Friday, February 28, 2014

Women's Poems of Struggle and Hope in the Black History Month

On  Thursday, February 27, 2014, clients and staff at the adult residential and outpatient treatment programs  of Phoenix House Venice celebrated the Black History Month in style. They gathered with their guests to commemorate the achievements and history of African Americans with soul food, poetry jam and music. This Second Annual African-American History Celebration and Poetry Jam was coordinated by Phoenix House's Counselor La Tonya Smith, who ensured the participation of both clients and staff in an inspired and inspirational meeting of minds and hearts. 
Katerina Canyon

As the "guest poet" for the evening, I read three poems.  First, I presented my favorite work by another former Poet-Laureate of Sunland-Tujunga, Katerina Canyon, entitled "Feet" and dedicated to the poet's mother. It is one of the most popular poems by Katerina, who was the first and only African American Poet Laureate in our foothill community before moving to Atlanta, Georgia. She enriched the poetry scene in California with many readings and community projects.  


I cleaned my daughter’s feet.
I swept the warm cloth along
her soft, Earth toned skin — she grinned
and said, “Mom, that feels Heavenly.”

Yes, I remember.

Lying on the bed like a doll filled with sand
too fatigued to move — I played hard that day.
Slightly waking to feel the warm cloth on my feet.
Mother washing the day’s dirt away.

Yes, that felt Heavenly.

My friends told me their mothers would say
we should always take care
to wear clean underwear
in case we came upon disaster.
“Clean feet are most important”, my mother said.

She explained that a woman’s feet
told the story of her life.
That on her soles you could see
the roads she traveled.

She would say, “You can measure her resilience in a woman’s ankles”

I was told that if I were to get into an accident,
dressed like a bum,
and the doctors saw I had clean feet,
they would take good care of me.

“I know that may sound silly to you”, she’d say
She explained they would know that I tried
my best to take care of myself
and that my dress was more
a matter of circumstance than of desire.

When I was too tired for an evening bath, she washed my feet.
When I was sick in bed, she washed my feet.
When we were homeless, she washed my feet.
When she felt there was nothing else to do, she washed my feet.

Yes, it felt Heavenly.

I tried out for the high school track team.
I went in for a physical.
The doctor examined my feet
and said, “Nice feet,” and approved me as healthy.

He never asked me if I had on clean underwear.
I wondered how many kids
would miss out on running track
because their feet weren’t as clean as mine?
And I thought she was being silly.
She was right.

I finally saw her.
And there she was.
Too tired to move.

I filled the bowl with warm water.
I found a soft cloth.
Picked up the soap. Ivory pure.
The only type she would use.

I looked at her feet — so long and thin.
Dark as Louisiana clay.
Her veins stuck up like river lines.
A road map to the Bayou.

I washed her feet.
Her feet carried heavy burdens.
She walked many miles for many years.
She said, “That feels Heavenly.”

I replied, “Yes, I remember.”

— Katerina Canyon

I then read two of my own poems, "Memory Mirrors" (a reflection on survival skills of oppressed people) and "The Veil, the Weave" (a spiritual call to action). Both poems involved audience participation - the listeners recited a refrain in the first poem, and were engaged in a dialogue of two groups answering back and forth in the second poem.  One of the participant later commented: "I did not know that poetry could be done like that. It was very exciting!" In the poem below, the audience recited the refrains.

Digital Integration by Susan Dobay, 2013

Memory Mirrors
            ~ after Reminiscence by Susan Dobay

by Maja Trochimczyk

The ancestors’ weight heavy on their shoulders
The ages’ wisdom embroidered on their skin

Bend down, bend down
You will not be broken

Tall stems of rice bow low before the wind
Slide through the onslaught, a sudden surge of war

Young mothers whisper silence to their daughters
Girls watch, repeat the gestures of their kin

Bend down, bend down
You will not be broken

You have to learn the art of disappearing
Invisible, you will outlive the strangest times

Be still, be patient, breathe the longest hours
You have to do it all and remain unseen

Bend down, bend down
You will not be broken

They came and took our men who were the strongest
They came and killed our boys who were so brave

Women alone remained in our village
Into the river our silver tears have flown

Bend down, bend down
You will not be broken

Bend down, bend down
You will not…

Grass by Maja Trochimczyk, (c) 2013.

The second poem, "The Veil, the Weave", is inspired by a line from Isaiah, about the great evil of lies and death that will be destroyed at the end. The poem's four color voices are to be read by different people, if there are not enough people, the regular and italic fonts indicate two different voices to be woven. in the tapestry of the poem, the lines written in capital font are to be read by everyone all at once.

