Monday, June 7, 2010


[Ideal City by Piero della Francesca]

       from atoms points hairs comments
       I build a difficult infinity
       against the mockery of aeons
      I build ports for fragile duration

      ~ Zbigniew Herbert, "It Shivers and Waves," tr. Oriana

This morning I I thought how Poles outside of Poland don't seem Polish anymore – perhaps because of the background of "wrong" rooms, wrong furniture, wrong food they are serving, the wrong clothes they wear. They are so out of context, even the way they speak always seems wrong, in either language. By contrast, my cousins in Poland instantly clicked into place, familiar. Those tables, those chairs; those trees out the window.

And yet this feeling the alienation disappears when I feel an intellectual connection with someone. 

I lost my peer group, i.e. people with whom I had shared childhood experiences. It is a disorienting loss and nothing can make up for it, so it's best not to think about it. On the other hand, I've learned to rejoice in the primacy of the intellectual connection, in being a citizen of the country of the mind. When I meet a "kindred mind," we have enough in common so that the question of having grown up in different countries only makes it more interesting, rather than creating estrangement. 

Discovering that my most important homeland is the "country of the mind," as I call it, led to this poem:


                  Here and everywhere is my homeland.
       ~Czeslaw Milosz

Twenty years later, I’m told I am foreign.
How naïve to have thought
one grows out of it. As if I could erase

that fateful Columbus Day:
in the morning I had a homeland;
in the evening I had two suitcases.

Twenty years later, under desert sky,
I remember thin stencil of drizzle in Warsaw.
On the windowsill of our old kitchen,

pigeons ruffle like small gray clouds.
My uncle and my father
raise a toast with zhubrovka,

the buffalo vodka, the bottle lit
with a blade of buffalo grass –
I ought to remember

in more vivid color,
but I was carelessly young.
I tried so hard: changed my name,

ate only with my right hand –
eager to throw away extra vowels
and hands. Twenty years later,

an ignorant woman enviously sighs,
“You can’t learn an accent like that.
You have to be born with it.”

Men want me to touch them
in French, slide toward them
on slow Slavic looks.


In dry applause of palm fronds,

I rest on a park bench
in half-remembered green dusk:

through time’s lace of leaf shadows
I call YoasiaYoasia,
after a long-gone child.

Yet my true homeland is not
the lilac gardens of childhood,
but the infinite

country of the mind.
Books stand open like houses.
Words like tame deer

come to nuzzle my hand.
Among statues in a museum,
no one says, as I used to,

“Excuse me, I’m foreign.”
No one is foreign.

     ~ Oriana


Note about "that fateful Columbus Day." It so happens that I arrived in America on Columbus Day, though I discovered this only after landing.


Intellectual connection still feels primary to me, but I've lived long enough to know that ultimately it's not about being able to discuss Kafka; in the hour of need, it's about having someone who will always be there for you. It's about the emotional connection with people. Or, if "people" is too bold a plural, it comes down to just to that one person with whom you have a bond of caring about each other. Another poem of mine finally whittles down the definition of homeland to just this one person.

Real Life

They still haunt me, the words
spoken years ago, in Los Angeles,
by Danuta – “Here I go by Daisy” –
a Polish woman who worked in the plant
where my husband was a supervisor.

Her speech and manners showed she hadn’t
always drudged on an assembly line.
It was best wages she could get
to save up for airfare to Warsaw.
She stared at me, astonished:

“You haven’t been back yet?
We go every year.” She leaned closer:
America is a good place
to make money, but –
real life is over there.”

I knew what she meant by “life”:
people. Relatives by the dozen,
going to the movies with a pack of friends.
Greeting with a kiss on both cheeks,
toasting Sto lat, may you live a hundred years.

Layers of generations, the living
and the dead. Grandfather Adam
reminiscing about three wars,
still rakishly kissing women’s hands;
daily sweeping and adorning graves.

What about me, self-exiled?
Should I return to pour apple wine
for guests and for ghosts?
In the Vavel Cathedral, did the cool dark calm
I felt at the marble tombs of kings,
mean, “You belong to this stone?”

Someone said, “Homeland is not
where you live. Homeland is
where you want to die.”
It’s a place in the mind, much as I love
those copper domes and spires,

the legend of the dragon,
the view from the Vavel Hill
where the Vistula coils like a shiny snake –
or a High Tatra lake that burns in the mind
with an icy sapphire flame.

There are taller mountains, bluer lakes,
cities with more copper spires.
In the end, homeland is people.
Not horizons, but heart reach.

Martin Buber, asked, “Do you want
to hold the Bible when you die?”
said, “No. I want to hold
someone’s hand.” I want to be
where I can hold someone’s hand.
Wherever that might be, it’s homeland.

   ~ Oriana



  1. Thanks for the poems, Oriana. Last night I was reading an essay on home by Joan Didion, and thinking that my only true home was the the little apartment I lived in with my parents and my sister when we first came to America. We spoke Polish, hoped for things, feared the past, and we were bound by that language and hope and fear into a family, a homeland.

    Since then, I've married, had my own family, my own house and things, but it never feels like the ultimate place I'll always feel whole in.

    This sounds like a cliche--maybe it's better to right poems about such things rather than talk about them.

  2. Thank you, John, for sharing this interesting perception. It makes me aware that I mustn't feel too exceptional about having lost that sense of home -- though occasionally, through intellectual and emotional connection, I "feel at home" again.

    But ultimately it's always childhood, isn't it? From which we are always exiled, to which we can never return, so home is finally a place in the mind.

  3. Oriana, John Guzlowski pointed me toward your blog.

    The whole business of blogging and reading blogs is new to me. I'm doing it because I'm trying to get word out about my book "Bieganski." I'm still out of place, awkward, a stranger here.

    I've read a few of your blog entries and have loved each one. I love your writing.

    I tried to read a bio but did not find one. "Oriana" is the first name of one of my heroes: Oriana Fallaci.

    Poles in America do seem Polish to me ... but then I'm very sensitive to ethnicity. I grew up in a wildly diverse state, NJ, and identifying people by ethnicity is part of my own baggage. I note that people here will often say, "I'm Italian" or "I'm Irish" far more often than people in the Midwest said anything like that. Very different histories.

    Columbus Day is my birthday.

    I'll offer this share in return for your gorgeous poetry. It's an essay about home.

  4. Wow, Danusha, to be born on Columbus Day!

    As you probably know, there is a "grand divide" within Polonia between those Poles who came here before WWII and those who came after WWII. The newer Polish-Americans tend to be more educated, and sometimes reject the American culture, except for the "other America," as Adam Zagajewski put it. It's sad that there should be any such divide.

    After so many years in the U.S., how Polish am I? In some ways, not very; in other ways, indelibly so. But my most holy homeland is the "free republic of the mind."