Monday, December 17, 2018


Danusha Goska is a writer, essayist, and memoirist who has written some of the most engaging prose I've read in the last 20 years.  Every book and every essay she writes draws me, gets me thinking, shakes me up in some way that always finally helps me see things with the clarity she brings to every topic.

In her most recent book, God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery (available at Amazon), she does it again as she writers about a spiritual quest she undertook.  The great books about such journeys never give you easy answers.  They don't say, "Do these 10 things and you will find peace or faith or salvation." Goska knows this truth.  She has lived this truth.  As you read this beautifully written, witty, and inspiring book, you will find yourself not only following her journey, you will find yourself living your own journey.  

Here is an except from Goska's powerful book.

The Dudh Kosi or River of Milk drains Mount Everest. It glimmers in its gorge, turquoise and silver. I once trekked along it, to a spot where it joined one of its seven sister rivers. The confluence of rivers is sacred in Hinduism. I encountered a sannyasi seated in lotus position in the sand and gravel at the place where the rivers joined. Sannyasis' renunciation of the world is so severe that they perform their own funerals before taking to the wilderness. This sannyasi was naked except for ashes. His limbs were as slim and slack as jute ropes. His dreadlocked hair was piled atop his head. Once he had taken his vow, that hair was never again combed or cut. There was nothing anywhere near him except for the fierce V of mountains rising up thousands of feet from the rushing river's bed.

The rise of those mountains was an act of aggression to me. As I trekked, I felt the mountains to be my enemies, eager to cause me pain, thwart and humiliate me. And yet I adored their beauty. The Himalayas are active; they grow a couple of inches every year, as the Indian subcontinent pushes into the Asian landmass. There were no people; I was the lone other. There were only the parrots down low in the gorge, winging, carefree, from river bank to river bank, their highway air; their concern with the pitch of the mountains minimal. Then, rising higher, there would be crows, then, still higher, lammergeier, vultures that eat bone. The mountains bullied even sunlight; it visited only in slants.

The sannyasi said nothing to me, and I said nothing to him. I thought of everything he had renounced, from peanut M&Ms to romantic comedies to the contents of the Encyclopedia Britannica to crying over a broken heart to worrying about the future to telling a friend about last night's dream. What did he receive in exchange? I wondered what he knew, if anything. I kept walking. I was on my way to a Peace Corps conference, the closest thing to a Roman orgy I'd ever know. We'd eat till sick, dance, flirt, copulate. That sannyasi would be with me, every moment. I'd be thinking of him. What does he know that I cannot access?

I just googled "Dudh Kosi" to revisit this river in photos. I see that now it hosts organized white-water rafters. I wonder what the sannyasi makes of them. I wonder if he ever thinks of me; no, not really; of course I know that he has never thought of me. I think of him often.

I have long had this question: are contemplatives, the Desert Fathers, the Desert Mothers, and all those who leave society and go off on their lonesome – Tibetan monks, Hindu sadhus, Buddha, John the Baptist – are they truly holy? Or are they merely crabby misfits who couldn't get laid and are too lazy or soul-dead to engage in conventional hygiene?

Entering the wilderness temporarily to contemplate a difficult question or to realign yourself when you are off track is a necessary thing. In the Bible, Elijah left society and slept under a juniper tree. There, Elijah was commanded, "Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire a still small voice."

That's where God was. God was not in the special effects: not in the wind, the broken rocks, or the earthquake. God was in the "still, small voice" that Elijah had to leave society, and enter the wilderness, to hear. A quote from the Desert Fathers and Mothers: "Stay in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything." I respect staying in one's cell for short stretches. It's the lifelong rejection of society that gives me pause.

We tend to stereotype urban life as stressful, and country living in wide-open spaces as healthy and stress-free. My mother grew up in a village in Slovakia. I visited Kovarce in the 1970s and it was postcard-perfect. Kovarce was surrounded by fields of blue rye and red poppies. Clouds of white butterflies rose into the sky. In the hills, wild boar announced their presence with heavy pants. And the cuckoo – such a tender punctuation to the drawn-out ripple of the breeze caressing leaves. Uncle John built an indoor toilet for our visit; before that, all he had was an outhouse. He didn't even have a refrigerator. When he wanted something to eat, he didn't stand in front of a cold, white light and stare at leftovers. He went into his backyard and dug up his meal, or picked it, or chopped off its head.
My mother grew up in that idyllic, rural setting. She told me that there was one guy in the village who didn't fit in. He hung himself. She and her brother Joe peeked in the window. She remembered the corpse's black tongue sticking out of its mouth. The entire village came out for his funeral, as they did for all funerals. They marched in the funeral procession. They sang loudly, as they always did – Slovaks do love to sing – and they wailed loudly, as they always did. She told me that if anyone had paid that kind of loving attention to this poor misfit before he died, he probably wouldn't have killed himself.

