1984, How I Became a Poet
I first came to Poland in late September 1984 (the academic year in Europe begins in October), having received a scholarship from the Kosciusko Foundation in New York to do graduate work in Polish Literature at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. I decided to come after having spent two weeks pursuing a MA in history at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. During a lecture I noticed a poster near the blackboard, advertising summer vacations in Europe. I thought to myself, “I don’t want to be here, I want to be there.” I asked my professor, a sympathetic man of Polish ancestry, what he would do if he were in my shoes. He answered without hesitation, “I’d go to Poland. History is happening there.”
A week later I found myself at Okecie airport in Warsaw, walking down the airstairs of an Ilyushin 62. A young soldier holding an AK-47 greeted me and other passengers with a stone face. I was immediately struck by the smell of the air terminal: human sweat and foul-smelling tobacco smoke (deodorant and Western tobacco were scarce then). The air terminal itself was about the size of the air terminal at Erie International Airport in Pennsylvania. A communist officer studied the passports of the Poles in front of me, made calls on a pastel-green 1960s telephone, then let the lucky ones pass. Others were quietly escorted away. Finally, I too was allowed to pass.
I was greeted by my future brother-in-law, Mirek, who had come from Ogrodzieniec, a town in the south of Poland, to pick me up in his 1960s Skoda, a Czech car that resembled a 1953 Rambler, or Studebaker. He asked me if I wanted to eat anything. I answered in the positive.
On the way to the restaurant, I got my first look at modern Warsaw. It seemed exotic to me in all its ugliness. I knew that the pre-war city had been completely razed by the Germans in 1944 after two months of heroic uprising by the Poles, but I had never imagined that the communist architecture would be so egregious.
We stopped at a 4 star restaurant that had only sautéed liver, horse steak, and mutton chops on its menu. Still clinging to the Marxist mysticism that I had been initiated into at college, I told myself that I didn’t mind eating horse, and swallowed the dark lean meat with a straight face, washing it down with a glass of semi-rancid kefir. Mirek had ordered liver, but was served mutton. He was furious. It was time to head for Krakow.
We had been on the road for 3 minutes when we were pulled over by a communist militiaman. He asked to see our documents, looked us over, then reluctantly let us go.
We reached Krakow at nightfall. I registered at the hostel where I would stay for the next months, received linens, and a key from a bow-legged crone who worked, I later learned, as both a porter and a spy. The air was metallic and oppressive, and yet I was so exhausted from the intercontinental journey that I immediately fell asleep.
The next day I was woken by Mirek’s knock at the door. He suggested that I learn where the shops were and took me to one. Though this state-owned shop was open, its shelves were empty, as were all state-owned shops at the time.
Only some kaszanka (blood sausage) hung from a hook behind the meat counter. I bought a pound and carried it back to my room. When I picked through the blood and buckwheat with my fork I discovered a dead fly.
Later that day Mirek introduced me to his friend Leszek, and suggested that he and I become roommates, since he considered Leszek both loyal and reliable. I asked Leszek if he spoke English, and he answered with a convincing British accent, “Yes, of course.” (I was to find out the next day that those were the only words he knew in English, but having a natural acting talent, he mastered them perfectly.)
Mirek left me in the company of his friend, and headed back to Ogrodzieniec. I could tell from the leprechaun look in Leszek’s eyes that he was a beer drinker. He asked if I was thirsty, and I answered, “of course.” He took me to a smoky dive where only one brand of lager was served, thereby disallowing thirsty drunks the discomfort of having to make a choice. This smoky dive was, I learned, really a restaurant called “Hawelka,” but during the hours when beer was allowed to be served (10 a.m. to 12 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.) it was a saloon where workers, dissidents, students, professors, poets, actors, snitches, con-men, KGB officers and whores often shared the same tables, albeit reluctantly. “People will do anything to quench their thirst, even sit with their oppressors or ex-wives,” I thought.
