

BH: Do you mean Giedroyc did not pay?

Szymanski smiling again: No he paid and paid better than Grydz. He had his sources. Giedroyc did not print my book but deducted his advance from the royalties for the articles I had written  for KULTURA

BH: And why he did not publsh the book?

Giedroyc was more of the political figure than the literary one. He never wrote me so, neither told, but the reason was, I guess, that I did not make noise about choosing freedom, and he did not assisted me politically or otherwise, except that $100 or so, and he was not behind my decision. Just thinks about possible headlines:

The chief editor of only independent literary magazine in the Eastern Europe asks for Asylum says Jerzy Giedroyc, the editor of emigre KULTURA.

Such a head line or at least assumption at the proper places, would be a feather to his cup. as were Marek Hlasko and Andrzej Brycht. Forgive again the quality of the metaphor.
And perish the thought maybe he simply thought the stories were not good enough.

BH: So who and when published that book, if at all?

I think I have approached all the British, Australian  publishers and gathered almost as many rejection slips, and a few nice letters of praise but no offers. Similarly to my novel "Drunken Maniana".

Sergio Angelo on his way back from Moscow with the manuscript of Doctor Zivago, stopped at my place and took in secret my novel too.

However, as long as I was in Poland I declined  Pellegrini's offer to publish and I guess, when I decided to stay quietly abroad he was not interested. Or again maybe he saw no market for a novel of the Polish October Revolution which faded quickly, especially if compared to the impact of the real Hungarian Revolution.

BH. That's interesting. May I know more? And what happened to ESCAPE?

l.s: About Boris Pasternak,that’s another story. I met him through Virgil, a Lithuanian whose surname I forgot,but there was much to it. I could not help him. But to answer your question about my book,,, that book was printed by the Polish publisher of  renown,  in London Boleslaw Swiderski. It had very good reviews and sold perhaps a hundred copies in Australia and fifty in England.

BH: Thank you very much, and I hope to finish our interview when we meet the next time.

 * Mr Szymanski insists on lower case letters in his name and in "wspolczesnosc"


Bozena Helena Mazur-Nowak has lived in the UK since 2004. She is a member of The Poetry Society of London, International English Association (IPPA) based in London, Union of Polish Writers Abroad based in London, Polish Authors' Association Branch II in Warsaw (Poland), Academy of American Poets (USA).

Verses authored and translated by herself into English, published in the U.S. Canada, India, Australia, Africa and the UK. They were read on Australian Radio. She was included in the poet issue of New Mirage Journal (USA). Her work has been presented in Writing the Polish Diaspora (USA), The Australia Times Poetry Magazine, ken*again, Mad Swirl.
The poet has released three volumes of poetry in Polish : "on the banks of the river called life" in 2011, "ticket to the Happiness station" in 2012, "on the departure bridge " in 2013, and two in English ; ''Whispered'' 2013 in UK and ''Blue Longing'' 2014 in Canada.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Polish Poet Wins Fifth Annual Harriss Poetry Prize

Danuta E. Kosk-Kosicka was named winner of CityLit Press's fifth annual Harriss Poetry Prize for her chapbook manuscript "Oblige the Light."

Born and raised in Poland, Kosk-Kosicka is a scientist, bilingual poet, writer, poetry translator, photographer, and co-editor of the literary journal Loch Raven Review.

Her poems have appeared in the U.S.A., Ireland, Sweden, and Poland in numerous literary journals and anthologies, including The Baltimore ReviewBeltway Poetry ReviewEllipsis: Literature and ArtInner Art JournalInternational Poetry ReviewLittle Patuxent ReviewMobiusPassagerPirene's FountainPivotRufous SalonSpillwayTheodateVan Gogh's EarAkcent, as well as Stranger at Home: Anthology of American Poetry with an AccentThy Mother's Glass, and Weavings 2000: Maryland Millennia/Anthology.

