How's Your Polish? My Polish is almost non-existent now. It was my first language, the only language I spoke until I was 5, but I've lost most of it over the years. My mother in her last years in fact used to say my Polish hurt her ears. Here's a ...

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  1. How's Your Polish?
  2. Spring Poem
  3. Ode to Paul Carroll
  4. Killing
  5. A Question
  6. More Recent Articles

How's Your Polish?

How's Your Polish?

My Polish is almost non-existent now. It was my first language, the only language I spoke until I was 5, but I've lost most of it over the years. My mother in her last years in fact used to say my Polish hurt her ears. Here's a poem about what I have left of my Polish:

KITCHEN POLISH

I can’t tell you about Kant
in Polish, or the Reformation,
or deconstruction

or why the Nazis moved east
before moving west,
or where I came from,

but I can count to ten, say hello
and goodbye, ask for coffee,
bread or soup.

I can tell you people die.
It’s a fact of life,
and there’s nothing
you or I can do about it.

I can say, “Please, God,”
and “Don’t be afraid.”
If I look out at the rain
I can tell you it’s falling.

If there’s snow,
I can say, “It’s cold outside
today, and most likely
it’ll be cold tomorrow.”

____________

from my book Echoes of Tattered Tongues

    

Spring Poem

Spring Poem
My Polish father spent five years in the German concentration camp system. He was captured by the Germans in fall of 1940 and finally liberated by the Americans in spring of 1945.
During those five years, he saw men crucified and hung, castrated and frozen to death, women raped and beaten and shot, their breasts torn apart by bayonets, their babies thrown and scattered in the air like sand.
He never thought he would be free.
He thought he would be a slave until he died.
And then the war ended. This is a poem about that. It's from my book about my parents, Echoes of Tattered Tongues.

IN THE SPRING THE WAR ENDED

For a long time the war wasn't in the camps.
My father worked in the fields and listened
to the wind moving the grain, or a guard
shouting a command far off, or a man dying.

But in the fall, my father heard the rumbling
whisper of American planes, so high, like
angels, cutting through the sky, a thunder
even God in Heaven would have to listen to.

At last, one day he knew the war was there.
In the door of the barracks stood a soldier,
an American, short like a boy and frightened,
and my father marveled at the miracle of his youth

and took his hands and embraced him and told him
he loved him and his mother and father,
and he would pray for all his children
and even forgive him the sin of taking so long.

______________

There are no photos of my dad in the camps, but this is a photo of him after the war when he was a refugee for 6 years waiting for some country to say "come on over."
He's the fellow in the cap with his hands on his knees. The other fellows are guys who survived Buchenwald with him.
    

Ode to Paul Carroll




The first writer I ever met was Paul Carroll. He was a poet, literary critic, and editor involved with and publishing the beats. He knew the poets and writers I loved: Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs.

Me?

I was a kid, 18 or 19, a sophomore at the University of Illinois in Chicago, taking English courses and dreaming about writing. I had discovered Kerouac the year before when I bought a copy of his The Subterraneans in a second-hand store, and I couldn't get enough of his spontaneous bop prosody. When a friend told me that the university offered courses in poetry writing, I couldn't believe it. I had never heard of such a thing. Courses in creative writing!

 
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I signed up immediately and ran into Paul Carroll. He was a knock out. A writer who loved poetry in the way that I imagined Shakespeare and Keats and Whitman and Yeats and Eliot and Ginsberg and Kerouac loved poetry.

I ended up taking three courses from him, and they probably shaped my writing more than anything else I learned as an undergrad or grad student.

I never saw Paul Carroll after I graduated from the U of I in Chicago, but the lessons he taught me about writing and what it means to be a writer stayed with me.

A couple of years ago, I read an article by Paul Hoover about Paul Carroll's death. It was a sad piece about his last days, his problems with drinking, his personal problems, and his writing problems. It made me want to write something that would recapture what Carroll meant to me and to a generation of young writers in Chicago in the late 60s. The poem I wrote is called "Ode to Paul Carroll."

Ode to Paul Carroll

(dead these many years but still singing in Heaven
with the Irish angels and the Chinese saints
who drowned in their love of poetry)

Remember me, Paul?

I wrote those weird poems that bad summer of '69

about Jesus burning
the prostitutes up
with His exploding eyes

and about being a mind
blistered astronaut
with nothing to say
to the sun except,
Honey, I'm yours

Remember?

