The Place Where You Live
IT IS SUCH an ordinary thing to write about the place where you live. Yet, I’d be lying to say I ever looked at Poland as anything but extraordinary. I came here when Le Carre novels still featured spies, when James Bond still fought the Cold War. My first impression was from a train on the way up to Gdansk from Warsaw in January 1985. Looking out of the windows, I remember thinking I had been transported to the set of Doctor Zhivago, the forbidden film of my childhood my mother claimed was “too sad” for me to see. But it was all here: the expanses of snow, the fur hats and, yes, an alluring sadness that somehow underscored everything, like the sepia circles around the eyes of the unnaturally quiet child in my compartment.
Maybe my mother was right. But this sadness at least had me seduced. It became my muse, though I knew it was not only mine. Bewitching, ball breaking, always begging for more. Communist Poland was in some ways a writer’s dream. Like a magic line of coke that kept replenishing itself. But the downside, as with most things that good, was that it did bad things to your body (anemia for example) and your head (why, when I actually feel happy, do I sound so depressed when talking about Poland to anyone living west of Berlin?).
Writing has always been a means of communicating the incommunicable for me. The poems that follow are my attempt at capturing in pictures and voices a place and a time which no one back in 1988 imagined would so soon be a part of the past. Yet they are meant to be more than museum pieces. For there is no possible way of understanding this part of Europe today without knowing what it was then. The poems also might explain people, like me, who choose to live in Gdansk or Prague rather than London or New York.
As for the ex-pat “Lost Generation” tradition of Americans living abroad, I don’t paint or play jazz, I am not Black, and I landed in Poland (and stayed), not in Paris, so there is no use in making any comparison there anyway. And, being from a Greek family, the “myth” I’m challenging is in fact completely different. Short of world war, total bankruptcy, or the severest of economic depression, what could justify my undoing all that my parents underwent to assimilate-not to mention the seasickness which nearly killed my grandmother to get here and made the motion even of a rocking chair unbearable for years afterwards?
Still, I might try to explain that being an American abroad is oftentimes easier than being a hyphenated one at home, that I no longer have to dread the finger pointing to a puffed out chest, calling itself “a real American,” though I had two great uncles and two uncles who fought in world wars and one brother-in-law wounded in Korea — that it was in America, not here in Poland, where I have heard “kike” called in the direction of my Jewish friends. (Yes, there are Jews living here in Poland.)
But I do not mean to idealize the place. My poem “What Survives” should make that clear. Suffering alone does not give worth, not to a tea cup any more than a nation. My childhood, too, was spent hearing “the histories they never taught in school:” the women taken into the mountains by the guerillas during the Greek civil war, the Kosher butcher made to slaughter the pig by Cossack soldiers, the bullet marks covered by eyeliner, the twisted thumb nail after a stint with the Caracas police, the prison term for writing the wrong kind of poetry. . . . I grew up in a multi-cultural family long before the term became fashionable. One of my sisters married a Jew from a Russian family. Another married a Spaniard whose parents fled Franco’s regime for Venezuela. Besides these relatives were friends as close as family — Armenian, Black — and even those who had the bad luck to get involved with the mafia. No, suffering didn’t make you “good” any more than my own bout with childhood arthritis and back surgery did. At best it only taught you the joy of coming back to life once again-like Poland since the changes.
There is no getting around it. A choice is involved. But it has nothing, at least for me, to do with idealism— least of all masochism. I moved here because this place captured my imagination once and, like all great love affairs, the romance still lingers. I stay here because I like it, because I experience withdrawal if I am away too long. My kids are happy. My husband is happy. I am never bored. Ever.
To explain what living in Poland means to me as a writer, I have to go back to the 1980s again. What first struck me was the silence. Under Communism, the roads were almost as empty as the shops. The few bars were like badly run parties where the drink runs out faster than the beer nuts. The only time lots of people were out and about was for a May Day parade, a strike, or the Pope’s visit. What you did instead was meet indoors around low tables aching with cakes (cheesecake, coffeecake, babkas, black poppyseed strudels, layered torts, and so on). You drank tea out of glasses that burned the first layer of skin off your thumb. And you talked. And talked — until suddenly you remembered you lived somewhere else and the streetcars had all stopped running for the night. Which brings me back to the silence. Being slow at picking up languages and my head still swimming with squint-making ideograms from two years of living in Tokyo, I took a while to learn Polish.
So, I watched. At first I appreciated anything I could understand, an embrace between lovers, a dog’s warning bark. There was safety in the familiar. But it was all an illusion. Only later did I realize that such epiphanies created no safety net.
My poem “History” illustrates how a landscape, which elsewhere might constitute a pastoral ideal, in Poland is pure Kafka. Everything has to do with how the images are assembled. In fact, apart from the signs displaying crosses on fire which designate the sites of WWII massacres, none of the other images in “History” are particularly Polish. Nonetheless, “something bleeding in the road” gives a political and historical context to the poem that conjures up the long, painful human history here. We are not talking about roadkill in rural Michigan.
Then the Polish language started to resemble more than the sound of my high school boyfriend blowing in my ear at dances to try and turn me on. I moved from poems principally of image to those of voice, incorporating, especially, the voices of women I knew-friends, neighbors, acquaintances. I still took notes of the things I saw and made countless photographs, often walking for whole days or riding rickety old buses to villages, where the stork nests really are big enough to hold babies. But now my muse could talk. And, as in “The Witness,” the last poem in this group, she could even laugh.
The poem “Muddied Feet” first came to me when I saw a young woman washing bedsheets in a tub outdoors. I then incorporated a story I had heard of a country woman being spurned by the staff at a city hospital. The more intimate images came from my own experiences of giving birth to my first child (pain makes its own images — and they knock hell out of those sunny islands women are supposed to envisage between screams). My intent in threading together image, anecdote and personal experience into this voice poem was to evoke the oral tradition of women passing on their personal histories to each other. In this way, I was challenging the icon that the media in the States had created for Poland: a silent old woman with a kerchief, standing endlessly in line. My poems “about” women were indeed meant to disrupt that stereotype as well as all the simplifications and misconceptions arising from it. All of my poems, but particularly those that feature the voices of women, can be regarded as a series of dispatches, my ongoing attempt to get the real story out.
“The Good Wife” is the most obviously intimate poem here — but also, to my mind, the most political. The problem with Communism is it did not work. Not economically, not spiritually. It corrupted people with every compromise they had to make. And they had to compromise often.
Most Poles made the most of what was a difficult situation. Like the “good wife,” Poland during these years was not “all bad.” No more than she is any saint now. But Poland does have another chance to get it right. Even before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Poland in 1989 was holding its first free elections, experiencing its first baby steps into the new ironies and complexities of democracy and the free market, the old Communist strongman Wojciech Jaruzelski and the Solidarity leader Lech Walesa walking arm in arm, at least in political cartoons.
So here I am. It’s a new beginning for me, too. —Gdansk, Poland, October 12, 1999