Monday, May 17, 2010


Warsaw Poplars

It’s not the country I miss.
I miss the poplars
lining the long avenue,
leafy perspective I loved to trace

from my fourth-story window,
past Cemetery of the Russian Soldiers
all the way to the airport.
The avenue was named

after the first aviators.
uncle Gienio, killed in air battle
over france, was an aviator,
smiling from his biplane,

fading in a sepia photograph.
To his little sister, my mother, he said,
“We’ll fly around the world.”
I stood in each window,

walked out every door  –
daydreamed on all bridges, dazed
with departure’s nets of light.
I too wanted to fly around the world.

At seventeen, you don’t ask
the price. In a sepia October,
I left. Behind me swayed
Warsaw poplars,

tree by tree bowing back.
Shadows laced my hands,
the passing leaves
rustled warnings I didn’t hear –

long perspective of poplars,
upward arms burned to gold –
behind me an endless
avenue of gold wind.

~ Oriana


A friend commented: Life is richer for all we lose.

This reminds me of Mickiewicz’s

My fatherland, you are like health;
only he knows your worth,
who has lost you.      

(~ my translation)

Joyce saw exile as essential to being a writer. It’s in exile that we find the esthetic distance that makes us remember, understand, and appreciate details we’d otherwise find pedestrian. Only in absence, distance, sepia. That’s why most love poems are about lost love.

The majority of immigrants see their lost homeland as paradise lost – no matter how imperfect that paradise was, how bitter-sweet the memories, should the person try to be accurate (which is hardly what we want; we prefer to dwell on blissful memories). Eva Hoffman’s excellent Lost in Translation starts with the section on her childhood in Kraków, called “Paradise.”  

Does it then follow that the new country is hell? The first months, sometimes years, may have a hellish aspect, due to the immigrant’s homesickness and sense of incompetence and humiliation. There have been times when I saw America as hell, when I cried myself to sleep thinking that I made a tragic mistake. Even now, I can easily imagine my tombstone in Poland, in the town where I was born, with these words on it: Do not leave your homeland.

But eventually a more balanced view emerged: there were things I liked and things I didn’t like, as would be true of any country. No, America was neither hell nor paradise; it was Purgatory, and in Purgatory there is hope. But that’s a separate post.


Actually my nostalgia (I am tempted to say "nostalgias") came as a total surprise to me. I know this may sound as crazy as my delusions about America as a coast-to-coast Manhattan, but at the time of departure, I was in total denial that I'd feel any homesickness.

In fact I was determined to feel none, and I was quite a strong-willed adolescent, whether I commanded myself to read in English every day (eventually: to practice thinking in English) or do intense physical exercise. You can imagine the rest of this story, how hard the homesickness hit when it did . . .   


  1. Whoever you are, dear Anonymous, thank you. Receiving comments, too, is "like health."