We each drank about 10 pints, offering the waiter a generous bribe each time he brought us a fresh draught, then we headed back to the hostel. In the lobby Leszek noticed one of his friends and introduced me to him. I had always wanted to feel what it’s like to say comrade to someone in a communist country, so I foolishly hailed the young man, “Czesc, towarzyszu! (Hi, comrade!).” He responded with a left hook to my noggin, then fled through the doorway. I had done my share of fighting when younger, so what surprised me was not the force of the blow, but the immense hatred of communism in the young man who threw it. To him and to Leszek communists were traitors and careerists who were responsible not only for the existence of an oppressive totalitarian state, but for completely ruining the Polish economy, while living in luxury themselves. I would learn that the empty shops were for regular Poles, and the elegant stocked shops for communists and foreigners who had hard Western currency.
Leszek introduced me to other student dissidents. Within a month I had disavowed my Marxist leanings. I began to take part in street protests and helped produce and distribute samizdats. I learned the hardest way, by experiencing it first-hand, that communism does not work. Denying natural incentive, it encourages corruption by those in positions of power. It punishes the honest and able by rewarding the dishonest and unable.
I attended lectures in the morning at the Jagielonian University, and then spent the afternoon in Krakow’s old town, marvelling at the beauty of the Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture. In the evening I often found myself in the company of Polish women.
I started to question whether I really wanted to be an historian. I had been writing and publishing poems since my second year in college, and felt pulled in that direction more and more. I started to read Polish poetry only in the original, and found myself under its spell. It was not an empty poetry of things as William Carlos Williams dictated, but a poetry of palpable ideas and history, a poetry that not only reflected, but effected people’s lives.
By December I had been beaten up badly by members of ZOMO (communist paramilitary riot police) while taking part in street protests, I had become an anti-communist, and I had become a poet.
1994, Nothing More, Nothing Less
The city I live in (Gliwice in Polish, Gleiwitz in German) is at the centre of a vastly industrialized and thoroughly polluted region in south-central Poland, called Upper Silesia. It is architecturally German, having been for hundreds of years part of the Kingdom of Prussia. Immediately following the Second World War, the mostly German inhabitants of the city were expelled, and forced to walk back to Germany, whose eastern border had just been shifted westward in accordance with the Big Three’s Potsdam Agreement. Today the city is inhabited by Poles from lost eastern Polish territory (territory ceded to the Soviet Union) and by indigenous Polish Silesians.
I did not choose to live here. I was fated to, like a man befallen to dwell in one of those familiar but singularly strange Swedenborgian hells. Self-willed or fated, nonetheless I live in a modest flat with my wife and sons. By night I labour out of love of selves and souls as yet unborn, but soon to manifest. By day I prostitute my native tongue for money by teaching Poles the past simple and the present perfect. I earn enough to dabble in the meaningless muck of daily existence, no more.
* * *
Once upon a particular occasion in September I spent a weekend of debauchery with the Polish poet B.S. (as much a scoundrel and sorcerer as any of us). At the end of that trek among herbs and bottled spirits, after having talked and babbled with each other on themes as various as garlic and gnosticism, as useful as prisons and poetry, I accompanied my friend to the dirty railway station in the centre of town.
We sat in the little bistro in the station sipping our last bottle of beer to the roar of trains arriving and departing. Suddenly, off-guard and too weary to run to the nearest toilet, I began to ejaculate my monk’s modest breakfast, violently and painfully.
Before I had a chance to gather my senses, two pimple-faced cops came from nowhere, and omnisciently examining my teary red eyes, yapped, “Dokumenty! (Documents!)”
I reached into my pocket and sheepishly pulled out my alien registration card, then proudly showed it to them.
Having since stared down my dishevelled person disapprovingly, these little fellows concluded that I wasn’t an American after all, but probably a Ukrainian or a Romanian, or even worse, a Bulgarian!
“You’ll have to come with us!”
“Why?” I asked, sarcastically shocked.
My companion tried to reason with them, explaining that he and I would gladly clean up the mess, but they paid little or no heed to his entreaties.
“Let’s go!” they ordered.
Descended on my father’s side from an old aristocratic family from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, I replied (in the spirit of monarchy and anarchy), “You Silesian yokels, what for? What’s the charge?”
