Monday, May 3, 2010


(Image: The statue of Warsaw's warrior mermaid. The city's motto is semper invicta, "never deafeated")

In his remarkable essay, “Two Cities,” Adam Zagajewski writes:

“Settled people die where they were born; sometimes one sees country homes in which countless generations of the same family lived. Emigrants make their homes abroad and thus make sure that at least their children will once again belong to the category of the settled people (who speak another language). An emigrant, therefore, is a temporary link, a guide who takes future generations by the hand and leads them to another, safe place, or so it appears to him.

A homeless person, on the other hand, is someone who, by accident, caprice of fate, his own fault, or the fault of his temperament, did not want – or was incapable in his childhood or early youth of forging – close and affectionate bonds with the surroundings in which he grew and matured. To be homeless, therefore, does not mean that one lives under a bridge or on the platform of a less frequented Metro station; . . . it means only that the person having this defect cannot indicate the streets, cities, or community that might be his home, his, as one is wont to say, miniature homeland.”

When I was seventeen and a half, at the point of voluntary departure, alone, for the United States, I had no idea that one becomes an immigrant (at this point in my life, long after the transition, the American usage makes more sense) for the sake of one’s children. I imagined having one child only vaguely and later (always later); I made no plans for the sake of that potential child. My understanding was that I was going to America for my own sake, to be able to lead what I could only slightly imagine as a “larger life” than one possible in a small country, and a Communist dictatorship at that. I wanted to get away from politics and the dissident nationalism so omnipresent in any oppressed country. Above all, I was in denial about the enormity of loss that the transition entailed. That denial broke about two weeks after arrival.

Once I had the marvelous luck of settling in California, the pain of the loss of homeland lessened for a while. I began to insist that California was my home; eventually, I claimed the whole spectacular West Coast as my true home, both geographically and emotionally.

The only strange thing was that in my dreams I was never “home.” I had many dreams about Warsaw, transmogrified into a truncated city where the streetcar tracks suddenly break off, and there is nothing beyond the nearest buildings. A half-familiar city where I never have streetcar fare, have to walk, and get lost. In my dreams, whether they take place in America or in Warsaw, I am homeless.

But on Valentine’s Day 2010 I woke from a dream in which I had a home, had never been homeless, and felt loved.


Maybe because at bedtime I read,
Music is the memory of what never happened,
and heard the slow movement of the Brahms sextet
in B-flat, remembering how in youth I would have said,

“B-soft”– the melody, like a summer that far north,
sent me a dream of what never happened,
long ago, in my room in Warsaw – odd, since in dreams
I am never home – I’m always traveling alone,

or staying with strangers in a strange new place,
nesting in the thorns of polite homelessness.
But that night it was night, I was in my bed,
and the green-eyed motorcycle rider I’d met

camping in Mazurian lakes, and waited for
that whole year, walking the leafy length of Warsaw,
had found me and was lying on top of my body,
his weight the sweet burden of everything unknown.

It was a dream of heaven: being home,
my avenue of poplars yet unseen, a river
of wind, and this virginal lover in my arms,
in the months that were a prelude

to the broken adulthood that followed.
Only now, too late, I know
America will not make you happy,
nor acceptance, nor awards.

Only now I have finally heard
the music of what never happened,
though it did: he’d come to me
night after night in my other life,

the one unlived in the country I left.
In that unwhispered life, I had no plans.
I wanted only to feel his weight on my body.
In the music that would never stop,

we lay dreamless in the quiet dark,
far from time, not needing anything.

~ Oriana ~


More typical by far have been dreams in which I understand what Warsaw is no longer my home, and “you can’t go home again.”

after a painting by Claire-Lise Matthey Anderegg

I am walking in gray Warsaw,
in the swan parks, in the streets,
past pale angels in the churches,
wild archangels in the clouds –
but there are no leaves.

Not one chestnut leaf is left,
crimson, crimped by frost.
And the ivy called wild wine
is spread leafless on the walls
like a crown of thorns.

Not even a ghost leaf
to reach to me its small hand,
then fall slowly into grace.
It’s too gray. I have lost
Warsaw for the final time –

Gone, the dream of returning,
looking out my old window
on my poplars greening, passing
silver rumors of the wind –
and then golden lies.

But the girl who knew them smiles.
The gray city in me weeps
not tears, but gray stone
eggs, and I am consoled –
“Pigeons,” I coo. “My pigeons.”

~ Oriana ~


No comments:

Post a Comment