Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Old Towns in Warsaw, Krakow, Gdansk...

Returns, in thought or reality, to the landscapes of childhood, constitute an important poetic inspiration. I had a chance to re-visits the landscapes of my youth during the travel to Poland in May and June 2012. It was a sentimental travel back to my roots and more than a few of my "favorite things."

First, Warsaw: this is where it all began. The house I spent my childhood in is gone, demolished to make room for the widening of the street of Powstancow Slaskich. The fields on the other side of the street have been turned into a huge "osiedle" (subdivision) with thousands of inhabitants in ugly apartment blocks. There is a massive signboard in the exact spot where our house once stood and the cherry tree once grew. The little street, "alejka" is still there, lined with yellow iris of our neighbors.

My childhood is gone, of course, but it was a strange feeling to see its material traces erased. I asked a high-school friend to drive me through the narrow streets of Osiedle Przyjazn, where the faculty of the Warsaw Polytechnical University used to live after the workers who built the Palace of Culture had returned to the Soviet Union. Quite a few houses still stand, the streets are lined with maple trees, I remember walking on the curb, picking up the yellow leaves...

My favorite part of Warsaw, the Old Town is still there, though - "still" is a wrong word here, since it was completely destroyed after the Warsaw Uprising and rebuild after the war. The enormous effort of reconstruction of downtown Warsaw ended only with the reopening of the Royal Castle in the early 1980s. I was there before that. I remember the last ruined wall standing with just one window at the top, in the sea of ruins. I used to go to a music school right there and looked up to and through that window at the night sky, while waiting for a tram to take me home. The trams are there, too, painted red and white. It was hard, and still is, to get used to the red square building of the old/new Royal Palace. It still strikes me as something that does not quite belong where it stands, where it once stood. It was gone for just thirty years, but I lived with that gap, and now it is there again, an apparition from before my time.

Filled with tourists and school groups of kids who jump into the puddles the Old Town in Warsaw is very much alive. It is also very lively and completely swarming with schoolkids in Krakow, where I went to a conference on emigration at the Jagiellonian University. In contrast to Warsaw, this Old Town is completely "old" - all buildings, churches, and lecture halls of the university where we held our sessions are real and ancient, though many have recently been restored and repainted. The city is lovely at all hours of day and night, marked by the trumpet call from the tower of Kosciol Mariacki, to the four corners of the world. The "hejnal" is interrupted in the place where the original melody was cut short by an arrow from a Tartar invader, back in the 12th century. History runs deep there - and it suffuses the city and its inhabitants with the warm glow of benevolence. Somehow, it seems, there are more friendly folk, willing to go out of their way to help everyone, in Krakow than in any other city on the planet. Maybe walking through these streets mellows their spirit?

Finally, Gdansk. I travel there to a conference at the University of Gdansk, East and Central Europe in Exile: Patterns of Transatlantic Migration, organized by a large group of partners, headed by the indefatigable Dr. Anna Mazurkiewicz. I'm to speak about exiled composers, but before that happens, I revisit the sites of my own exile and those of my family. The residents are justifiably proud of the recently completed restoration efforts that transformed the Old Town of this Hanseatic sea-bound city, into a real gem filled with amber necklaces and artwork. After my poetry reading on "Aliens in California" (illustrated with photographs and artwork of my California friends) and before the conference begins, I walk through the narrow, streets lined with peaked houses all decorated and colorful. It is much more beautiful than I remember from my childhood at my aunt's home. At that time, in late 1960s and early 1970s, large swaths of the Old Town were still in ruins, only the main street and a couple of side streets were restored, while across the Moltawa river you could see the empty holes of the window, roofless brick walls. It was a scary place then, with so many areas barren, a real wound of the war. But it is completely different now...

My mother's aunt, Jadwiga Hordziejewska and her uncle, Dominik, lived there, after forced resettlement from their estate in what is now Belarus and used to be Soviet Union, near the lake of Switez, and Mickiewicz's hometown of Nowogrodek. They lost everything in that move, everything except for the one cow my uncle took with him to Oliwa. They used to walk through the parks and streets of the city for many years, an old gentleman in his top hat and the prize-winning Holstein black and white cow... He refused to speak to anyone, Ciocia Jadzia worked to support the family, while her husband grieved, frozen in the past, unable to accept the present.