Her translations of poems by three Maryland Poets Laureate-Lucille Clifton, Josephine Jacobsen, and Linda Pastan have been published in Poland; her translations of poems by Lidia Kosk, Ernest Bryll, and Wislawa Szymborska have appeared in over 50 publications in the U.S.A. 

She is the translator for two bilingual books of poems by Lidia Kosk:   niedosyt/ reshapings and Slodka woda, slona woda/Sweet Water, Salt Water, the latter of which she has also edited. 

Launched in 2009, the Harriss Poetry Prize is named in honor of Clarinda Harriss, eminent Baltimore poet, publisher, and professor of English at Towson University. Harriss, educated at Johns Hopkins University and Goucher College, is a widely published, award-winning poet and, off campus, serves as editor/director of BrickHouse Books, Inc., Maryland’s oldest literary press.

Here is one of the poems from this prize-winning collection:

In the Background the Waltz from Doctor Zhivago

In a movie scene a train
Like a toy—in whose hands?—
            Runs on a white plain, sways,
Jerks on the tracks
            Pursued by a plumed snake.

Where, where, where, where, where, where
            A land rolled out for play—
Who, who, who, who, who, who…

The ones who packed themselves
Fifty to a freight car with a choking stove
            May have had enough force
To thrust through the thick pane
Of the dry frozen universe
            And see yellow flowers above
            The blades of grass.

The unlucky ones in the strangling
Arms of the army with red stars
            Had no chance—packed in freight cars
Thrown in the hollows
In the Katyń forest.
Clots on their bulleted heads,
Tied hands, blindfolded words
Thaw in the spring
            To freeze again
Over and over
            To not forget.

Where, where, where, who, who, who
            Scatters dead flowers, turns
Earth into a crippled toy planet...  

First appeared in International Poetry Review


To read more of Danuta’s work here at Writing the Polish Diaspora, please click on the following link.  It will take you to her essay about translating and a number of her own poems and her translations from the Polish of poets Szymborska and Lidia Kosk.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Laura Ulewicz: Polish American Poet

Recently, I was talking about Polish American writers with scholar Janusz Zalewski, and he mentioned Laura Ulewicz,  a poet who was friends with many of the Beat writers.  I was surprised to hear about her because I'm interested in both the Beats and Polish American writers.

Here's an article by Erica Goss, poet and host of the radio program Word to Word, A Show about Poetry, about her friendship with Laura Ulewicz.

Laura Ulewicz - Image - by Erica Goss - Awkword Paper Cut

(drawing of Laura Ulewicz by Erica Goss)

“To Laura Ulewicz, a kind of dragon” - Dedication, Views of Jeopardy by Jack Gilbert
   When the poet Laura Ulewicz passed away in October 2007, it took me by surprise, in spite of the fact that she was seventy-seven, and a smoker with a heart condition.  Laura, a part of my life since I was twelve years old, simply could not die.  She would always be in Locke, a quirky hamlet located in the Delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, living in the house she bought for three hundred dollars thirty years ago, and writing poems.  Laura was a true original, fiercely independent, and though she’s been called a Beat poet, she never included herself in any movement.  She lived on her own terms, and died that way too, in her beloved house that leaned to one side (like all of the houses in Locke) surrounded by her books, dogs, friends and the amazing gardens she grew from the black river mud of the Sacramento River.


    Just before I turned twelve, my father introduced me to his new girlfriend.  Her name was Laura Ulewicz, and all I knew about her was that she was a poet he’d met through Kenneth Rexroth.  As a gesture of goodwill, she presented me with a big box of thrift store clothes as an early birthday gift.  I was a gawky, too-tall preadolescent painfully aware of my bony wrists and ankles; as I pulled pants, sweaters and blouses from the box, my heart sank.  I could tell none of them would fit.  My father and Laura insisted I model every outfit, so I trudged back and forth over the grass in the backyard of Laura’s East Bay home, hems between my ankle and calf, shirtsleeves ending at mid-forearm, wishing that the ground would open and swallow me whole.  Laura either noticed my discomfort or got tired of my pout, but she finally ended the backyard fashion show and we all went out for ice cream, something we would do often in the coming months.  Over our cones – she always ordered raspberry cheesecake – we both laughed when she admitted that she had imagined her new boyfriend’s daughter as a dainty child of about nine.  We forged a tentative friendship that day, one built on my fascination with her as a person and her grudging acceptance of me.