I grew up on stories like that. Village beatings, murders, feuds, conspiracies, and chicken thieves – and this was just our own family. I knew that the perfect rural image is not what urbanites want it to be.

Contrary to what we moderns want to believe about our "stressful" urban lives, and rural peace and tranquility, rural people are far more likely to commit suicide than urban ones. Young, rural Americans are almost twice as likely to kill themselves as young, urban Americans. It seems that there may be something salubrious about spending time around other people, and something stressful about being alone in the back of the beyond. 

Danusha Goska's God Through Binoculars -- A Hitchhiker at a Monastery is available as a paperback or kindle at Amazon.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Landings by Andrena Zawinski

Image result for landings zawinski

Polish-American poet Andrena Zawinski has recently published a new book of poems entitled Landings.  The book was review by Joan Gelfand in the Los Angeles Review

It’s tempting to bury our pasts. Haunted by the ghosts of family dysfunction, financial strain and personal shame, Andrena Zawinski’s Landings is a collection of unflinching poems that confront personal and political violence, global upheaval and senseless loss, all the while remaining true to close observation and creating beauty from tragedy.
In “Rosie Times,” the poet plays loose with irony, recounting her mother’s story working as a “Liberty Girl” in Northeastern factories during WWII: “Draped in white overalls, hair wrapped in a red scarf / Under a hard hat, clear goggles shielding her amber eyes / She welded Pressed Steel’s box cars outside Pittsburgh.” Despite the no-nonsense work ethic and hard living her mother endured, she retained a love of a good time. But she also neglected to protect the daughter who loved her:
belted out the high notes / of Indian Love Call at a USO picnic.
She learned to love the night shift as a blackout warden
and became the woman who I would later blast
for not pulling me free from my father’s fierce grip.
From the safe distance of adulthood, Zawinski ventures a hard look into the psyche of a father who, apparently, faced his own demon. In “What About a Fight:”
They say my father loved a fight. Was it his old juvie record
trumping determination or hope, his annulled marriage
to a bigamist collecting veteran’s checks
or layoffs at the mills
before benefits kicked in, a monotony of existence?
Not a pleasant undertaking, the poem bears witness to working class ennui, malaise and brokenness.
Landings toggles between personal and world crises. In “Le crayon qui parle” we hear a lament for Paris after the attacks. To place the attack in historical context, we first hear of Picasso’s creation of the Guernica: “An arm raised with a lamp of light.” Fast forward to the current scene:
a wounded city mourning and left to do
what it must – to witness, to sing or to pray,
to hold vigil, to take up paints or dig hands in clay
to run fingers across keys, to put pen to paper
to let le crayon parle as dreary fearsome nights
begin to fade and chains of pain break and fall
By bringing in a scene where Gertrude Stein tells Picasso to “put down the pen and go home and paint” in the first stanza, the poet engenders empathy not only for the Paris of terrorist attacks, but also the city that survived a Nazi invasion and two world wars.
“Rafts,” mourns the immigrant crisis, juxtaposing a family picnic against refugees floating across a tumultuous sea from Aleppo: “A three-year-old washes up onto the beach, face down on the sand / Limp body leaden in his father’s arms / Water lapping the wounded shore.” When humanity suffers, the earth suffers: a truth we know but can afford to hear again and again.The body may be gone but the spirit lives on. The trope repeatedly acts as a through line in Landings. Life is unforgiving. Senseless violence pervades. People are hurt, injured and die for no reason. Still, we land, an indomitable spirit and will to survive intact.
The final section, “Civics Lessons,” employs the prose poem form to relate a story about the school days that informed the poet’s adult political leanings. In two flash-sized chapters, Zawinski recounts a Civics teacher who punished her for “not putting her hand to her heart to recite the national anthem” but then proceeded to bribe her father for his vote. The aforementioned teacher was later incarcerated. Chapter two brings us a new crisis: Martin Luther King’s assassination:
Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in a Memphis motel, the cashier barking: “It’s about time someone shut that nigger up.” Outside, business owners scrawled Soul Brother across their boarded-up shops under a sky thick with smoke layered like low flung storm clouds. Police in swat gear with crackling megaphones cleared streets and blocked bridges, while “All You Need Is Love” blasted from speakers propped in an apartment house window. Like so many before and so many after, I signed on, sat in, marched, protested, carried signs believing that raising my voice would make words matter. Civics lesson.
Ever the soldier for human rights and blessed with a fighting spirit, this poet possesses a healthy dose of empathy with which she processes the stranger’s pain. Without self-pity or regret Zawinski narrates the events that shaped her into the person and writer she is today. We are grateful that so deleterious a past delivered a lover of beauty and a citizen of the world.

To read some of Andrena's poems published here at Writing the Polish Diaspora, just click on the following links.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Circus of Trust by Mark Tardi

Image result for circus of trust mark tardi

Mark Tardi, one of my favorite Polish American poets, has a new book of poems.  If you've been following my blog, you'll know that this is the third time I'm featuring Mark's poems.  I wrote about him in 2012  and again in 2013 when his book Airport Music came out (click on the links here to see those pieces and poems).

