Monday, May 31, 2010


[my mother, right, in Warsaw, summer 1939]


“I saw Babcia in a dream,” my mother told me.
“She stood in the kitchen and said,
Make a wish – because I have
connections everywhere.”

But my mother had forgotten
all her wishes, like a flustered little girl.
The temptation, to believe our dead
have connections everywhere,

and could pull some cosmic strings.
Yet those strings had already been pulled
when I had the mother I had.
Our first Thanksgiving in
Los Angeles,

she divided one turkey TV dinner,
choosing the smaller portion, as always,
for herself. She said, The only real
poverty is here – and touched her head.

And the words we didn't say, 
like the wine we didn’t have,
whispered we were queens; 
we were millionaires.

~ Oriana


The date of the photo makes me shudder: summer, 1939: the wide, calm streets, the perfect weather. 



The lines I liked best in your Babcia poem, "Connections," are:

we gave thanks for what we already had:
that which fits in the small
suitcase of the infinite.


Hyacinth is referring to an earlier version, which had this stanza:

Then in the tongues of men and angels
we gave thanks for the riches
we already had: that which fits
in the small suitcase of the infinite.


I decided that stanza was "commentary."



1939 gives me shudders too. I was boarded with a German hausfrau and her granddaughter, Hymie, in Lebanon, Conn.

She was very good to me, fixed me lots of creamed spinach which I loathed and now would really appreciate. She boasted a lot about Hitler and all he was doing for Germany. No one knew about the death camps then - how innocent we were in that idyllic countryside. I'm sure she was Jewish. Ironic.


Thank you! Love your use of "Babcia" -- it's a very soft word, and a sweet endearment; sweeter, I'd say, than all kinds of variations on Mama.


Living in the Zoo
Poznan, 1945-46

the first year after the war,
one third of the city destroyed,
my mother was lucky to get a room
in the Pavilion of Small Mammals.

Her best friend was a mongoose.
Now and then she’d bring him a rare
delicacy, an egg.  He’d cup it in his paws,
cut two dainty holes with his teeth
and suck out the contents.

She woke to the roaring of lions.
The hippopotamus mooed
for his cartload of wilted leaves;
the rhinoceros grated his horn
against the metal gate.

Three owls like Fates turned parallel
heads as she passed. Llamas spat at her.
The toucans were indifferent,
side-stepping on the branches
of their one pruned elm.

Early autumn Russian soldiers arrived.
They broke twigs from the trees
to poke at the animals.
The hippopotamus hid in his pond.
My mother saw the tiny bumps
of his nostrils wrinkling the dark water.

The biggest drama starred the elephant,
bought ten years earlier from a circus keeper:
“A bad animal, difficult to train.”
Now the circus again came to town.

the circus keeper entered the enclosure:
“That’s my old buddy –
I know how to handle him.” 
Moments later the enraged elephant
hurled his former master
over the fence onto the cement.

The zoo director’s breath steamed with vodka,
but he knew every single animal.
He sported long whiskers;
colleagues joked that the director spent
so much time with the animals,
he had grown to resemble a seal.
His show-off act was to walk
into the lion cage and pat
the male lion on the behind.

His favorite was the giraffe he’d brought
after the war from another zoo.
a low trolley was built,
a rope fastened around the giraffe’s neck;
two people pulled it down when the truck
approached an overpass or a tunnel.

In her new home, every day
the director went to see the giraffe.
she thrived. then her legs got swollen,
she could only kneel. One day she lay down.
The director embraced her neck, and wept.
The giraffe died in his arms.

my father visited my mother
when she lived in the zoo.
She left the town to marry him.
The three owls lit her way
with lanterns of their eyes.
The toucans stood like an orange dawn
in their inappropriate tree.

~ Oriana


May 30 marks the anniversary of the death of Jeanne d'Arc, my patron saint (it used to frighten me when I thought about the challenge of following the example of her courage). This anniversary reminded me of an extraordinary dream I had some years ago.

Saint Joan Speaks to Me 

I am walking down the cobbled
streets of Rouen. Cabbage leaves
blacken in the gutter.
In the square they are burning

Joan of Arc. Her eyes are
transparent with light.
She says, Truth is a torch,
but it makes a beautiful blaze.