   Laura could be kind, and she could be cruel.  She would answer my endless questions about her life, her poems, places she had visited, and then dismiss me with a curt, “Well, I’m done.  Go away.”  I would slink off, hurt and disappointed.  She was unlike any person I had ever met, and I was forced to wait until she chose to notice me again. Here was a woman who had won an NEA grant, lived in a haunted house in Jamaica, traveled through Europe, slept in Golden Gate Park at age nineteen; she was a certified Bohemian, a Beat, friends with the San Francisco literati and, most important, a poet: proud, irritating, selfish, brilliant, daring.  She ran the I-Thou coffee house on Haight Street in the 1960s and always had at least two large, unruly dogs living with her.  She was committed to an asylum, escaped and hitch-hiked back home to Detroit, her mind damaged from electroshock treatments.

    When I met her, she lived in a flat in the East Bay, part of a house that had a large back yard.  In that back yard, Laura grew flowers whose names I committed to memory: sweet william, nemesia, linaria, cleome, nasturtium, alyssum: the names of Laura’s flowers were part of a secret language I longed to learn.  As she wrote in one of her last poems:

            These flowers I grow

            You call them old-fashioned.

            I never liked them as a child

            They were so common.

            Now they stand for something –

            What they lasted through –

            Now they are rare.

   An enormous milk thistle appeared in Laura’s flower garden, a wild, aggressive thing among the roses and lilies.  It grew taller and taller, spreading across the damp earth. The leaves were fringed with inch-long spikes.  Yet I agreed with Laura that it was a handsome plant, and couldn’t help noticing that the hummingbirds favored its flowers above the others.

   During the months Laura and my father lived together, I hung around her as much as possible, absorbing her tales of life in San Francisco during the Beat period, and later when the counter culture of the 1960s hit full force.  I heard stories of vacant-eyed teens fresh from the Midwest begging for food on Haight Street; the insufferable behavior of Neil Cassady, who dared a woman to kill herself (she did); how once on her way home from the I-Thou Coffee House, a man reached for Laura from the dark street, but her dog barked and frightened him off.  Ginsberg, Rexroth, McClure, Everson, Snyder, Gilbert and many other poets, writers and artists, were her friends and acquaintances.

   When she was in the mood, she would make a pot of strong coffee, light up the first of many cigarettes, and talk about her youth.  Born to a teenaged mother, Laura grew up in Detroit in the 1930s.  The town was surrounded by dense woods, and Laura spent hours alone, exploring the forest and observing nature.  She told me about the hobo camps hidden in the woods, the hungry men who gathered at night to share what little food and whiskey they had.  Although frequently at odds with her parents, she spoke fondly of an aunt who was a kindred spirit.  “I was in such a hurry to grow up,” she chuckled through a cloud of cigarette smoke.  “As soon as I could I left Detroit and came out west.”

   She was writing then, but too shy to show her poems to anyone.  Sometime during the 1950s, Laura met the poet Jack Gilbert, with whom she had a long and tempestuous relationship.  Gilbert dedicated his first book, Views of Jeopardy, which won the Yale Younger Poets award in 1962, to “Laura Ulewicz, a kind of dragon”.  It was a woman, also interested in Gilbert, who had Laura committed to Napa State Hospital as Laura struggled through a period of depression.  Her tales of escape from the hospital, of trekking haphazardly from the West Coast home to Detroit, were frightening and poignant at the same time.  She’d had electroshock therapy, and whole sections of her memory were erased.  “Once I found myself in Phoenix.  How the hell did I get to Phoenix?”  Often she would stop in the middle of a particularly harrowing story, stare into space, and forget about me, wide-eyed and hanging on her every word, as the threads of memory refused to come together.