He's got a new book out from the great Dalkey Archive Press called Circus of Trust (available at Amazon).  The poems are stronger and more moving than ever.

Here are a couple:


The roadsides favor promiscuity, snow
clenched to nights, hoarsely chromium,
forming a grin inside a crack. In sleep

Theyll pursue you: no bandit lapping the fence,
no slim digit hovering over the viewshed. I’m
waiting for my legs to catch up with my hand.

            Im waiting for that resigned way of Saturday.

An altered paradise, not epitome or ruminant,
a paradise born inside out, ceramic. Its a question of
polo or humanity, how technology is winning our hearts.

I know my bones and your hair, yes, how the eye
drowns in cold probability. The entire structure
must be subtracted from harms way. Folded

Among the constellations, ghost flat.

Youre right when you say the day continues
to torment me. I dont know whether to shit or go
blind, if sin were only a matter of physics.

That chalk village cut by amber nets, not an answer,
not a question. All tenses and inflections, bloodless,
buried in lead regardless of appetite.

I’m glad there are no rules, just the extent to which
we can describe what is lean or not lean. The tumult
and pulse, the interior light of things, from which

                                                Most of us would shrink.

from Attribution Error                                                                                                                    

Sometimes you have to start with a series of misunderstandings
brief stain to dark clarity
a jab, a simple burst of air
toward the invisible middle
like tripping between the pigeons and the cats
like demolished logic
because its always winter in Chicago
it’ll be dark in forty-five minutes
youre here to enjoy the contradictions
the continuous and familiar fact
like how economists have predicted seven of
the last three downturns
like trading a claw hammer for a kiss

For the oldest cinema in the world, for its secrets

whatever variable distances, itinerant longings
more guano for my artifacting


There are no harmless motives, thinking
detached from all consequence,
it was guttered and channeled and sluices
like a gnarled moccasin or
some squat ungainly bird

the ligaments could have been flypaper revolving in slow spirals

Gone are quinsy, glanders, and farcy
menstrual blood prettied with rosewater


You dont have to step on a body to carry
death on your shoes, gesticulant and aimless,
each day a relentless emptying out
the whorl expanding in itself
as if a tickle of electricity in mute chorus
as if left trembling with success

a skin of persuasion and habit, weather-worn
bound to a different set of restrictions

folding again into the murk beyond

                        between a gulf and a toilet


Mark Tardi is originally from Chicago and he earned his MFA from Brown University. His publications include the books The Circus of Trust (just out from Dalkey Archive Press), Airport music, and Euclid Shudders. He guest-edited an issue of the literary journal Aufgabe  devoted to contemporary Polish poetry and poetics and has translated poetry from the Polish by Kacper Bartczak, Miron Białoszewski, Monika Mosiewicz, and Przemysław Owczarek. A former Fulbright scholar, he lives with his family in a village in central Poland and is on faculty at the University of Łódź.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Polish Mushrooms

Polish Mushrooms

I remember my mom once opening a plastic bag with dried mushrooms that came all the way from Poland. She put them in a broth, and while it was heating she talked about how Polish mushrooms were like no other food on earth.

I was a kid, maybe 7 years old, and I expected them to taste like the greatest chocolate cake in the world.

You can imagine I was disappointed.

But when my mother finally poured the mushrooms and broth into our bowls, she smiled first and then she started to cry.


Years later, when she was in her 70s and I was in my 40s, she told me about what her home in Poland was like before the war, the woods around the house, and the things she loved about those woods.

I wrote a poem about it.

Like any poem, it doesn't capture the truth of what she remembers, but now that my mom is gone, it's all I have.

My Mother Before the War

She loved picking mushrooms in the spring
and even when she was little she could tell
the ones that were safe from the ones that weren’t.

She loved climbing the tall white birch trees
in the summer when her chores in the garden
and the kitchen were done. She loved to ride
her pet pig Caroline in the woods too
or sit with her and watch the leaves fall
in the autumn. She felt that Caroline
was smarter than her brothers Wladyu and Jan,
but not as smart as Genja, her sister
who was married and had a beautiful baby girl.

My mother also loved to sing.
There was a song about a chimney sweep
that she would sing over and over;
and when her father heard it, he sometimes
laughed and said, “Tekla, you’re going to grow up
to marry a chimney sweep, and your cheeks
will always be dusty from his dusty kisses.”
But she didn’t care if he teased her so.

She loved that song and another one,
about a deep well. She loved to sing
about the young girl who stood by the well
waiting for her lover, a young soldier,
to come back from the wars far away.

She had never had a boy friend, and her mom
said she was too young to think of boys,
but Tekla didn’t care. She loved the song
and imagined she was the girl waiting
for the soldier to come back from the war.