The crowd is weeping.
Her lips are charred
doors of light. She says,
A dead body is only a dead body.

How can we tell ash from soul
unless we too rise,
a blue heron of smoke
slanting into flight –

that pulse of a wing so slow,
so soaring when she says,
We are all burning.
Be a greater fire.

~ Oriana

(published in Qarrtsiluni; image credit: Qarrtsiluni)


While there is certainly a universal meaning here, at the time I had the dream, I was most affected by the message "A dead body is only a dead body." It seemed a stern warning against suicide, even in the face of shattered dreams, of what seemed like complete defeat. 

For a long time I was hoping for a religious conversion. I was afraid that without religion, the terror of dying would become more pronounced as I grew older, more and more unbearable. It's only recently that I noticed all the cherubic, blissed out old people I've been meeting all my life, without paying attention to how they could be so happy with "God so far and death so near." 

Cheerful octogenarians! It's most likely the changed neurochemistry that comes with aging, the weakened function of the left hemisphere as the right hemisphere still holds out, the dominance of serotonin over the more quickly ebbing dopamine, but study after study keeps confirming that "older is happier." The burden of worry and anxiety about the future seems gone -- what future? No worries, no regrets. With less thinking, "living in the now" is finally easy. 

But before then? It seems to me that it's not a question of the "power of now" -- not when you are forced to plan for the future and make difficult decisions. Not when your life can be turned upside down by some unexpected event. For me, it's a question of having my "life support": creative work, music, my love of nature and beauty in general -- and friendship. I am still stunned by the realization that that is enough

No need to enter Carmel -- though I feel I have entered my own inner Carmel. The steady light, and not the storms and shipwrecks of youth. Reading slowly and re-reading ten times, rather than "reading by lightning." It's the steady light of work and contentment that is that brighter fire. It's the immense patience that an artist finally masters, learning to create as if time didn't exist, and that ride with Death and Immortality (see Dickinson) would never end. 

As Zbigniew Herbert puts it in his poem "A Sign":

you have to dream patiently
in the hope that the text will complete itself
missing words will find their way
into crippled sentences
the certainty we are waiting for
will cast anchor

(~ translated by Oriana)

So it's by taking your time, rather than by rushing from task to task, keeping madly busy, that you can become a brighter fire. It's in the slowness of days that we can burn at white heat. 


Friday, May 28, 2010



I remember the warm day in winter
when I stood on a hotel balcony listening
to bells ringing in the distance.

I had just seen all those galleries
of seventeenth-century light slipping
through interior courtyards and alleys,

branding doors and ceilings, pressing down
lightly on skulls of buildings.
I had just seen rhetorics of light flashing

on curtains and tablecloths, mirrors
and windows, old maps and well-preserved
canvases varnished and framed.

I was alone, and for a while I stared
into a sky washed clean by rain,
an atmosphere luminous and polished,

ready to ascend, transparent as wings.
I saw tugboats pulling heavy barges
up and down the ice-filled river

while a white disc flamed overhead
and hands of purple light that resembled
bruises drifted and gradually dispersed.

I thought of northern skies flooded
with blue and gray, of monochromatic clouds
and rain-soaked wind blowing across the plains.

I thought of a landscape flattened
like unbleached canvas and steeped
in vertiginous greens, of the artists

who could liquefy thickest sunlight,
and the tangible, earth-colored country
that was all there would be to paint.

That February day I looked directly
into a wintry, invisible world
and that was when I turned away

from the God or gods I had wanted
so long and so much to believe in.
That was when I hurried down the stairs

into a street already crowded with people.
Because this world, too, needs our unmixed
attention, because it is not heaven

but earth that needs us, because
it is only earth – limited, sensuous
earth that is so fleeting, so real.

~ Edward Hirsch, from Earthly Measures


Note: "Unmixed attention" is Simone Weil's definition of prayer.

Hirsch seems attracted to religion (note that this section starts with church bells ringing in the distance), and it’s likely that he’s read (or tried to read) Simone Weil’s Waiting for God. But ultimately, like Jack Gilbert, he “refuses heaven.” 