The Veil, the Weave

“On this mountain, God will destroy the veil that veils all peoples,
the web that is woven over all nations: he will destroy Death forever.”               
                                                  Isaiah, Chapter 25, Verses 7-8

the veil  that veils    the weave  that is woven
break them          tear them       shred them       set us free

the veil that obscures  
                     distorts true meaning  
                                                                 and stifles
obfuscation     dilapidation     obliteration     abomination

the weave of sticky thread
is a trap to capture the unwary
                  the weave of shiny thread
                  is a snare to entangle the greedy
                                 the weave of sweet-scented thread
                                 is a seduction of beauty into nothing
                                                                 the weave is woven
                                                                where is the weaver?
 where is he hiding?
                  this maker of imitations
                                   the master of mimicry
                                                       the creator of absence
 the weave holds us tight
              in the habit of hours
                                    in the rut of the known
                                                   in the suffocating thickness 

of lies             
                      that are woven           
                                                       that are told!

break the veil   undo the knots   free the mind

to see the blessings of infinity
                              to hear the music
                                        of sing-song lullabies
                                                         calming us for the night
for the first gleam 
                             of stardust
                                               for awakening                                
                                                                          in grace

   when the veil     AND the weave      are gone
© 2008 by Maja Trochimczyk 

Poet Katerina Canyon
Phoenix House's Counselor, La Tonya Smith, set the tone for further presentations by reading the famous poem by Maya Angelou, "Still I Rise." With is powerful refrain, it is a hymn to the perserverence in the face of adversity:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.  (....)
Out of the huts of history's shame  
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain 

I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear 

I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear 

I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise  

I rise
I rise. 
The most moving and touching segment of the celebration was created by the participants themselves. Men enrolled in residential treatment programs volunteered to prepare speeches, or essays about various historical figures, from well known like Nelson Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to those who should be known better, like Ralph Bunche.  The story about Bunche was particularly memorable and humorous, with its refrain: "Do you know who was Ralph J. Bunche?"  For those who do not know, he was an American diplomat and negotiator of a peace accord in Palestine that won him the Nobel Peace Prize of 1950. Many listeners went  home repeating this refrain..."Do you know who was Ralph J. Bunche?"
The audience had scoring cards and evaluated the quality of each presentation, that included, in addition to speeches, also an artwork - a portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The five best presenters won prized - gift cards and books, including sample issues of the Rattle Poetry Magazine coupled with a book by two local poets, Marlene Hitt and Dorothy Skiles, entitled Riddles in the Rain (donated by the authors). 

"Memory Mirrors" by Maja Trochimczyk, first published in Kathabela Wilson, ed., Susan Dobay's Impressions of China, Poets on Site Chapbook inspired by artwork of Susan Dobay, Pasadena, 2013.  

"The Veil, the Wave," by Maja Trochimczyk, first published in The Voice of the Village, vol. 3 no. 3, April 2012.

"Feet" by Katerina Canyon, reprinted from, also published‎.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Leonardo's Lady with an Ermine, the Royal Castle, and the Monuments Men

The Royal Castle in Warsaw in 2013.

There is a new feature film, fact-based and shocking, about the destruction, looting, and recovery of artworks by the Nazis. George Clooney's "The Monuments Men" is a work of fiction, but "The Rape of Europa" - a 2006 documentary that first brought these issues to the world's attention, is not.  I found its depiction of the whole scale purposeful robbery and vandalism conducted by Germans in the whole Europe to be fascinating, with lots of unknown footage and mind-boggling examples. The four countries that are at the heart of the story were treated differently by the race-obsessed Germans: the artwork of the inferior, "slave" Slavic races of Poles and Russians could, or should, be destroyed, the artwork of Italy and French just stolen. Modern art was destined for destruction everywhere, but "classics" had a chance - especially if they could be integrated into the mythology of the "Aryan" race.

Ruins of Warsaw's Royal Castle in 1945.

Apparently, the mass murderers from the NSDAP and SS were ardent admirers of high quality antiques and masterpieces of Western art. So much so, that they took and hid these pieces for their own "consumption" and for placement in their own "museums." A lot of that art was looted from Jewish owners, targeted and systematically stolen, while the owners were murdered. Some paintings and sculptures were taken from state museums, some from palaces of aristocrats and kings, some from art galleries. Nothing was sacred.

The Castle Square (Plac Zamkowy) in the Old Town of Warsaw.

Poland, the first target of Hitler, the nation destined for physical extermination and cultural annihilation, suffered some of the most grievous losses of WWII.  It never surrendered, did not form a "colaborator" government that worked with the Nazis, like the Vichy in France. The Holocaust of Jewish Poles and Polish Jews is a crime without parallel. But the suffering of Poles was immense, too. Poland lost 3 millions of its Jewish citizens and 3 million of its Polish inhabitants. The destruction of Polish culture was a particularly significant goal for the Nazis, along with the killing of the cultural and national elites - officers, professors, artists, the clergy. Anyone with a brain and a position of power could become a target. Members of my mothers' family were on the list: two priests, Karol and Feliks Wajszczuk, ended up in Dachau, one survived, one was killed - for supporting the underground resistance.