You were the first poet
I knew

the one who told me
to believe all poets
are brothers and sisters
and poetry is all the poems ever written
and that if you're lucky enough
to still be writing poems
when you're fifty
then you'd know the true grace of poetry

Do you remember that guy
in the red plush beefeater's hat?

He said in class the revolution
would send old farts like you
to the camps with the other assholes proud of their money
and their dick pink ties
and all you said to him was

"Maybe you won't be able to get it up tonight
because you're tired or drunk-but
someday there will be weeks and weeks
when your penis
will just stay a penis
and then,
there you'll be"

We were young and nobody
knew what you were talking about, running
riddles past us like some
Irish Li Po from the back of the yards

I still don't get your Ode to Nijinsky, its blank staring page

And what's behind it?

The lesson that poetry and art
Disappear/vanish before
we can see their dance?

But surely that's not the lesson
you wanted to teach us

You always had faith in poetry and poets,
called them your pals, even the dead ones
like Wordsworth and Milton
Dickinson and Yeats,
pals sharing a ragged pencil nub and sneaking smokes
between visions of angels
and teacups and Picasso
bald and 80 among the true Chinese poets

Our brothers and our sisters

You'd tell us stories about poets drowning
in their love of poetry
and you'd lick your lips
And say, Yes, Yes, and Yes
As if some great meal
Had just been served

When you died I read in the Chicago papers
that your last days
weren't so lucky
your wife gone, you
drinking too much and searching for James Wright
in the yuppie bars around Division and Clark

When I read that I thought maybe
you were wrong
about how Yeats's Chinese grace
could keep a man alive
and a drunk sober

But reading your
last poems again last night
I saw you were right

So I went to the library and stole
a copy of Odes, your first poems

and read your Nijinsky poem again

_________________________________

Carroll's books are apparently out of print, but they are available at Amazon. I especially recommend his book Odes and Poem in its Skin.

There's not much about Carroll on the internet. I haven't been able to find any of his poems there, but there is a good short piece about him at the University of Chicago site. Also, there's a youtube posted by Bob Boldt of Carroll talking about poetry.



By the way, I got the opening photo of Carroll at the University of Chicago site. The other guy in the picture is Allen Ginsberg.

The second photo? That's me.
    

Killing

 
Killing

My father knew men and animals 
did not die the same way.  A man 
would kill a horse or a cow or a pig 
with respect he’d never show a man.  

Killing a pig, a man would steady it, 
prepare it for the single killing blow, 
work to make its suffering quick 
if not instant, a poised hammer 
ready to strike down in such a way 
the pig wouldn't see it or hear it, 
would hardly feel it on the back 
of its head in that one sure spot 
that would end it before it knew it.  

My father knew that wasn’t the way 
men killed each other.  He had seen 
men crucified and hung, castrated 
and frozen to death, women raped 
and beaten and shot, their breasts
torn apart by bayonets, their  babies 
thrown and scattered in the air like sand.

He knew suffering is the sauce 
we reserve for men and women.  

___________

The poem is from my book Echoes of Tattered Tongues.

The photo is of some of the dead at Dresden after we bombed it.  There were more dead of course.  The rough estimate, according to Kurt Vonegut n his novel Slaughterhouse 5, is about 135,000.  

So it goes.  
    

A Question























A Question:

What can we say about the past when so much of the past is lost?

It's a question that I ask myself all the time.  I asked it when I wrote my first poem about my parents in 1979, and it's a question I ask myself whenever I think of my latest book about my parents, Echoes of Tattered Tongues.

My mother felt the weight of her mother's death and her sister's death and her sister's baby's death at the hands of the Germans all her life, but what can I know of those deaths.

There was my mother's horror when she told me the stories, but my mother could not tell me much without breaking down, turning her face and its tears away from me.

And so what's left to learn, what can I know about my mother's grief, my grandmother's face when she was shot again and again, my aunt's absolute sorrow when she saw her baby daughter kicked to death, the baby's screams that would not stop?

There are no photographs of what happened, no news reports, no eye witnesses now that even my mother is gone, and all that's left is just a handful of broken memories that will never truly belong to me.  

What's left to say?

Please let me know.

_________________

The photo is of my mom and her sister Zofia who survived the war.  It was taken outside of a refugee camp in Germany.
    

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