That February day I looked directly
into a wintry, invisible world
and that was when I turned away

from the God or gods I had wanted
so long and so much to believe in.

He turns to fully accepting and celebrating the earth. Only Jack Gilbert goes further and says, "We have already lived in paradise." 

But my favorite lines in Hirsch's poem are these:

I had just seen all those galleries
of seventeenth-century light slipping
through interior courtyards and alleys,

branding doors and ceilings, pressing down
lightly on skulls of buildings.

-- that seventeenth-century light slipping through courtyards and alleys slips into me forever. "Skulls of buildings" is brilliant.  Edward Hirsch is one of our greatest living poets. I find him more interesting and versatile than W. S. Merwin or Jack Gilbert.  



Vassily Kandinsky: The Blue Rider, 1903

My guess is that Hirsch's "Blue Rider" was inspired by two paintings: Kandinsky's Blue Rider, and Franz Marc's Blue Horse.

To understand Hirsch's poem more fully, you need to know that "The Blue Rider" (Der Blaue Reiter) is the name of a group of artists in Munich, 1911-1914, not quite a movement with a manifesto, but a group of visionary artists, the most famous of whom were Kandinsky, Franz Marc, and Paul Klee. The outbreak of the Great War put an end to their meetings. For more information, please go to

As I understand Hirsch's poem, "he" is an artist, or anyone with an artistic sensibility, who would prefer to deal with art and medieval churches (note a certain suggestion of a medieval building in Kandinsky's painting), but who then wakes up to the predatory reality of war. 

In the previous post, I chose Marc's Blue Horse for its beauty, and because the poem opens with "riding on a blue horse." Only later I realized that the reader needed a footnote on the mysterious "rider." 

Thursday, May 27, 2010



He remembered leaping over the corral
And riding on a blue horse
Through a blue valley flooded
With orange light in early morning.

The sky calm and unbending,
The sun shining with the glassy,
Transcendental clarity
Of high ceilings

In medieval German churches,
The radiance transfixed
Under the arches and glimmering
Through the rose-tinted windows,

But then the sky clouded over
And he woke up to a gangster moon
Pressed against the blurred windows
Of a train carrying soldiers

Over a bridge at nightfall,
The light blistered and bandaged
In smog, the blue horse gone
Into the flaming, war-torn mountains,

The sun crushed like a cinder
Under the metallic boots
Of twilight advancing,
A tunnel opening its black jaws

Over the glistening steel tracks
Stretching into darkness,
The wheels pounding, the iron
Hooves clattering beneath him.

            ~ Edward Hirsch, from Earthly Measures



I love the imagery (both visual and aural) throughout. I especially admire 

The sky calm and unbending,
The sun shining with the glassy,
Transcendental clarity
Of high ceilings

In medieval German churches,

-- and then the shift from that transcendence to a train carrying soldiers and "a tunnel opening its black jaws." 


Loved this poem, all the color and then the pllunge into the stark train tracks . I know those glorious German ceilings. Attended a wedding in one church in Linz and remember it as being so cold. It was as if it held onto all the cold of its hundreds of years.


I remember a thick-walled, fortress-like church in the town where I was born. Even on the hottest summer day, it seemed to hold the cold of the centuries. The extremely high ceilings of those churches, aside from creating a sense of transcendence, also mean that the interior remains cool at the floor level. 

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Though I grew up in central Poland, in Łódź and Warsaw (primarily Warsaw), and central Poland is totally flat, I always loved mountains. My first experience of beauty happened as I was standing at the edge of a Carpathian meadow, looking at the radiant crescents of the hills.

Nevertheless, there was one aspects of living in a flat place that I did appreciate: away from the buildings, it was possible to see the horizon, that blurred, unreal gray line where the sky and the earth meet.

How Horizons Work

From red desert cliffs I tried
to touch the rim of the sky –
I wanted to see the earth
curve – but a far-off ridge
prevented the horizon.

The scenery is too rich.
Horizons require
a routine of plains,
the discipline of sameness.
My students can’t comprehend.
Their lives are vertical. 
One wrote: “As I stand
at the tip of the horizon. . .”