In 1944, the Royal Castle and the whole city of Warsaw were systematically destroyed, holes drilled into walls, stuffed with dynamite, and exploded; fire-throwers used to set the interiors and libraries aflame. Poles rebuilt what they could after the war, recovered  some artwork, not all - it was returned by American Monuments Men, by the Soviet government. But many important pieces disappeared without a trace. The destroyed buildings were reconstructed, the originals irreparably lost.  I used to go to music school in the Old Town, Music High School named after Jozef Elsner, the teacher of Chopin. The school was on Miodowa street and the best way was to take the tramway no. 26 and go through the W-Z Tunnel, under the old town. When I was coming back from my lessons I looked up into the empty window hole in the last wall of the palace, pointing towards heaven, lonely, damaged, forlorn.  I still remember its angular shape next to the full  moon, above the rooftops of the old town. I was happy to see it rebuilt; it took many years. But the palace looked too new for me, and still does. It is a simulacrum, a model, not the real thing.


In 1944, a beautiful song was written by a Polish-Jewish popular music composer, Albert Harris, a farewell to the dying city. He composed it in Italy, at Monte Cassino, as a member of the Polish army that was fighting at the Nazi stronghold. Harris joined the General Anders' Army that was formed from Polish refugees, and prisoners in the Soviet Union, then joined the British army in liberating Italy. After the war, the soldiers were scattered around the world. Britain did not want them, they went to Canada, Australia, the U.S.. Harris ended up in America. His Warsaw song became so popular after 1945, that it was even translated into Danish and became one of Denmark's greatest hits. = Albert Harris, Song about My Warsaw (Piosenka o Mojej Warszawie), in Polish, recorded by W. Sypniewski in 1945, illustrated with pictures of Warsaw in 1939 and after its liberation. = Albert Harris, Piosenka o Mojej Warszawie in Danish, recorded in 1946.


The famous portrait by Leonardo of the Lady with an Ermine was one of the most notable recoveries of the Monuments Men. An image of the mistress of Italian Duke Sforza, painted in 1490, the portrait belonged to the Czartoryski family of aristocracy and kept in their private museum in Krakow, Poland. After being stolen and hidden, it returned to Poland, thanks to its discovery by the Monuments Men of General Eisenhower - art historians sent along with troops to organize the recovery and restoration of stolen or damaged artwork. They found the Lady in a hunting lodge of Nazi ruler of Poland, General Governor Hans Frank. It was then returned to Poland to the museum of its original owners, the Czartoryski family, and then "nationalized" - now it is found at the other Royal Castle of Poland, Krakow's ancient Wawel Castle (the kings moved to Warsaw in the 17th century, and Wawel was not destroyed, so its old walls are really old...).

The painting's story is quite convoluted, its beauty - still astounding. I decided to write a poem in praise of its beauty and history. Here it is, a brand new reflection on Leonardo's gift to the world.

The Lady with an Ermine

Leonardo’s brush created a vessel for her to inhabit,
a grey blue sky they painted black much later –
she was pregnant, her son – a Sforza heir, 
her lover – a Duke, a white ermine – his emblem.

In 1830, with her Polish princes, she went
into exile through Dresden to Paris, locked
in a box of precious wood. She came back.

In 1940, hidden again, she was safe until Nazis 
found her – Governor Hans Frank fell in love,
in a palace he had stolen in Krak√≥w, 
in a hunting lodge he had built in Bavaria. 
The Red Army was closing in.

She felt a slight discomfort in the crisp winter air
when American soldiers held her up, 
for the cameras of Monuments Men.

Another train ride. The navy darkness of a museum wall.
Under a muted spotlight, schoolchildren play a game:
Walk briskly from right to left, don’t let your eyes  
leave her eyes, see how she is watching you.

Her eyes follow me around the room
with that secretive smile she shares
with her famous cousin. She sees my delight,
caresses  the smooth, warm ermine fur.

She knows that I know that she knows

© 2014 by Maja Trochimczyk, written on February 11, 2014

This is the first draft of the poem, subsequently revised and posted on this blog in 2015,

as well as on the Mary Evans Photo Depository, in their poetry blog:

There is a recording of me reading this poem in Paris:

If you need to read love poetry on Valentine's Day or its weekend, visit Moonrise Press Blog for sample poems and a series of links to other poetry of love and reflections on Valentine's Day and types of love, and its folly.