Before giving me a chance to utter another word in my slightly broken Polish, they tied both my hands behind my back and dragooned me out of the railway station. On the way, I noticed a Jehovah’s Witness holding a picture of paradise, and saw, perhaps, in a phantasmagoric flash, the first dead leaf of autumn, a maple.
In the neighbouring police station they tried to question me.
I told them that I wouldn’t cooperate with former communist stooges, and that if this were a hundred years ago they could all gladly genuflect and kiss both my buttocks. These words infuriated them. They cuffed my hands (still behind my back), and subsequently began to use my face and gut as a punching bag.
Pretending it didn’t hurt, with every blow I mentioned that my dead grandmother could punch harder.
Bloodied and half-unconscious, I was thrown into an awaiting police van and hauled to the local drunk tank.
There I tried to explain to the proprietor that I wasn’t really drunk and was indeed quite reasonable and peaceful, though at the moment a bit unhappy. I told him of how I’d been beaten, and, with the consciousness of Joe Stalin, he replied, “You look fine to me.”
He ordered me to strip down to my shorts and to stand on one leg, and, after having agreed with me that I really wasn’t drunk, commanded his subordinates to hose me down with cold water and to lock me up.
Lying soaked in my refrigerated cell, I stared like Svidrigailov at a spider spinning its web of doom, forever.
Sometimes I cupped my lifeless penis in my bloody hands, and simultaneously thinking of God and oblivion, mused on how much I’d have to pay for the fine, or whether or not I really liked the smell of my own sweat.
Every hour another drunk was thrown into the cell. Regular clients, they’d piss right on the floor.
Outside birds talked in tongues.
Police vans perpetually pulled up with more drunks and drove away.
For one whole particular hour I listened to the proprietor’s educated guesses as he watched Family Feud in Polish, and I smiled to myself and the ceiling: the latest import.
Five hours later I was given back my clothes and belt, then coldly led out the door without a previously present penny in my pocket.
I’d expected nothing more, nothing less.
2004, The Encounter
Falling, I reached for one more can of beer, but there was none…
“Someone’s burning leaves,” I thought.
The sun wasn’t visible. Still, somehow I knew it was somewhere beyond the clouds the colour of slag, shedding tears…
I needed a beer, needed one badly, but had no native currency, let alone pockets…
The cars in the streets all seemed strange. It didn’t occur to me that they were from the late 1940s. And the people I passed all looked familiar. Somehow I knew them all, but couldn’t stop to say hello, nor knew why.
I entered a singularly sullen dive, immediately conscious that it was home for good, that it was… mercy.
I asked the barkeep for a beer, and, pulling his head out of nothingness, he looked deep into my eyes and said with the greatest solemnity, “We only serve this.”
I understood and asked for a pint.
He obliged by placing a tall glass of blackest brew before me, then pointed to the table in the middle of the abyss…
I recognized the man sitting there immediately. He was Dylan Thomas—fish-eyed, double-chinned, and wonderful.
I sat and got down to business. I told him that I considered Donald Hall an incurable clod, and he laughed resonantly, then asked if I’d mind sharing my porter with him.
“Is that what it is?” I queried, gesturing with my eyes that he help himself.
He gulped half and I the other half.
I asked if it bothered him that so few critics understand why dark is right, and, holding a stone in his hand, hitherto unnoticed by me, he replied without the slightest trace of irony, “No, not at all.”
I understood and ordered two more pints. We talked at length about words, alchemy, druids, burial mounds, and boxing.
I mentioned that I liked George Foreman, and he said, “Who?”
“Ah, that’s right,” I thought.
And suddenly a flock of crows the size of ravens alighted on our heads.
In recognition of what seemed natural to us both, he challenged me to a duel.
I took him up, and we chugged down our pints in no less than a second, no more than a lifetime.
Then the sun suddenly slit my eyes open with unbearable brightness.
I woke with the taste of porter on my tongue, looked into the mirror behind my eyes: still dressed to die, if only for a time.
first appeared in The Chimaera, October 2007