The builders of these old towns, and those who restored them to their colorful and welcoming charm, tell us that we should cherish the past, though never forget what pain was wrought upon us.

Thus, we should always cherish the little flower of "niezapominajka" - forget-me-not. In an old children's verse it is "growing at a stream, looking at me with its blue eyes, and whispering modestly: "do not forget me."

We should not forget what made us who we are. I talked about remembering and being either petrified by grief, loss and guilt, or just remembering the past moments, as beads on an necklace. I even wrote about that lamp I photographed in Jelonki, Warsaw, with the snowflakes twirling in its yellow glow. This poem first published in Miriam's Iris is a suitable tribute to a travel back in time and into the future of being an emigre in California. On the occasion of this long, sentimental trip through my favorite landscapes, I decided to reproduce it for my readers.

Prelude - Water Charms


The hummingbird builds its nest.
Its thin beak – the stem
of a multicolored jewel
sparkling in the sun
(a copy of its own similitude) –
holds the glistening body aflutter.

Rose bushes wear diamonds,
well-polished – their colors change
with the breeze
like the bird’s shiny feathers.

My Californian garden
tries to seduce me
with precious necklaces
and melliferous strains
from the mocking bird
hovering above
the scent of gardenias.

“All right” – I say –
“Don’t play games with me.
I’ve seen it all before.”


Pearls scattered on the meadow
tremble on the blades of grass,
hide in the hearts of clover.

The sun shines straight through their ovals,
translucent, in a bright shade of green.
Stalks bend under their glassy weight.

Tempted by curiosity,
I destroy their perfect balance,
depriving the world
of its well-deserved splendor.

The droplets fall
to the ground and disappear.
How shall I ever be forgiven?
My wickedness – unthinkable.


Dead leaves seek shelter
under thin panes of glass.
Ice covers pools of rainwater.

The stillness mocks past intimacy
when noisy reds, yellows, and browns
flew up from under my feet
in an autumn park
of maples and poplars.

I changed the future of the world
with one step of my boot:
the pane cracked,
the air bubbles shifted,
a the harmony was gone.

With glee I crushed the worlds
that did not need me.

I shudder when I look back –
a trail of footsteps
filled with muddy water,
dirt splattered on the geometry of ice.


The magic of white butterflies
twirling in the glow of street lamps
makes me dizzy. The black sky turns.
Bright spots move faster still.

I’m afraid. They chase me –
larger – whiter – denser
stars, monsters, snowflakes?
My scarlet fever began that night. V.

Winter morning reveals its treasures.
Leaves, cones, twigs, tree-trunks,
even pebbles on my path
wear bristling coats of crystal ice.

The pearl-grey sky is a bride’s dress,
waiting to burst open with new life.

The clouds settle on their beds.
Houses, bushes, roofs, fences,
dress in white muffs,
scarves and blankets.

The fence boards,
stiff like British soldiers,
present puffy hats to the Queen.

I admit it. I cut their heads off
with my red-gloved hand,
leaving behind a line
of headless corpses –
oh, silent horror!


The damage that cannot be undone –
melting the universe of beauty
with one breath
that changed a snowflake
into a dirty spot on my glove.

Slowly walking into
the immaculate field of whiteness,
I scarred the snow’s pristine expanse
with clumsy footmarks.


Again: plunging into
the smooth expanse of a lake,
I broke its sleepy obsession
with mirroring the evening sky.

I paid for my guilt with exile –
a foreign country, a borrowed name.

Crystals do not charm me in the desert
where Joshua trees parody my gestures
of praying for snowflakes
by stretching their twisted limbs
into the purple sky.

No hope for maki, chabry, and rumianki.
My childhood flowers
won’t be found on the meadow
painted yellow by the spring
across the barren slope
I see from my kitchen window.


I’ve dreamed of being happy
in the sweet impossible,
with Italian cypresses, ice plants,
and a white fence around my house.

But my memories trap me.
Only the hummingbird
floats around, twitching its tail
like a miniature goldfish.

Maki – wild, red poppies (Papaver rhoeas); chabry – blue Centaurea cyanus, and rumianki – white chamomile daisies, grow in the meadows and fields of Poland and throughout central Europe.


And here's my bouquet of "niezapominajki" from the Royal Baths Palace at Lazienki Krolewskie. Do not forget me, or so they say...