Leonard Kress studied religion at Temple University, English at University of Illinois, Chicago, and poetry at Columbia University (MFA), as well as Polish and Slavic folklore at the Jagiellonian University and Indiana University. He has also completed a translation of the 19th century Polish Romantic epic, Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz (which is available as a free pdf download from Harrow Gate Press: harrowgatepress.com) as well as poetry by Szymon Zimorowic and Jan Kochanowski.
Kress has published poetry and fiction in Massachusetts Review, Iowa Review, Crab Orchard Review, American Poetry Review, Atticus Review, Harvard Review, etc. His recent collections are The Orpheus Complex, Living in the Candy Store, and Thirteens. He teaches philosophy, religion, and creative writing at Owens College in Ohio.
Two women live in different neighborhoods of the same city. Every Sunday they meet at the cemetery where their children are buried. They must travel over an hour to get there—the grounds of a monastery of Polish and Hungarian monks who revere a charred icon of the Blessed Virgin. In the 17th century this icon, burned by Swedish invaders, saved the land after decades of devastation. Paderewski’s heart is also buried there, in an urn, though neither woman knows where.
They trudge out to the graveyard after mass. They carry shopping bags of topsoil, trowels, flower pots, bulbs and votive candles. One brings a watering can, the other a jar which they fill at a pump near a fringe of trees. After a few dry creaks water gushes uncontrollably. They groom the gravesites religiously, on hands and knees, pawing at the encroaching grass and weeds. One woman’s son died of cancer, almost sixteen. From time to time this woman carries a second shopping bag—clothes that need mending, because the other woman takes in sewing. New cuffs, hems, roomier gussets.
The other woman’s daughter died mysteriously many years ago. There was a dispute over whether or not she could be buried in consecrated ground. The monks intervened. While the first woman prays for the soul of her son, the second woman scours nearby graves for a pot of flowers she placed by her daughter’s tombstone the previous week. She can’t find them and begins to shout accusations—the drunk veterans who just held a memorial, the scouts, the groundskeeper, even the monks. In her search, she weaves in and around the polished granite markers. She doubles back and begins again, so that a pattern emerges. Did you take my gryzantyny, she asks the first woman, who continues praying. Her stockings have ripped and bruises are forming on her bent knees. It would be fruitless to translate gryzantyny, they don’t grow on this side of the Atlantic.
I met Miłosz but once—he hadn’t yet
turned 80. Far from Poland, far
from his perch in the Berkeley hills,
another conference about history and suffering
and witness, he wasn’t even the keynote
speaker. That was delivered in perfect
minor pitch by a priest from South Africa,
or maybe a nun from El Salvador.
There were severed-limb visuals
and spontaneous collective weeping
and Miłosz seated at the long table,
silent, palm propping his jaw like the apostle
three seats down from Jesus in Tintoretto’s
Last Supper. (Betrayer, beloved disciple,
sycophant, cynic, sidekick, all or none
of the above) his mic like a drained goblet
of Galilean wine. I catch him during a break,
he’s leaning on a Corinthian column,
shy and scowling, smoking--not a cigarette
but something home-grown, home-cured
and hand-rolled, packed with dismay,
a smoldering pen or pencil, rising
steam from a container of coffee.
I ask him what he thinks of X
and his eyebrows twitch, I am translating
X, I say, does he have any advice?
Milosz’s attention drifts. Sparkling ash falls,
lead snaps, ink smears, coffee scalds.
He’s gone and wherever he’s gone,
he’s gone fully, to a realm where the dead
are revived just long enough to deliver
their inexorable excuses for not being saved.
Polka Dancing to Eddie Blazonczyk and
the Versatones in Coaldale, Pennsylvania
I’d come, even if I wasn’t invited,
to dance polkas, obereks, czardaszes with her.
I’d ping beyond recovery my last-legs-Datsun,
bucking it up into the mountains—turnpike,
tunnel, Minersville, Slabtown, the Ashland
Coal Breaker, flexed like a great bullying arm
to fling gravel into the doglegs of these patches.
Where gold church domes bubble up on the surface
from sizzling underground veins, and tropical
blooms of unmowed Byzantine blue rash
across towns abandoned. Her dad would already be
downing pitchers of the liquefied amber his Baltic
ancestors traded, convinced that enough of it
flushing his system might purge the coal dust.
By the time I’d arrive, he’d be at the urinal,
among others, groaning black piss.
And her mom, terrified that her son, back,
from the city and the sex life there
that all here suspect but don’t mention, might drag
some young guy from the line at Mack Truck
into the Chicken Dance or Fire, Fire.
Such unequivocal joy—a squeezebox resting
on gut, fueled by six-packs and old ladies
shaking devils’ fiddles, all so she can hop
and twirl, and thread through dancers thickening
from heat and age like roux. So she can sweat
herself slippery, too slick to hold on to,
changing her outfit, her partner with each new set.
The Poetry Corner is edited by John Z. Guzlowski. This issue is reprinted from the Fall 2013 Polish American Historical Association Newsletter. To learn more about Polish American and Polish writers and artists, please visit his website, Writing the Polish Diaspora: http://writingpolishdiaspora.blogspot.com/
Photographs by Maja Trochimczyk.