   To my knowledge, Laura had never spent much time around kids before, and especially not teens.  Her patience with me frequently ran thin, and though she clearly enjoyed my slavish devotion, I was, to quote Sue Murphy, “always there.”  When school ended, my brother and I began our ten-week ritual of hanging around the house, eating enormous amounts of food, and complaining, while we gradually succumbed to the summertime blues.  By the middle of summer, Laura and my father split up and Laura  moved into the downstairs apartment.  If I was lucky, she would let me come down and visit, but the strain between her and my father showed in her short temper.  I was no longer welcome, and the long summer dragged slower than ever.


   A few years ago, Laura told me that she had sent a poem out just once in her entire life, and it was rejected. From then on, she never submitted again, only offering poems if requested.  I wonder at this weakness in a woman who was such a fighter.  (As my father often quipped, “If there’s nothing to fight about, Laura will invent something.”)

   As a result, her list of publications is smaller than it should be – just one book of poems, The Inheritance, came out in 1967.  Her poems appeared in a variety of poetry journals, including Genesis West, Gargoyle, Massachusetts Review, and Poetry Review (UK), as well as the anthologies A Different Beat, A Gallery of Women and One-Eighty-Five.  Some of her poems were featured in a series of broadsides displayed throughout the Bay Area in the 1960s.

   Richard Peabody’s A Different Beat includes nine of Laura’s poems.  Read as a group, they create an elegiac mood, alternating between strong images, as in “Manhattan as a Japanese Print:” “In spring there are no skyscrapers. / Invisible flowers bloom between tall menaces” and autobiographical lines, as in “Pinpoint,” Laura’s rueful compendium of the Beat Movement: “It was as if we could live exchanges of being / With egg cartons covering the cracks in the wall / Through which the wind was blowing.”  Unlike many of her contemporaries, Laura did not write confessional poetry; most of the time, her poetry discourages a relationship between it and the reader, a sensibility it shares with the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop.

   Many of the poems collected in A Different Beat start with images of the natural world, evoking an almost hallucinatory quality as in this stanza from “Letter Three:”

            Stand where you will and think of the whales:

            How they’ll not come ambling the Umbrian hills

            or smile in your window, or nibble your grape leaves;

            but tunneling where they must to make their waves

            and break their waves to patterns of grape leaves,

            they will evade you, as the sea evades you.

   Through her use of repeated long vowel sounds she sets up a background for the wordplay of these lines.  The question simmering beneath this ominous, dreamlike vision resolves in these lines from the last stanza:

            When your last whale has died, you’ll still find left

            this fierce deliberate sun which grows – from which

            there is no ark, or no ark suitable –

            till sun on the land and on the ocean, sun,

            each summer day is a day of intolerant judgment.

   Again, repetition, this time of short words – sun, ark, day – underscores the poems’ anarchic themes: disorder, decay, the simultaneous strength and vulnerability of nature and humans’ inability to prevent disaster.  The judgment of summer days is devastating, and the lack of an ark tells us that there is no escape from some impending cataclysm.  By using the symbol of the whales – as bearers of mysteries vulnerable in their great size – Laura evokes the Earth itself, subject to the same frailties as the whales.

            “Letter Three” is, perhaps, anti-intellectual, a warning lacking compassion (“intolerant” indeed) but all the more effective for that lack.  There is no heartbreak here, but a clear, if cold, study.  Laura’s poems avoid all hints of emotional excess:  instead, they deal with how to negotiate the world and its problems.  The Beats were conspicuously public, trotting out their addictions, experiments and failures in poetry and thinly veiled fiction, yet these poems remain closed, like a fist curled around something precious.  In “Pinpoint,” for example, the poet offers no therapeutic dictums in the opening lines “It came like light out of the walls, / Like sunny days, like judgment.”  Laura describes the Beat movement as if it were a gigantic interruption, a metaphoric earthquake that moved the stale culture of the 1950s forward, both in time and place, a few important inches:  “It came. / And I no longer wanted to be anything / But simple.”  Reduce, ride it out, embrace it, but lightly – all movements need cool-eyed deconstruction.