The poetry of ignorance . . .
Even standing on tips of things,
one sees much, but not far. 
Hills and houses insist
on separate angles.
Most days not even clouds
to tuck in the corners.

An American tourist
remarked about Warsaw:
“Beautiful, but completely flat.”
In school we took a field trip
to study the horizon.
we walked to the railroad tracks,
saw parallel lines that met
in a blur of gray,
which the teacher said wasn’t
infinity, but would do.

That’s where everything
waited, in the blue-gray
infinity that wasn’t there,
but would do – always the same
distance apart, like the future.
Now only from far away, at night,
the cities still continue,
with their maps of lights.

~ Oriana (c) 2010


Marjorie Rosenfeld, who grew up in the Midwest, writes this:

I think people are most comfortable with the topography they grew up with.  My paternal grandfather came from Brody, Galicia (now Brody, Ukraine).  When I was doing research for my Brody Web site and read the Brody portion of Narrative of a Mission of Inquiry to the Jews from the Church of Scotland in 1839 (which I now have at the Web site), I was struck by this:

Brody is situated in the midst of a sandy plain and is five miles distant from the Russian frontier.  So completely level is the country all around that the distant village of Potamkin is the only object beyond the town which arrests the eye.

I suddenly understood then why my grandfather had settled in Galesburg, Illinois, where I also spent the first 6 years of my life, spending the next 6 in Bloomington, Illinois, which is also flat, and then Chicago until I was 16.  Old Town, Alexandria, VA, where I was living before I moved here, is also very flat.  What was hardest for me to get used to about this area [San Diego County] was the topography.

When my family lived in Bloomington, we used to drive from Bloomington to Galesburg every Sunday to have dinner with my grandparents.  I was very susceptible to car sickness, and my father usually had to stop the car by the side of the road at least once between Bloomington and Peoria, where we broke our trip to have a cream soda with my Great Uncle Will (my grandmother's brother) and Aunt Carrie.  We finally discovered that there was a particular hard candy with a strong citrusy flavor I could suck to help the car sickness, especially if I sat in the front seat with the small side window that cars used to have turned in so that the air was blowing directly on me.  On the way back from Galesburg at night, though, my father let me lie down in the front seat and put my head on his lap while he drove.  I never got sick then.

Your poem [“How Horizons Work”] reminds me of one I wrote while living in the Washington, D.C. area for a friend who kept leaving her husband and going back.  She could never decide what to do, so it was an endless round of drama:
Getting Through

Because the train is crowded tonight, we sit backward. 
Someone said riding this way makes you sick. In fact,
I like it, facing where I was as destinations rush at me
behind my back.  You, Friend, would not love this ride,
who never will leave home and are afraid of walls,
welcome the way we break into sudden dazzling light
at Arlington Cemetery, or dip to the darkness of tunnels after.

You say your husband keeps you in but keeps you. 
Contemplating where I’ve been, the landscape whole
and opening up—wider all the time we go—I know tracks,
like lives, run parallel.  Still, at the end of the line, on any day
is a point whichever way you look where tracks meet. 

Supper tonight, alone or in company, means civil claret
and nourishment enough for one.  True, to be held back
and held is touching.  If you could choose some other trip,
what is the worst they could say of you: that you left, taking
no baggage with you, running free, new wine in an old cup?

~ Marjorie Rosenfeld


My favorite passage in this poem is

                                                            I know tracks,
like lives, run parallel.  Still, at the end of the line, on any day
is a point whichever way you look where tracks meet. 

-- I love the way poetry manages to convey the paradoxes of life, often simply by using an image. Is every image metaphoric? Yes and no. 

Marjorie has another fine poem about flatlands.  Below is an excerpt:

Nocturne in Texas Fields

We have lost our bearings
here, where no trees
define the limits of the land.
Only dim hills
hover along the edge
of ground and sky,
making their far shadows
on the sands of the fields,
blurring the borders of the mind.

And the mind,
leaps out. 
Let loose,
with too much space,
fancy riots. Reason,
stretched too wide,
runs thin. 
Divorced from the familiar,
out of place
in the immensity of landscape,
we are orphans on the earth's face.

    ~ Marjorie Rosenfeld