Yet during that semester we read a book titled, Contemporary Eastern European Poetry which focused mostly on Polish poets and I was hooked. I don't think I really understood half of what I read. No, I am sure I didn't. But what I did know was this was poetry that didn't need a lot of show, ego or even gold-leafed edges. If poetry could be compared to furniture, Polish Poetry is like a Swedish couch. Upon first glance, one might say simple, subtle and good design upon first glance, but upon further study or sitting one begins to understand a lot of attention has gone into making something so modestly aware. So after a post-graduate course in teaching English as a Second Language and a trip to Poland in the middle of winter, I landed a job just 120 miles north of Krakow in Kielce, the knife city.
There is nothing in Kielce that would cause anyone to want to visit. No monuments, no castles, not even a walled city section left. There are rolling hills that surround the concrete industrial blocked town, but mostly Kielce is grey all year long. However, I had landed a job at a small British school and found myself teaching six year olds English via cassette tapes of sing-alongs with such phrases as "I can jump. Can you? I can skip. Can you?" Yes, I thought this was truly the beginning of a life of a serious poet.
Sure, I took Polish lessons twice a week and found myself slow to learn and practice with the shop clerks who smoked over muted colored vegetables at the market and addressed me with comments such as, " Cwzego" which means," What?" No, this wasn't your American in bountiful Europe or Julia Child in the post war streets of Paris. This was Poland and oddly enough, I found myself at a loss at being able to buy even groceries as much as I was at a loss to write poetry.
Needless to say, I found myself drinking more than writing and one evening having found myself with a small crowd of English speaking Poles at a bar, I met a young man by the name of Tomas Bomba, laughing I said, "your name is Tom the Bomb? what kind of post-war kid are you?" Not exactly the kindest thing to come out of my mouth. Luckily, Tomas had taught himself English by reading Henry James novels so even his insults sounded faintly like compliments. Also, I had read a bit of Henry James so I could muddle my way through his early 19th century English diction and also fumble an apology despite the potent vodka on my breath.
Thankfully, Tomas and I became friends and we both had Wednesdays off and decided to spend our midweek day collecting food and then cooking it in my closet of a kitchen. Tomas had picked up a Penguin edition of French Cooking in England while on his visit to his British girlfriend and this was our guidebook through the markets of Kielce. We made souffles, ragouts, and we even found a coconut once and made a delicious dish of chicken curry for my British roommate who had sworn off meat, yet when she came home and found the smells of the whole apartment drowning out the hint of vinegar of our apartment complex, she couldn't refuse. We'd make crepes with nothing but two bowls and a pan Tomas would borrow from his mother. Slowly my Polish did improve, but more importantly, I learned to shout back to the ladies at the market if they tried to give me a wilted bunch of beets. I started to forage not just for survival, but for pleasure.
I cannot say the same happened for my writing. Sure I could say, like Hemingway, I wrote about Europe in Michigan and wrote about Michigan in Europe. But really. I just didn't write at all while living in Poland. Really. This was the mid-nineties, the Velvet Revolution was still a visual memory for most of my friends and Tomas himself told stories of rations. Poland was still arguing to find itself part of Europe and not just The East. Internet cafes weren't like ATMs and I still paid for groceries with zloty. My contact to the outside world was via a staticed phone line plugged into a wall. No Facebook to post my days of collecting root vegetables, no blogging to write about how much I had witnessed now as an enlightened American abroad, no cellphone to text or send images quickly home.
And I'm glad. I'm glad I was forced to be present. Ironically enough as I write this on my blog now, I recall how before all this business of being connected, to text, to blog, to tweet, we had just one verb, to be. We had to just commit to be where we were. Regardless if you wanted to or not. Sometimes you had to just stand next to men who stunk of canned meat on a crowded bus, or to learn how to strike up conversations with others waiting to catch a train that might or might not arrive, to cook from a borrowed copy of French Cooking and to navigate yourself through an ugly city with nothing but your token ability to talk to strangers.
Neko Case states, "the most tender place in my heart is for strangers" in her song, Hold On, Hold On. And this is true for me too. It was true while I was living in Poland and even now as I am in Montana sending out these words read by friends, family and hopefully strangers, I believe in the importance of being present. Certainly this sounds vague and full of fluff and if Thylias Moss were to read this, I am sure she'd be looking at me over her glasses. But the simple act of being where you are and not trying to connect to someplace else is hard. It was hard for me and still is, but it is worth it. It is worth sometimes just sitting with what and who are really in front of you. Sure it sounds silly, but it is true. Being present is a simple and yet essential quality for writing poetry, for cooking and for being a good friend even to someone whom you might at first off have offended. And frankly, no matter where you live in the world, you still have to practice it.
This poem I share with you came from an evening of being stuck in a train station in the middle of winter in a town I don't even remember where, but I do recall stepping out to catch some air and from Yugoslavian smoke from the waiting room, to watch a woman repeatedly sweep iced sidewalks with a broom. I felt so alien and lost, but I had no cellphone, no one else to talk with and oddly enough I am grateful I had to be where I was. Hell, now I get to blog about it. Enjoy.
You wouldn't mistake your mother
for a woman who walks through glass
and sits beside your book.
So you pass the time and frame
the woman's face, the one who
isn't your mother. She's like a Budapest tram
ticket you carry in your wallet
next to the taste of oranges
shared by a boy whose name
you don't remember. You watch her hands
brush a bit of hair away from her brow while she opens
a can of beer. Not cheap beer either
and rinses her teeth. The warm yeast fills
the room like the smell of sex on cotton. She spits
on the floor. In that moment you love her
more than your own mother, who would never spit.
When you leave the room, she shouts
Happy New Year in German. And you believe her.