   Laura’s role as a member of the Beat movement was not limited to that of dispassionate observer, but many of her poems function as snapshots of that era, taken, it seems, when her subjects were least aware of being photographed.  Her endnote to “Pinpoint” reads “Written in recollection of the days before a movement got stopped by being named and publicized too soon.  A. G., who stayed sane through fame, B. K., who changed radically through speed, and 1010 Montgomery which was torn down.”  A. G. and B. K. (Allen Ginsburg and Bob Kaufman; 1010 Montgomery was Ginsburg’s address in San Francisco when he wrote Howl) – one elevated by the Beat movement and the other destroyed by it – represent the extremes of experience that Laura was so adept at capturing.


   After a few years, Laura and my father developed a close and lasting friendship.  When he retired in 2000, my father bought a house in Locke not far from Laura’s (Locke is so small that all the houses are a few minutes’ walk from each other.)  Laura drove my father to the store; he fixed her leaky shower.  When I visited, I would take them to Wimpy’s, a burger place with mediocre food, a dock for fishing boats and a great view of the east side of Mt. Diablo.  It was at Wimpy’s that Laura told me her favorite poem was Poe’s “Annabelle Lee” (was she pulling my leg?) and recited the first poem she’d ever written, something about a pussy cat.  “It was published in the newspaper,” she laughed, her pale blue eyes gazing at the scenery outside the fly-specked windows.

   Laura spent twenty-five years as a social worker for the County of Sacramento.  In her free time she wrote, gardened, walked her dogs, and held several positions on the Locke town council.  On the weekends she worked at one of Locke’s several art galleries.  After thirty years of tending, her garden was a sight to behold: pink cabbage roses draped the weathered wooden fence, and flowers mixed with vegetables in a charming, untidypotager.  A metal shed held her tools, and Laura spent sultry nights on its dirt floor, echoing her days as a young woman sleeping in Golden Gate Park.

   Laura’s smoking finally took its toll.  She had always been a sturdy, robust woman who consumed quantities of her own home-grown vegetables, but in her seventies she developed emphysema and heart disease.  In September of 2007, Laura landed in the hospital, but after a short stay insisted on returning home, against her doctor’s orders.  In October, a neighbor found Laura’s body slumped in a corner of her beloved house, under a bookshelf crammed with clay pots, papers, spider webs, dust and books.

   A few years before she died, I asked Laura over a Wimpy’s burger to tell me what poetry meant to her.  She waited for a long moment before she replied, “It’s been the focus of my life.  So many times I started revising, and before I knew it the sun was coming up because I’d been writing all night.”  I heard the unspoken statement – that this precarious existence she’d led, dressing herself from the thrift store, living hand-to-mouth most of her life – had been the price she paid for poetry, and that it had all been worth it.

   She gazed out the window at the water, the fishing boats floating near the dock, and the ducks moving away from the shore.  Her hands, wrinkled and spotted, lay on the table.  The dirt caked under her nails spoke of the years she’d spent working flowers – and poems – out of wet soil.

   Laura wrote the following as an accompaniment for a painting displayed in a Locke art show:
            Somehow I have not spoken,

            really, of the river

            so big, so obvious

            to our lives.  Surely,

            it works itself around

            all our words

            and moistens them.
Laura Ulewicz - Image - by Erica Goss - Awkword Paper Cut
Drawing of Ulewicz by Erica Goss
    The town of Locke put up a memorial for Laura that bears the simple inscription:  “Laura Ulewicz   1930-2007   Poet  Gardener  Friend.”  She would have enjoyed its spare summarization of her seventy-seven years on this earth, I think, finding the irony in what the lines leave out: Laura Ulewicz, a kind of dragon, lived here fiercely, loved the river and its black mud, and left us with her tough, clear poems.
- See more at: